Brazilian Bishop on Hunger Strike to Protect River

by Lucigleide Nery Nascimento
Saturday, December 15, 2007

In early December – two weeks into a hunger strike by a Brazilian Catholic Bishop to protest the diversion of the São Francisco River for industrial uses and agribusiness – a federal judge ordered work on the huge engineering project suspended.   

Bishop Dom Luiz Flávio Cappio began his latest hunger strike to protest the Brazilian government’s plans to divert the São Francisco River. Bishop Cappio, 61, first gained international intention with an 11- day hunger strike in October 2005, which he ended after receiving a commitment from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to conduct a public dialogue on alternative ways to meet semi-arid northeast Brazil’s water and development needs. Bishop Cappio now says Lula did not keep his word, and has instead begun construction of the massive project.   

The 2,700 kilometer-long São Francisco River has 168 tributaries, only 99 of which are perennial rivers. It flows through one of the poorest regions of Brazil, where millions live in poverty. The northeast region of Brazil has suffered from desertification and drought, yet agribusiness companies have been the primary beneficiaries of irrigation projects, used mostly to grow export crops.   

The US$3.75 billion São Francisco diversion scheme, one of the cornerstones of Lula’s Program to Accelerate Growth, plans to channel water from the river, to be transported through 620 km (387 miles) of aqueducts. The project has been opposed by environmentalists, indigenous people and water experts who say most of the water will go to the expanding metropolis of Fortaleza and agribusiness, and will not provide water for parched rural communities. According to the Indigenist Missionary Council, a Catholic indigenous rights organization, 22 indigenous groups will be impacted by the diversion.   

“Old Chico,” as the São Francisco River is affectionately known to the people of the region, is already suffering from the impacts of deforestation, discharge of raw domestic and industrial sewage, and large dam construction which has transformed extensive stretches of the river into a series of reservoirs. The decreased discharge at the river’s mouth has caused serious erosion, resulting in the small oceanside town of Cabeço being completely washed out to sea. Critics of the diversion project have argued that the emphasis should be on restoring the São Francisco, through programs of reforestation, basic sanitation improvements, and support to small-scale fishermen and farmers. Although the government has said it plans to carry out a restoration program, its priority has been to initiate engineering works for diverting the São Francisco, and military engineers have been dispatched to begun construction. The project will eventually be built primarily by private construction companies.   

Bishop Cappio has lived and worked with communities in the northeast for more than 30 years. He is staging his hunger strike from a church on the edge of the Sobradinho Dam reservoir in Bahia, which is currently at only 14% capacity. In an open letter, the Bishop said, “I am resuming my fast and my prayers. I will only suspend my fast when the military halts its work on the diversion project, and when the project is dropped. There is no other alternative. It is the life of the São Francisco and its people, or the death of a Brazilian citizen.” A recent mass to support the Bishop drew 6,000 people.   

President Lula told the press that he will not stop construction of the project, saying, “I would rather be on the side of 12 million people than on Luiz Cappio’s side.”