Dams to displace more people after Rio+20

Yesterday I spoke with two members of Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Sao Paulo City. MAB is an inspiring organization formed by families who have been displaced by mega-dams in Brazil. Grassroots supports MAB in the organizing of displaced families, or atingidos, so they can collectively defend their land, water and food rights.

Five minutes into the conversation, Leonardo and Esther expressed their concern about the upcoming UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (known as Rio+20). “The issue of new dams will be presented by the Brazilian government as a mechanism of clean development and clean energy at Rio+20. The administration of [Brazilian President] Dilma Roussef plans to build 463 new dams by 2030. Most of them will be in the Amazon region.” But Leonardo, Esther and other members of MAB have a different understanding of the dams – as mega-projects that will push even more people off the land to make way for industrial growth.

Rio+20: A theater of false solutions

Like people in MAB, Brazilian social movements have little faith in the official Rio+20 meeting. Several people I spoke with recently here in Brazil expect that the Rio+20 Conference will be a theater of false solutions, with very real and scary consequences for the future of the planet. People here are not only concerned about the “greenwashing” rhetoric of false solutions such as market-based solutions to climate change, but also the course of economic policies that ignore the rights of local communities and, most important, the rights of Mother Earth. Together, these strategies (including corporate domination over land, water, and the air) are being pushed as the “Green Economy” – a smokescreen for the way that they will allow corporations who created the climate and economic crises to profit from them, while exacerbating economic and ecological injustices.

Pointing to a map in the wall, Leonardo showed me a terrifying picture. “The government is currently building dams along the three major rivers of the Amazon – Madeira, Xingu and Tocantins – and many more are either in the planning stages or have received final approval for construction. But there is one river which they haven’t touched yet: the Tapajós River. With the support of Grassroots, we are going door to door talking with people about what it is happening to other rivers so the people living near the Tapajós River are prepared to defend their rights.”

Last year, MAB relocated two organizers from Northeast region to a village by the Tapajós river, in the Amazon. The duo of seasoned organizers moved hundreds of miles away from home to share their experience with other families, because they faced the same challenges many families in the Amazon region are facing today. Yuri’s and Cleide’s families were affected by the construction of the Castanhão Dam in Ceara state. They learned the hard way about how to demand a proper resettlement from the government. MAB organizers will help families in the Tapajós to find resources, lawyers and allies to protect their rights. They also will train local organizers to facilitate meetings, work with the press and document cases of human rights violations if they are persecuted for their organizing work.

Since 1997, MAB has gone from river to river, organizing families and providing them with information about their rights, how to fight back and advocate for policies for alternatives to dams. MAB advocates that instead of building new dams, the government could use the funds more wisely by upgrading the turbines of existing power plants. “But Brazil is seen as the Saudi Arabia of the future. The government believes that we can produce three times more energy,” said Leonardo. Currently, Brazil produces approximately 150 GigaWatts of energy, and the new dams could produce an extra 267 GigaWatts of electricity.

The extra kilowatts of energy that the new dams will generate will not be for Brazilian communities, but to accommodate the needs of extractive industries. In addition to public funds to build the new hydropower dams, the government also provides mines and agrofuels plantations with energy at a subsidized rate and with plenty of water. Yet the dam construction comes with a high price tag, costing millions of rural families their livelihoods and reshaping the face of the environment.

The life of the atingidos
The word atingidos literally means affected. In Brazil, there are millions who have been affected by the construction of a dam, a mine, a highway, or a football stadium. The word atingido also represents a socio-political condition, because the majority of atingidos are displaced by a “development” project that about which they weren’t consulted and from which they often don’t benefit . “The most affected are working class families in rural and peri-urban communities,” our colleagues from MAB say. In rural areas, for instance, the atingidos are peasants whose livelihoods are just enough to get by. They live in communities that don’t have paved roads, schools or health clinics.

To weaken the resistance of local families, the government offers them promises of “development” and a better future thanks to the dam. The reality, however, is quite different. Instead of a brighter future, once the dam wall is constructed and floods their land, the atingidos are forced to start over from scratch. Many are pushed to live in the cities while they await their promised resettlement on land on which they can grow food and resume their lives. Others choose to stay, yet it is all-too-common that families whose houses have been submerged by the dam’s reservoir to live without electricity, despite their proximity to the hydroelectric dam. Adding insult to injury, those who do have access to electricity are forced to pay higher rates than the mining companies or industrial farms who are the real beneficiaries of the dam’s power and water transposition.

MAB: Forming new leaders from Brazil and Latin America
In the coming days, MAB is hosting a group of 30 organizers from dam-affected communities in Latin America. The training will provide organizers with new tools to protect water and land rights of peasants and indigenous communities. Also, the event will help to strengthen the coordination between different communities. Representatives from Mexico, Honduras, Peru, El Salvador, Panama and Colombia will be represented in the 10-day event this month in Brazil, before the Rio+20.