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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Bishop Fasts Again for Sao Francisco River

Fabiana Frayssinet

SAO PAULO, Dec 11 2007 (IPS) - Brazilian Catholic Bishop Luiz Cappio has entered the third week of his hunger strike against the diversion of water from the Sao Francisco river, in the arid northeast of the country, amid expressions of support.

The Franciscan bishop, 61, is prepared to continue his fast to the death, Ruben Siqueira, of the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), told IPS in a telephone interview from Sobradinho, a small village in the northeastern state of Bahia on the banks of the Sao Francisco, where Cappio is fasting and praying.

The Sao Francisco river rises in the eastern state of Minas Gerais, and wends its way northwards through five states and 503 municipalities for 2,863 kilometres before finally reaching the Atlantic ocean between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

Bishop Cappio, who held a hunger strike for the same reason two years ago, feels “betrayed” by the leftist government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Siqueira said.

A communiqué from Cappio’s diocese of Barra, in Bahía state, says that the hunger strike will only end when Lula “finally shelves the initiative” which, according to the government, seeks to provide water for 12 million people in the semi-arid northeast of Brazil, the country’s poorest region.

The administration’s argument is refuted by Cappio and the social, campesino (small farmer), trade union, religious and environmental organisations that support him.

The project involves the building of two canals to remove and redistribute water from the river, and will cost some 3.6 billion dollars. But its ostensibly social goal is “nothing but propaganda” by the government, according to Siqueira.

Studies in the possession of the organisations that oppose the project indicate that the water would actually benefit large economic interests.

Seventy percent of the total volume of water derived from the project would be used by the shrimp industry, made up of large and medium sized companies which produce for export, Siqueira said.

A further 26 percent will be used by the steel plants in the city of Fortaleza, in the northeastern state of Ceará, he added.

The CPT spokesman mentioned the Ceará Steel company, an international consortium of Italian, South Korean and Brazilian capital, including the Vale do Rio Doce mining company and the National Development Bank (BNDES).

Out of every 45 cubic metres of water channeled northwards by the project, nine cubic metres, or 20 percent, will be fed to the Ceará Steel company, said Siqueira.

“The real objective is to provide water for large-scale irrigation, shrimp farming, big industries and big cities. Only four percent is actually intended for the people living in poor and arid areas,” he said.

Another motive for opposing the project is that, over the last 70 years, the Sao Francisco river “has increasingly been used intensively for economic purposes, and this is harming hydroelectric energy production,” Siqueira said.

Seventy percent of the river’s waters are already committed to power generation in hydroelectric stations which supply 90 percent of electricity in the northeast. Its water is also being used to irrigate fruit for export and sugar cane plantations from which fuel alcohol is produced.

Diverting more water from the river would have a negative impact on the level of Sobradinho lake, held back by a dam which acts as the artificial regulator for the whole river, and would endanger the water supply of some 14 million people.

Siqueira said the Sao Francisco River Basin Committee has determined that the available river flow is 360 cubic metres of water per second for all uses, and that 335 cubic metres per second are already in use.

“The river just hasn’t got enough water for the government’s project,” he said.

The CPT and other social and labour organisations advocate a different way for people to “coexist with the natural resources of Brazil’s semiarid region.”

They propose small-scale projects such as collecting and storing rainwater, and pumping groundwater, which could benefit 34 million people for half the cost of the government’s project, according to studies.

Cappio is continuing his hunger strike, taking only filtered river water from the Sao Francisco with a little sugar. His chapel has become a centre of pilgrimage.

In the last few days, visitors including soap opera actress Leticia Sabatella, and organisations like the Landless Movement (MST), have come to show solidarity. The MST carried out a protest march there.

Meanwhile, preliminary work is already under way at the project site, guarded by the army.

Karla Arnes, a government representative from the Integration Ministry, dismissed the fears of the organisations opposing the project, in an interview with IPS.

“The National Water Agency (ANA) would never have authorised the project if it weren’t primarily providing water for human and animal consumption. No companies are benefiting from this,” Arnes said, repeating that the main goal was to benefit 12 million people.

Neither would the ANA have authorised the project if the Sao Francisco river could not provide a flow rate of 25 cubic metres per second. “This will not affect the volume of flow in the river,” she said.

In seasons of heavy rainfall the Sobradinho dam overflows, causing floods. At those times a higher volume of water per second could be removed from the river, and the diversion would be a positive thing because that excess water would be used, Arnes said.

Two years ago, Cappio called off his first hunger strike after 11 days, when the government promised more public debate and consultations before undertaking the project, after sending a representative to talk to the bishop.

Dialogue began, followed by the elections in which Lula won a second term of office. “Then, in spite of letters from the bishop and every possible action, nothing was decided, and the government resumed work on the project,” Siqueira said.

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