Riverside communities in Rio Grande, in southwest Bahia, struggle to have their traditions recognized and to preserve the rivers
The waters of the Rio Grande Basin have changed. The communities have noted that the river does not rise as often as it used to, has lost force and no longer reaches the bean crops of the small-scale farmers in the southwest of Bahia. One of the crucial factors for these changes is the proliferation of Small Hydroelectric Centres (Pequenas Centrais Hidroelétricas: PCHs) in the region, which have a direct impact on the water resources and lives of the communities that depend on the rivers to live. The group of Rio Grande Riverside Communities Threatened by the Santa Luzia PCH sought support from CESE to run an organizational strengthening and legal advice project in order to claim their traditional rights.
The riverside communities of the Rio Grande Basin are fighting to conserve their ways of life, and their relationship with the land and the rivers. The licencing process to build the Santa Luzia PCH was conducted by the Institute for the Environment and Water Resources (Instituto do Meio Ambiente e Recursos Hídricos: INEMA) without listening to the population that will be directly affected by the works and any other impacts. The Department of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (Secretaria pela Promoção da Igualdade Racial) recognizes the riverside communities around São Desidério as traditional communities, a process that demands respect for their ways of life.
“The Rio Grande Basin is a target for small hydroelectric centres, which is a problem for the riverside communities. There has been a certain amount of harassment of the communities, offering money for their lands, while the licencing was conducted without involving these people, who only discovered that everything was going to change when the project was already being installed,” explained Amanda Silva, development agent for the 10Envolvimento Agency NGO.
According to Amanda, what happens is that companies buy an area to install a hydroelectric centre in the region and then oblige the holders of the affected areas to sell their lands. “The Santa Luzia PCH created a situation in which the landholders were obliged to sell their lands and the licencing was undertaken without any care for the community,” she added, explaining that the licencing currently remains active, installation works are underway and deforestation has already taken place. The State Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público Estadual: MPE) has opened a public inquiry and dialogue has begun with the Public Defender’s Office (Defensória Pública), which is already conducting hearings with the riverside community.
With support from CESE, through its Small Projects Programme, the group has been able to rely on legal advice for some months, taking the steps required to claim their territorial and environmental rights and for recognition of their traditional ways of life. During October and November 2021, the group mobilized to denounce violations of the communities’ rights and to focus on aspects of environmental racism, expressed in the way the environmental licencing process was conducted, ignoring the local population, who lead a traditional way of life.
As part of the project, virtual and in-person meetings took place to link up community leaders (with priority given to women and young people), strengthen organization, mobilize more people and support the defence of the territory. Communication materials have also been created to denounce the rights violations perpetrated by the company, INEMA’s Environmental Racism and the impact of the conflict on the lives of women. An act in defence of the Rio Grande and against the Santa Luzia PCH was held within the territory directly impacted by it, and the group is monitoring the administrative and bureaucratic processes aimed at ensuring the communities’ rights are respected.
“Environmental Racism is expressed in the way the State acts towards the black population of fishermen and women, coconut breakers and pasture farmers. The INEMA licencing process ignored the issues affecting the riverside communities, ignored their ways of life. The State prioritizes the entrepreneur, who takes advantage of the waters and their richness, dismantles the community, which loses everything, including access to the water itself,” Amanda declared. She added that, despite this pressure, INEMA has not corrected licencing process errors, nor does it not recognize the rights of the population, which has been in the territory for centuries.
Sueli Pereira dos Santos, a resident of the Sítio de Cima Community in the municipality of São Desidério, grew up by the river, as did her parents and her grandparents. Generations of her family lived and live in harmony with the river, from fishing and from crops and are suffering from the changes happening now. “We try to defend the river in the best way possible. We live off the river. We, riverside peoples, do not know how to live without the waters of the river. Our struggle is to stop it being diverted, to prevent the Beira Rio Community from having only 20% access to the waters. We know there are other, renewable, ways of generating energy that could be adopted without killing the river,” she declared.
“When they saw the work commencing, my grandparents fell ill. When they consider life without hearing the sound of the waterfall, without the breeze that comes off the river, without its food – this is pain that I don’t know how to describe,” she exclaimed. According to Sueli, support from the 10Envolvimento Agency and CESE has provided the necessary means for the struggle. According to Amanda Silva, the project supported by CESE has directly contributed to this mobilization, as well as providing the legal advice that triggered the case at the Public Defender’s Office to protect the community’s rights.
“CESE is an important partner of the country’s riverside communities, because it has approached these communities in order to understand their problems and positions itself as a supporter to strengthen the struggle, so that we can fulfil our mission,” she concluded. The expectation is that the various levels of justice could consider and guarantee protection of the rights of these traditional peoples and their ways of life, and the preservation of the waters.