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English Report

The government’s energy policy has been focused creating the best conditions for large corporations  in the sector, guaranteeing huge profits with the production and sale of electric energy in Brazil.

Repression against the Movement of People Affected by Dams

Eduardo Luis Zen*

Recently, we have witnessed a strong offensive from corporations in the electric energy sector against social activists who defend the rights of populations impacted by dams. As the resistance of the river communities against the current energy model has grown stronger, the actions taken by the police force against these communities has also intensified.

At the same time that the judicial system reversed earlier claims for resettlement, the police used violent actions to disperse demonstrations along highways, invaded and destroyed encampments, and even prevented affected communities from self-expression. Some members of these communities were violently expelled from public hearings intended to openly discuss dam projects. Police repression has increased during the displacement of people who refused to abandon their lands and houses, which will be taken by dam projects. In these cases, the police forced families to leave their homes, which were demolished or set on fire, as a means of preventing people from returning home.

An example of this situation occurred in 2004, when the Candonga dam in Minas Gerais impacted an entire community. In the village of São Sebastião do Soberbo, dozens of families resisted for weeks against the onslaughts of Military Police (with support of the Federal Police) to carry out the eviction of all families in the area. In the end, with the increase of permanent police forces occupying the village, the families were not able to prevent the bulldozers from destroying their homes.

Nearby, on March 8th, 2005, 35 people were wounded during a public hearing to discuss the construction of the Jurumirim dam in the city of Rio Casca. The police beat women and children, and six people appointed as leaders of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB, the Portuguese acronym) were imprisoned.  In the state of Pará, Army troops (with authorization to act as police forces) arrived in March of 2005 to “protect” the installations of a hydroelectric dam at Tucuruí, where two decades earlier 30 thousand people were driven off their land, the majority still without reparation even today.

More recently, on October 5, 2005, 50 police officers invaded and completely destroyed an encampment of farmers near Rio Canoas, in the region affected by the dams of Campos Novos, in Santa Catarina state. After this action, the troops proceeded to other encampment situated near the construction site of another dam, where a farmer was arrested.

These are only some examples of the treatment received by river populations who are organized in the fight to guarantee their rights. But what calls even more attention to the tactics used by the government and the electric companies in combating the organization of the affected populations is the political repression, threats, and attempts to criminalize the leaders and supporters of this fight.

A survey conducted in the Uruguai River Basin, in the south of Brazil, concluded that 107 activists are facing lawsuits. This is a common practice by energy corporations to prevent people from defending their rights.  In the southern region of Brazil, the main leadership of MAB responded to more than 15 lawsuits. The briefs of the lawsuits add up to more than 30 thousand pages. Thirty-six people prosecuted for criminal lawsuits were given penalties ranging from 1 to 30 years of imprisonment for participating in the Movement, and nine people were served a lawsuit requesting R$ 1 million compensation in damages to the hydroelectric facility at Campos Novos. Moreover, lawyers and supporters of MAB are also listed in the lawsuits, as a way of coercing them to stop their support for the Movement.

The majority of the lawsuits relate to social mobilizations, such as marches, road blockades, and occupation of the construction sites surrounding dam projects. However, a large number of popular mobilizations resulted in important results, such as the re-settlement of hundreds of families. These achievements indicate that the demonstrators were right in their claims, despite the fact that the construction companies insisted in denying reparation to the communities.

The lawsuits had the objective of intimidating the affected populations and their supporters. Another goal was to weaken their leadership, because they need to spend a significant part of their time defending themselves, when they could be organizing. Criminalization also seeks to discredit the impacted communities before public opinion, branding them as marginal outsiders and outlaws. The construction companies usually count on the support of the mainstream media.

A large part of the lawsuits are based on accusations such as vindication and inciting of crime, threats and material damage. However, the strongest affects on public opinion are the accusations of the “formation of criminal gangs” bent on using illegal practices such as “extortion”.  In many cases, the Brazilian judicial system considers a social movement to be like a lawless “gang”.  This was the conclusion of Judge Adriana Lisboa. In March 2005, she ordered the preventive imprisonment of 10 leaders of MAB in the region of the Campo Novos, in Santa Catarina. For Judge Lisboa, as impacted populations became organized in search for resettlement, they represented a “criminal gang” to extort money from companies building dams.

 The arrests declared by Judge Adriana Lisboa were a way to stop demonstrations scheduled for May 14th, the International Day of the Fight against Dams, as well as demonstrations expected to be held on March 22nd, during the commemoration of the International Day of Water. The military operation to carry out the arrests occurred at dawn on Saturday, March 12th 2005, and involved approximately 60 military police officers. On that day, five farmers were arrested. The police also confiscated private and village property, including 16 cars and a public school bus. Because of the apprehension, 55 students could not go to school.

On Monday March 14th another rural worker was imprisoned, responding to a police summons when he went to the Campos Novos police station. The police did not find him at home and broke into his house.

During that day, there were 20 police cars with approximately 60 heavily armed police, acting at dawn to search through the small properties where the farmers lived. They broke down doors, destroyed furniture, damaged vehicles, and destroyed temporary canvas dwellings or tents while destroying banners that read “water is for life, not for death”.  The Judge, Adriana Lisboa, ordered that the farmers surrender their personal “firearms.” The legal proceedings of the police report reveal that the following kinds of “firearms” were confiscated:  a 1,500 page ream of A4 paper; 56 training notebooks entitled “the organization of MAB”; eight No. 6 notebooks entitled “the crisis of the energy model”; varied informative pamphlets referring to MAB; one box of white chalk; three blue pens and one black ballpoint pen and one speaker system with a CD player, amplifier, and tweeters. The sound equipment was used during grassroots demonstrations.

The military police applied a lot of pressure upon families of the protesters who were arrested. They kept women and children detained in their own homes for hours, where they were threatened and injured in various ways. Many of the rural farmers were imprisoned while they were working at planting crops.

Without being informed of their charges, this group of farmers was taken to the Campos Novos police station, and then transferred to the Regional Penitentiary of Joacaba, located 120 kilometers away. The formal charges against them were only announced ten days later. 

The charges against six prisoners were revoked twenty-three days after their arrest, because they were willing to declare, “That they did not plan to promote acts against public order”. Another four people sought by the police turned themselves over to the authorities and stayed in prison for fifteen days, between April and May 2005.  They were subsequently released for the same reasons.

It is important to point out that the same Judge that ordered the arrests obtained a Report published by the Foundation of the Environment of the State of Santa Catarina (FATMA). FATMA is the environmental agency responsible for issuing the permit allowing for the operation of the hydroelectric generator at Campos Novos. The Report consisted of a survey and case-by-case documentation of 237 families that participated in the protests. The Report officially confirmed that these communities were impacted and therefore, entitled to receive reparations.

However, Judge Adriana Lisboa did nothing to demand that the companies that control the dam, such as Bradesco Bank, and Group Votorantin, among others, compensate the families. When the arrests were ordered, the Judge described the families as outside extortionists demanding rights they did not have.  Despite her knowledge of the FATMA Report, the Judge continued to ignore the community’s urgent requests.

The events at Campos Novos represent a broader issue. This type of repression has happened many times, as the economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights of these communities are violated.

In addition, the legal process of issuing environmental permits for operating dams is usually marked with fraud and irregularities. The decisions to approve dam projects are not entirely technical. They are the result of political decisions usually favoring big corporations. The government is afraid of driving away “investors,” who don’t want to have the obligation of giving reparations to people affected by their enterprises.

A large part of these communities lived for generations by the rivers, taking their sustenance from food production and fishing. Some of these communities are being destroyed. In the regions where there is no organized movements, the impact is more brutal, and many affected families end up in the periphery of Brazil’s large cities.

* Eduardo Luiz Zen has a Master Degree in Sociology from the University of Brasilia, and is a member of the coordinating committee of the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens-MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams).