Residents Displaced by Brazilian Power Plant Struggle to Earn Living

This story by Ana Aranha was originally titled Vidas em Trânsito (“Lives in Transit”) and is part of Brazilian investigative journalism agency Pública's special coverage #AmazôniaPública, which reports on the impact of mega-construction projects in the Amazon along the Madeira river in the state of Rondônia, Brazil. The story will be published in a series of five posts on Global Voices Online.

Previous post: Construction Project Fuels Sex and Violence in Brazilian Amazon
Next post: Displaced Residents Accuse Brazilian Power Plant of False Promises

In the first article of this series, Agência Pública reported on the social chaos that has taken over a fishing town in the Madeira river region due to the Jirau Dam construction project. Leaving the dusty streets of Jaci Parana 15 kilometers further down the national highway, the village of New Mutum Parana stands in stark contrast with Jaci.

The only similarity with Jaci is the group of [working] men in uniform at the bus stop at the end of the day [coming from the construction site]. But in New Mutum Parana, all the roads are paved. There are sidewalks and large roundabouts with lawns planted in the center. Everything is planned and symmetrical. There is a commercial zone and a residential one, which holds 1,600 houses in different blocks. In each block, the houses are identical and so are the lawns separating them.

Deserted street at Nova Mutum Parana, a village built by Jirau power plant, which contrasts with Jaci's demographic explosion.  Photo: Marcelo Min

A deserted street in Nova Mutum Parana, a village built by the Jirau power plant, which contrasts with Jaci's demographic explosion. Photo: Marcelo Min

New Mutum Parana was planned and built by Energia Sustentável (Sustainable Energy) to house the engineers and officers of Jirau – workers that bring their families with them to the Brazilian state where they are working. Instead of folk music and bare stomachs, pregnant women and little children appear at the front doors of their homes as the men make their way towards the bus stop.

The largest part of the village is occupied by workers. At the entrance, there is an area reserved for the 150 families brought from Old Mutum Parana, a village of river dwellers that was removed to flood the area for the power plant. The community had around 400 families, and the majority of inhabitants chose to receive the compensation.

New Mutum is the apple of the eyes of Energia Sustentavel's social corporate responsibility advertisements. Ads about sustainability are spread around town and stay side by side with pictures showing river dwellers and workers, always accompanied by the company’s seal.

But after walking around for a few minutes with no one in sight, the question is unavoidable: Where is everyone?

“The houses are really pretty, but what about our existence?”, asks Rovaldo Herculino Batista, a river dweller who sold the house he received from the power plant company because he did not find a job in Nova Mutum:

Não adianta fazer a cidade maravilhosa, a Nova Jerusalém, se você tira a pessoa do seu lugar, onde tem seu trabalho e vida. Como vamos ganhar dinheiro?

It’s no use to make a wonderful city, the New Jerusalem, if you take the person out of his or her place, where their work and life are. How will we make money?
Batista não se adaptou à vila construída pela usina e voltou para a beira do rio Foto: Marcelo Min

Batista couldn't adapt himself to the village built by the power plant company and went back to the riverside. Photo: Marcelo Min

In Old Mutum – the river dwellers’ way of referring to their old community – they fished, mined and performed other types of jobs. Batista used to work as a miner and he had a place with a bunch of scrap metal where he dismantled the abandoned dredgers to sell the pieces. His wife used to sell fruits and vegetables throughout the community in a handcart. Money wasn't a problem for the family.

After they were displaced, they got a little grocery store, but the neighbors didn't have the same income anymore to buy [from the store]. The scrap metal place was gone, so was the access to fishing. Batista intensified his travels to the mining area, but it became hard to balance the bills at the new house, with six children and three grandchildren. Besides the fact that the products were more expensive at the local market, the electricity bill was outrageous. In the three months before giving up his “New Jerusalem”, Batista received [electricity] bills of 629, 671, and 547 Brazilian reais (318, 339, and 276 US dollars).

It is ironic. The inhabitants most affected by the construction of one of the biggest power plants in the country are obliged to pay one of the most expensive electricity fees. Plus, a monthly payment of 19 reais (around 9.5 US dollars) for public lighting.

Project Amazônia Pública is composed by three teams of Agência Pública de Reportagem e Jornalismo Investigativo reporters who travelled to three Amazon areas from July to October 2012 – among which the hydroelectric plants along the Madeira river, in state of Rondônia. All stories aim to explore the complexity of current local investments in the Amazon, including negotiations and political articulations, and to listen to all agents involved – governments, enterprises, civil society – in order to frame the context in which these projects have been developed. The key perspective of such stories, as well as Pública's entire production, is the public interest: how do actions and political and economic negotiations impact people's lives.

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