Displaced Residents Accuse Brazilian Power Plant of False Promises

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.

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When the company Energia Sustentável (Sustainable Energy) removed people from their homes in the area surrounding the Madeira River in order to flood it as part of construction of a power plant, it did so promising the displaced residents that it would provide them with a new place to live.

The company built the town of New Mutum Paraná to be the home for engineers and people in charge of the Jirau power plant, but also to receive former residents of Old Mutum.

But many now accuse the company of going back on its promises. Sônia Cabral Costa, who owns a clothing store in New Mutum now, argues:

Eles prometeram que aqui ia ter faculdade, indústrias, milhares de empregos. Cadê? Nada disso foi cumprido. Essas pessoas tinham sua fonte de renda, vieram acreditando no que a empresa prometeu.

They promised there would be a university, factories, and thousands of jobs here. Where are they? None of these promises were met. Those people had an income source, they came here believing in what the company had promised.

The initial estimates by the power plant [in the Madeira river hydroelectric complex], were the removal of 2,849 people, 1,087 in the flooded area by Jirau and 1,762 by the Santo Antônio dam [by the company Santo Antônio Energia]. According the Movimento do Atingidos por Barragens (Affected by the Dam's Movement), there are 4,325 people today that were removed or indirectly affected by the dams.

This year, Sônia's nephew graduates from elementary school. Next year, he will be forced to travel 30 kilometers every day to study in Jaci Paraná. Among the promises from Energia Sustentável was the construction of two schools in the village, an elementary school and a high school. As a matter of fact, the two schools were built. But one of them is now a private school.

Hanging from the door of Einstein School, a sign with the plant's and the federal government's logos reads in big letters that the school was built with resources from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES, in Portuguese). However, only those who can pay a monthly fee of 240 Brazilian reais (121 United States dollars) are admitted to the school. Or 200 reais (100 US dollars), for sons or daughters of “camargueiros” – the way locals call the employees of Brazilian construction company Camargo Corrêa.

While the private school has 20 students in each class, the public one has more than 40 and has night shifts to meet the demand, the public school's vice principal says:

No ano passado, ficaram 230 alunos sem matrícula porque a gente não tinha vaga. Os pais vinham implorar na minha porta, mas não tinha onde colocar.

Last year, 230 students weren't admitted because there wasn't any room. Their parents came to beg at my door, but there was nowhere I could place them.

Escola construída para comunidade de ribeirinhos que foi repassada para grupo particular Foto: Marcelo Min

School built for riverside community that was privatized Photo: Marcelo Min

“It was supposed to be run by the town hall, but they needed a school for the sons and daughters of the engineers, so  Jirau decided to negotiate with the private sector. I don't see a problem here”, says Pedro Beber, responsible for the management of the city hall's social compensation budget.

Se eles estão pagando os professores, [o município] não tem interesse em assumir essa escola.

If they are paying the teachers, [the town] is not interested is taking over the school.

Infrastructure problems are also common in other villages created by Jirau and Santo Antônio to shelter the rural population that had to be removed. The most frequent ones are related to the fertility of the soil, which affect their production. Residents were removed from Madeira's riverfront, an area naturally fertilized when the river rises, and were placed on land bought from farmers, where some of them used to raise cattle.

Another common complaint relates to the sewage smell inside their houses. The new settlements were built in regions near the areas flooded by the dam for the plant. Due to the rise of the river's dammed up water, the water table floods, causing leaks in drains and sinks.

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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