Members of the Articulação da Bacia do Rio Pardo

Members of the Articulação da Bacia do Rio Pardo.


Equally important, its waters are now owned by people who unscrupulously exploit the river,” explains Maicon de Andrade, a water defense activist from the Center for Social Studies (CEAS). Maicon, Joaci Cunha and Elias Wolff, a member of the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network International Reference Group, talk of challenges and achievements in the struggle for water justice in Brazil.

What’s making the river sick?

“The bleeding of the river by irrigation projects has increased enormously in recent years,” Maicon points out. Most of the of water is used to irrigate eucalyptus, coffee and sugarcane plantations. Pastures and shrimp farms devastate and pollute the Rio Pardo delta. Deforestation, for agricultural purposes, increases the loss of biodiversity, erosion and siltation, interfering with the water cycle. “Unfortunately, this is a reality for most Brazilian rivers,” says, the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network’s Elias Wolff.

Brazilian activist Joaci Cunha highlights the importance of the Machado Mineiro Dam in what he calls the “hijacking” of the river’s water. “The reservoir management is carried out with the needs of irrigators in the foreground,” he says. According to Cunha, there are also 21 private mini-dams, officially authorized, but they overstep the law by increasing the volume of water backed up for irrigation.

Testimonies of the residents of the region underline the Rio Pardo’s critical situation. Small producers and riverside dwellers face great challenges to guarantee production and the continuing existence of their social structures and culture. Municipalities are also facing water shortages.

“The questions that need to be discussed are: Where is the water meant for the shower or the vegetable garden? What are the water use priorities? Why is it not socially manged and controlled?” ask Elias, Maicon and Joaci. They see the problem in the countryside agrohydro business. "Since the 70s, monoculture projects and dams orchestrated by the Brazilian State and private companies have reduced access to water and other common goods which people depend" they say.

Fighting for the land

Currently, there are many struggles in opposing the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and in promoting alternative regional styles of development. Peasant communities regained around 37,000 hectares of land between 1980 and 2014 through social movements fighting for land. In the early 2000s, the union movement of rural workers prevented the construction of a dam on the Pardo River in the municipality of Berizal. In the lower part of the basin. The mobilization of fishermen and shellfish gatherers contributed to the creation of the Canavieiras Extractive Reserve.

Cooperatives and alliances were formed to promote a different way of living, in harmony with the common good. Examples are the Cooperativa Grande Sertão Veredas and the Association of Producers of Sugarcane and Derivatives in the municipality of Itarantim. The CETA movement produces agroecological products from the Cabruca forest.

Way forward

All these struggles contributed to the creation of the “Articulação e Defesa do Rio Pardo”, a countryside alliance linked with city groups  to defend water and the common good in the Rio Pardo basin. In it are traditional farmers, geraizeiros, , quilombolas, indigenous people, agrarian reform settlers, fishermen, shellfish gatherers, students, researchers, NGOs, and churches.

Together, they raise awareness of the progressive death of the river and its consequences. The alliance promotes discussion of how the basin can be better managed and spreads knowledge and practices of “Bem Viver” (“Good living”). “The strategy is to promote local actions which feed into a wider collective effort for the revitalization of Rio Pardo,” remarks Maicon.

Elias Wolff believes that the support of churches and other faith-based organizations and groups is fundamental to save the Rio Pardo. “We understand water as a divine gift, and taking care of it is engaging with the Creator's project,” he says.