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Uprooted by Brazilian Power Plant, River Residents Try to Rebuild

This story by Ana Aranha was originally titled Vidas em Trânsito (Lives in Transit) [pt] and is part of Brazilian investigative journalism agency Pública's special coverage #AmazôniaPública (Public Amazon) [pt], 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: Displaced Residents Accuse Brazilian Power Plant of False Promises

After spending almost two years in the village of New Mutum, a city constructed by company Energia Sustentável [en] to house the engineers and foremen of its Jirau power plant [en] as well as the river dwellers, known as ribeirinhos [en], who were displaced when the area was flooded for the plant, the Batista family decided to return closer to the river. Alongside the same neighbors from the old Mutum, they constructed a wooden house next to a bayou called Jirau.

But now there’s a suspicion that this area will also be flooded.

This news flows among the inhabitants and workers of the power plant and is being investigated by public attorney Renata Ribeiro Baptista from the federal public prosecutor’s office in the federal state of Rondônia [en]. “Jirau denies it, but we are following this closely,” she declares:

Essa situação mostra o dilema dos ribeirinhos. Eles correram de volta para os seus hábitos de vida, que estão ligados à proximidade ao rio. Mas a vida como eles conheciam foi tomada pela usina.

This situation shows the dilemma faced by the river dwellers. They went back to their way of life, tied to the proximity of the river. But life as they knew it was taken away by the power plant.

“I no longer consider myself a Brazilian citizen. I feel like a dog on a leash that can’t choose where to go,” says Jonas Romani, a 55-year-old fisherman. He lived in the district of Jaci Paraná that was flooded by the Santo Antônio power plant [en]. Like Batista, he moved to the Jirau river and now loses sleep over the possibility of having to move again. “If they aren’t sure if this area will be flooded, why not close this area off? They let us come here, build our things, plant our manioc, only to flood everything all over again?”

Esmeralda Marinho Gomes used to lived in the village of Mutum Paraná, which was relocated because the area was to be flooded by the Jirau power plant. She states she has never been compensated. Esmeralda explains how the riverside dwellers never adapted to the village constructed by the power plant, New Mutum, and went to live in another location close to the river. She worries about what will happen to the community when the construction project is finished and the jobs are gone.

The process of wrenching people from where they have built their lives is always subject to injustices. There are small injustices and there are big ones. The story of Esmeralda Marinho Gomes, 63, is one of the larger ones.

She had rented a house in old Mutum since 2006. Even those who rented had the right to choose between a compensation of 55,000 Brazilian reais (about 28,000 US dollars) or a small house in New Mutum. But the week that the power plant employees came through to create a registry of inhabitants, she was away working at the mine. When she returned, she began her saga of attempts to contact the power plant. As the community was one of squatters, the houses didn't have official documentation and therefore, there was no contract, only an agreement with the owner:

Primeiro disseram que era estudo de caso. Depois, que não tinha prova suficiente.

They initially said her case was under study. Later, they stated there was insufficient proof.

She never received compensation.

While her neighbors were in New Mutum, Esmeralda rented a room in the village. When the first few began moving to the Jirau bayou, she moved with them.

With the breakup of the river dwellers and cuts at the power plant, the future of the 1,600 homes in New Mutum becomes worrisome. The Jirau plant is progressively reducing the number of workers. The work is scheduled to finish in 2016, when the number of employees near the infrastructure created to house them will be reduced to a minimum. Until now, no industry or activity generating an income independent from the construction of the power plant has been created in the area.

“I've already got my little house in Jaru [another river different than the Madeira river]” says Sônia, a former inhabitant of the old Mutum who has a clothing shop in New Mutum:

Quando acabar a obra, acabou o emprego, acabou tudo. Isso aqui vai virar uma cidade-fantasma.

When the construction is finished, the work is finished, everything is finished. This here will become a ghost town.

The project Amazônia Pública [pt] (Public Amazon) took three teams of reporters from the Reporting and Investigative Journalism Agência Pública to travel through three Amazonian regions between July and October 2012, among them the hydroelectric plants of the Madeira River in Rondônia. All of the reports search to explore the complexities of the current investments in the Amazon, including the negotiations and political maneuvering as well as listening to all the actors involved — governments, companies, and civil society — to trace the context in which these projects have been developed. The principal viewpoint of these reports, as with all reports from Agência Pública, is always the public interest: how actions, political negotiations, and economics have had an impact, in practice, on the lives of the population.

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