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The Caeté called it Opará, “the river-sea”. And just like those indigenous people, extinct in the sixteenth century, the São Francisco can become just a memory. The drought that punished the backwoods from 2011 to 2018 even dried its spring in the Serra da Canastra, in Minas Gerais. But climate change and deforestation aren’t the only ones to threaten it. Already in 1928 the poet Jorge de Lima (1893-1953) warned of another danger: “And first they went down the river Opara / the men who came to hurt the earth in search of gold.” His agony is long. But greed can give it the mercy stroke.
According to a study by the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation, our greatest fear came true: ore tailings that leaked from the Vale dam in Brumadinho reached the riverbed of the São Francisco, carried by the dying Paraopeba. More than 14 million souls depend directly on the so-called “river of national integration”. The São Francisco is 2,830 km long and crosses five states in the Southeast and Northeast regions before going into the Atlantic, between Sergipe and Alagoas; its watershed extends for 641 thousand km² – about 8% of the Brazilian territory – and it covers areas of Cerrado, Caatinga and Atlantic Rainforest.
“This silent impact is serious because it is continuous and daily. And because it did not hit São Francisco in a tsunami, as it happened with the Rio Doce, it is a silent degradation that cannot keep us silent, “says Malu Ribeiro, project coordinator for the foundation. So do not be silent: join us in the “To What End, São Francisco?” Campaign.
In addition to Uma Gota no Oceano and SOS Mata Atlântica, the Movement for the Affected by Dams (MAB), the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (Apoinme ), the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Quilombola Rural Communities (Conaq), the Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (Abong), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the Pastoral Council of Fishermen CPP), the Ecumenical Service Coordination (Cese), the São Francisco Vivo People’s Articulation and the Forest Code Observatory. The video of the campaign has artistic supervision by director Luiz Fernando Carvalho, narration by actor Gabriel Leone and arrangement by Tim Rescala for the instrumental version, of Padre Irala, of the “Prayer of Saint Francis”.
The SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation analyzed 123 km of the river and the water is unfit for use by the population between the municipalities of Felixlândia and Pompéu. The São Francisco was examined in 12 points; of these, nine were above the legal limits of contamination, defined by Resolution 357 of the National Environmental Council (Conama). In some of them, the level was between two and six times greater than allowed. “Heavy metals in the water already silenced the river. We do not hear in their waters the croaking of frogs, the water swirls of fish, nor the fishing birds. This silence expresses the most violent form of pollution. Analyzing the quality of water is to give voice to the river so that environmental crimes like this do not go unpunished and so that we can unite to recover its waters, “says Malu Ribeiro.
The São Francisco has been losing much of its force in the last decades, to a point where its mouth is invaded by the sea. In addition to the lack of rainfall, its water has been clandestinely diverted for irrigation and contaminated by illegal mining, dumping of untreated sewage, and irregular works and agrotoxins. To try to reverse this critical framework, a revitalization program called Plano Novo Chico was launched in 2016. The estimate was to invest R $ 7 billion in basic sanitation, decontamination projects, sustainable enterprises, and environmental management and education by 2026. Vale’s environmental crime will force us to review these figures. It will not be easy: a recently released study by the National Confederation of Industry (CNI) reveals that investment in treated water has only been falling for three years.
And, sadly, Brumadinho may be just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, three other dams of Vale, located in Nova Lima and Ouro Preto, have passed the maximum level of warning of breakage. Before that, the Southern Upper dam of the Gongo Soco Mine in Barão dos Cocais had already entered the same stage of attention. Families were evacuated from their homes and others had to undergo emergency training. On April 1, the National Mining Agency (ANM) interdicted 56 dams in eight states – Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Mato Grosso, Rio Grande do Sul, Goiás, Pará, Amapá and Paraná. Of these, 27 belong to Vale. It’s not just the São Francisco who is threatened.