Environmental impact in Brazil The View from the other Side

In Brazil, traditional fishermen are today confronted with problems created by, among other things, the construction of large dams and other developmental projects, water pollution by mining activities, the invasion of lakes and rivers by industrial fishing boats, and by the establishment of national parks and reserves.

They are also threatened by massive irrigation schemes, such as the one planned on the floodplain of the Sao Francisco River, in Marituba. This is a ‘várzea’ (a floodplain near the mouth of the river) in the coastal plain of Alagoas-Sergipe, in the north-east of Brazil-an area of about 200 sq km.

In this floodplain are two villages-Marituba de Cima and Marituba do Peixe-whose 1,200 inhabitants live mainly on small-scale fishing or agriculture, and handicraft. Field work undertaken by the Federal University of Alagoas found that over 48 different species of fish are identified, consumed and sold by the fishermen here.

Local fishermen have extensive knowledge of the different habitats of the floodplain-they know and fish in over 40 different habitats. About 18 different fishing and fish management techniques are used, including a period of rest, when no fishing is carried out in the lakes.

Two decades ago, the floodplain and their inhabitants were affected by several important changes. The first set of impacts occurred in the 1960s, when two large hydroelectric dams (Paulo Afonso and Sobradinho) were constructed, hundreds of km upriver. The dams regulated the flow of the river, and now fewer fish enter the várzeas.

The second set of changes was caused by the expansion of sugar cane plantations during the 1970s, an expansion supported by the government. Sugar plantations now surround the lakes in the várzea and the intensive use of fertilisers and herbicides have negatively affected fish stocks.

The third and most important threat to the várzea is from CODEVASF, a government agricultural development agency that plans to transform the entire várzea into irrigated rice fields. This company has already converted several larger swamps of the Sao Francisco River into rice growing projects. In these projects, there has been a complete transformation of the swamps and the entire hydrological regime has changed.

In the project called Betume, for instance, blocking of waterways to the lagoons has stopped fish migration and fish stocks have diminished, affecting the livelihood of local fishermen.

Social consequences have also been severe, as people have been forced to vacate their lands and migrate to the outskirts of the project area. Few, except the politically powerful, have received a rice plot in the project area.

For the Marituba swamp, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) funded by the CODEVASF in 1985, argues that yields from irrigated rice plots would be higher than from traditional planting methods and that the incomes of people from rice farming would be higher than from fishing and handicraft. Also, a large number of jobs would be created. The EIA claims that there are no endangered species in the area and that overall the project has a positive impact.

In 1988, the University of Sao Paulo, in co-operation with the Federal University of Alagoas, started a participatory and interdisciplinary research project. This showed that the conservation of this floodplain and its value for the livelihood of the inhabitants was higher than the benefits that might be generated by the transformation of the floodplain. Another conclusion of the research was that the whole hydrological system of the várzea would be damaged, and traditional fishing would disappear, along with the important endangered species found during the research period.

As result of this research, an alliance of environmental NGOs, scientists and Marituba residents was set up in February 1991, at the public hearing held to evaluate the EIA for the project. But the political forces in support of the project were very strong and the state authorities did not reject the EIA, though new complementary studies were requested.


It is now common to conduct EIA’s for any major developmental activity that is planned. It is, however, often the developers themselves who fund the EIA, and influence its findings. EIAs, funded by those who are responsible for the project, are usually biased against the interests of the local populations whose livelihood will be affected.

Moreover, economic tools available are often inadequate. They are unable to take into account, for instance, the real environmental or cultural value of a natural resource. At the same time the criteria for costs and benefits are different for the different social groups involved. For EIAs to be more reliable they need to be undertaken by a neutral body, in consultation with all the stakeholders.

 DIEGUES, Antonio Carlos, "The view from the other side", in Samudra Report, 1996/11, 16.

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