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Brazil: Protesting workers stop work on Amazon dam

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Brazil: Protesting workers stop work on Amazon dam

by Vincent Huck

The exact reason for the workers’ action is still unclear. Some press reports say that it resulted from a confrontation between a bus driver and a worker, that sparked off underlying tensions between the workers and their employers and then escalated out of control. Others say that it started as a protest against unpaid wages. What seems clear is that one way or another the dispute arose from the unsatisfactory conditions at the site, with labourers not being given proper accommodation and with infringements of the country’s labour legislation . 

The violence continued on Friday, with much of the workers’ accommodation being destroyed in a new wave of protests, making it necessary for about 18,000 workers to be relocated. Most of them were put up in shelters in the neighbouring city of Porto Velho, while some 7,000, coming from other parts of the country, made their way home by bus and plane. So far, 31 people have been arrested by the police. The state government sent reinforcements to the police force and asked for the army’s help.

Following the demonstrations at Jirau Dam, the neighbouring dam of San Antonio was closed down. The management said the decision had been taken in order to prevent any copy cat violence. The events at the Jirau dam should perhaps come as no surprise as the project has a history of conflict, with wrangles between the construction companies and with the project being fined for infringing the country’s environmental legislation. 

altA deeper controversy concerns the viability of the dam itselfA deeper controversy concerns the viability of the dam itself. It forms part of the controversial Madeira River Complex, a set of four hydroelectric dams on the Madeira river. They have long been criticised by environmentalists and NGOs, who fear that they threaten the ecological stability of the entire Madeira River and the livelihood of local communities. The Madeira River Complex is part of two larger initiatives: the Integrated Regional Infrastructure for South America (IIRSA), an effort by governments in the whole of South America to construct a new infrastructure network for the region, and the Accelerated Growth Programme (PAC), the flagship ‘development’ programme of Brazil’s President Lula and continued by President Dilma Rousseff. By linking up with highways being built in Peru and Bolivia, the complex will create an export corridor that will allow raw materials to be exported to Asia and North America. 

Just before the recent presidential elections, President Lula announced the beginning of the second stage of the programme. Critics said that the timing of ths announcement discredited the programme, turning it into a political tool rather than a serious development project.