[12/15/07] Catholic Hierarchy Backs Bishop’s Hunger Strike

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 14 (IPS) - The upper echelons of the Brazilian Catholic Church have decided to lend their support to Bishop Luiz Cappio, who is on hunger strike against the diversion of water from the Sao Francisco river, after the government confirmed it would go ahead with the project.

The authorities argue that the work is essential to provide water for millions of poor people in the semi-arid northeast, the country’s poorest region.

The decision by the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) was announced after a meeting between high-ranking Church representatives and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who told them that the project would continue, and that it was the Church’s own responsibility to intercede with Cappio to give up his fast, which he began on Nov. 27.

Instead, the CNBB decided to throw its weight behind Cappio, 61, a member of the Franciscan order and bishop of the diocese of Barra, in the northeastern state of Bahia.

The CNBB issued a communiqué calling on all Christians to join Dom Cappio in fasting and prayer, for his life and his health, and in solidarity with the cause he is defending.

But the Church expressed even greater support by defining the cause defended by the bishop in ideological terms. It said that Cappio’s action brings to light the conflict "between two opposing models of development."

On the one hand is a participative and sustainable model, which values family farming and the preservation of nature, while on the other is a model that favours market forces in agriculture and water supply, causes serious environmental and social damage, exploits people and destroys rivers and forests, it said.

In a telephone interview with IPS, Clarice Maia of Articulaçao Sao Francisco Vivo (Sao Francisco Live River Network), a group of over 230 community, religious and fisherfolk organisations seeking socially acceptable solutions for the river basin, expanded on the two different models.

From Sobradinho, the site of the chapel where Cappio is fasting, Maia explained that the network is opposed to the river diversion project "because it’s socially, environmentally and economically unsustainable."

The Sao Francisco river rises in the eastern state of Minas Gerais, and wends its way northwards through five states and 503 municipalities for 2,863 kilometres before finally reaching the Atlantic ocean between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

But in Maia’s view, and that of the organisations she represents, the idea of diverting water from this river and building canals to redirect it, at a cost of 3.6 billion dollars, "fails to reflect the reality of this semi-arid region, where the real problem is collecting, storing, and fairly distributing water."

"The re-channeling of the river will not solve those problems. Instead, it will stimulate…a model of development which does not belong in this region, like the expansion of sugar cane plantations, irrigated fruit orchards and steel manufacturing centres," activities which opponents to the scheme say will be the real beneficiaries of this government project.

According to the network spokeswoman, "it’s an economic model being imposed on this region which could result in the extinction of species, cultures and persons."

The Sao Francisco Live River Network proposes, instead, a development model that is adapted to the reality of the semi-arid region, where there is a dry season, but also a rainy one, so the rainfall pattern is different to that of other parts of the country.

Maia mentioned, among other things, creating simple systems for collecting and storing rainwater, and improving access by peasant farmers to the 70,000 ponds distributed throughout the Sao Francisco river basin.

"The illusion, or myth, is being spread that there’s no water at all in the semi-arid region, and this foments a ‘drought industry’ which benefits politicians and corporations. It’s an ‘industry’ that has been going on for many years, and which exploits the ‘dry land’ myth to make economic and political capital," she said.

Maia pointed out that the governmental National Water Agency (ANA) itself published last year an "Atlas of the Northeast" in which alternative projects are put forward for providing water to towns of more than 5,000 people in nine states of that region and in the north of Minas Gerais.

And the ANA proposals would cost only half of what is envisaged for re-routing the Sao Francisco river, she said.

This week a federal judge ordered the suspension of the Sao Francisco project, on the basis of technical arguments against a certificate of hydrological capacity issued by the National Council of Water Resources (CNRH).

But the army, in charge of the work, has begun excavations and studies of the terrain. It has not withdrawn, and in fact has increased the number of troops in the area, said Ruben Siqueira of the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), who is supporting the bishop at the site of his hunger strike.

In the name of Cappio, whom he described as being "in very good spirits and in a normal state of health," despite some variations in blood pressure because of his fast, Siqueira told IPS that the country is experiencing a kind of "dictatorship, because not even the decisions of the judicial branch are being respected."

The presence of the army at the construction site is now "three times larger, and they have even brought in tanks. This is like a state of siege," he said emphatically.

Siqueira attributed such a large deployment of troops to the government’s decision to go ahead with the project, as well as to the fear of possible reactions, because of the number of social organisations and groups of indigenous peoples in the area.

"They believe it is necessary to militarise the area in order to safeguard the construction work," he said.

Meanwhile, expressions of support for the bishop keep flowing in. Taking only filtered river water with oral rehydration salts and sugar, Cappio is determined to continue his hunger strike "to the death," if necessary, as he has stated.

The Brazilian bishops’ call to join the protest with prayers in support of Cappio has already evoked responses from movements such as Via Campesina, Caritas Brazil and the CPT, which have declared a "national vigil and fast in solidarity" on that day.

Millions of people are expected to fast in every major city in the country on Dec. 17.

This collective action will not only be an act of solidarity with the bishop, but also an expression of rejection and protest against the way the government is dealing with the issue, according to the groups organising the measure.

It has emerged that the Lula administration is concerned about the repercussions, but it has made no official pronouncement in the last few days.

At the start of Cappio’s fast, Integration Minister Geddel Vieira Lima repeated that the government’s intention is to benefit 12 million poor people in the semi-arid region, and that in contrast to what the critics say, the project will ultimately draw off only 1.4 percent of the volume of the Sao Francisco that reaches the ocean, without affecting its rate of flow.

This is the second time that the bishop has gone on hunger strike to protest the river diversion project. The first time, in 2005, Cappio called off his fast after 11 days, when the government promised to hold a public debate about the environmental and social impacts of the plan. ~~~~ Article Originally Available @: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=40482