Blog / 23 September 2016

Counterpower has to find its own weapons to fight the main power

Guest blog by Debora Calheiros, Brazil

The situation for environmental organisations in Brazil is difficult. The governments, in general, don't think environmental issues are relevant. So even though there are good laws that protect natural reserves like the Pantanal, the governments do not comply with these laws because they put economic interests above the environment.


As the counterpower has little money compared to the economic powers, we have to fight them with our own weapons like science and organization of social movements.


For example, in the Pantanal Wetland the government plans a hidrovia (waterway) project. They want to deepen and straighten the Paraguay River so that it can easily be navigated from Brazil all the way up to Argentina. This would have a huge impact on the whole Pantanal.

ICV (Instituto Centro de Vida), one of the oldest NGO's in the region, has been working together with researchers and a coalition of hundreds of NGO's to fight this hidrovia project since 1992. A large part of the plan was cancelled in 1996, but in 2012, this project came on the agenda of the government again. So ICV, within the Ecosystem Alliance (EA), had the idea to look for new ways to fight. They organized activism classes for social movements to think of creative resistance strategies.

There, the idea emerged to prevent the government from holding public hearings about the hidrovia project. These public hearings are obligatory by law before they can give licenses to companies to implement a project. In a public hearing, the people are informed about the project and can give their opinion. However, overall, the governments don't take these opinions into account and just organizes the hearings because they have to as part of the licensing process. The social movements strategically thought 'no hearing means no license' and planned to disturb the hearings.


FONASC, an NGO that participated in the Ecosystem Alliance in Brazil, called together fishermen, other local people and civil society organisations. I, as a scientist, explained them the scientific reasons to fight against the hidrovia project. For example, for fishermen it will mean that many fish species will disappear, which they need to survive, to maintain their quality of life, food security and income. Then they decided to react and took action to disturb the public hearings: at one of the meetings they made a human chain around the building so nobody could get in, and at another meeting they went inside and made noise with whistles. Both hearings had to be cancelled. So they succeeded: no hearing meant no license!


Debora Calheiros from Brazil is a PhD biologist and wetlands ecologist. She has been involved in the Pantanal for 27 years. From 2012 to 2015, she voluntarily worked with Both ENDS, Wetlands International and IUCN NL in the Ecosystem Alliance to protect the Paraguay River/Pantanal Wetland system from projects like the hidrovia project and other threats.


160923_Debora informeert vissers 160923_protest tijdens hoorzitting
Debora Calheiros informs the fisherman about the
consequences of the hidrovia project
Protests around the public hearing in Barro do Bugres



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