World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Women affected by dams – changes in their lifestyles

The building of hydroelectric dams in Brazil has been marked by a lack of respect for the environment and society and more so by a lack of respect for the affected communities that see how their lives are radically changed and how they are annulled in the name of “capitalist society development.”  In Brazil, over 2,000 dams have been built, resulting in the eviction of over 1 million people from their lands. There are federal government projects foreseeing the construction of 1,443 more dams over the next 20 years. These are major works linked to false promises of more jobs and development; respect for nature, cheaper energy for the people and guaranteeing the families’ right to compensation.  However, so far the control of dams has been left in the hands of multinational corporations, few jobs have been generated, energy has become more expensive for the workers and compensation has not been paid.

That is to say, there is a dictatorship installed against the people who live on the river banks. Not only are negative concrete and material impacts involved, such as flooding of forests, cities, schools, homes, but there are non-tangible and affective impacts too, because with the loss of a spatial relationship, other links are also lost such as family ties, community sharing, reference to surroundings – losses that directly affect “feelings,” causing serious damage to the health and welfare of the affected populations.

Changes in habits and economic derivations

We cannot place all the responsibility for unequal gender relationships on hydroelectric projects, but we do know that they have changed pre-existing conditions and that they tend to worsen them. Capitalist and patriarchal society is strengthened by the action of these companies regarding local and structural initiatives (where the dam is being or has been built) of the capitalist model.

The announcement that dams will be built triggers off different reactions and behaviour in men and women. In most cases it will be seen that women show strong resistance to leaving their territory and find it hard to assimilate the possibility of changes in their space. For their part, some of the men are more easily convinced and see a possibility of financial compensation for leaving the area. One of the factors justifying this is that, traditionally men relate to activities generating financial resources (money), while women do not. 

On residing in rural areas, most of the people affected by the dams have a close relationship with the land. They use natural resources mainly for food but also use other inputs for family consumption, such as infusions, firewood for cooking and heating, etc. In this respect, women are the first victims of environmental degradation, resulting in immeasurable losses for the communities depending on nature for sustenance.

This is corroborated by the fact that 70% of the families affected by dams in Brazil have not received compensation and in the few cases that their rights were recognized, the new area is much smaller than the previous one.  Thus, women lose their little peasant farms and their autonomy. They lose their vegetable patch or garden where they produce a variety of food (orchards, medicinal herbs and farm animals), the area where they experiment with seeds and store them, the area that enables them to supplement their income and enrich the family’s diet – spaces were women decide what they are going to plant, how they are going to do it, what seeds to grow, etc. 

This change not only implies the loss of a woman’s position of power and decision, but also an increase in her economic dependency, for instance in relation to the market and the pharmacy. In communities where, before the advent of the dam, the relationship with nature was maintained as a fundamental factor ensuring the continuity of their lifestyle, in the new context women are those most adversely affected and tend to suffer such negative impacts more deeply.

The process of emptying the communities that “remained” and were not affected by the flooding of the reservoir, has resulted in the loss of family ties, of relationships with the environment and with the emptying of community gathering places, such as the church.  As the communities are emptying, public transport becomes scarcer, rural schools and local health centres are closed down. It is possible to imagine the impact on the lives of women, who have to look after the family, the children, older people, the handicapped, etc. With the shortage and often the suspension of public transport, women’s mobility and their potential access to jobs, study and leisure activities become harder.

These populations were expropriated, not only in the legal sense of the word. These people who lived off the rivers and their banks lost their material working conditions and were uprooted, transplanted geographically and culturally, expropriated from a knowledge and tuning in with the physical environment, with their surroundings, with “abstract” values that are not only of great sentimental value but more importantly, as references that can never be rebuilt nor measured in terms of money.

Affective relationships and women’s health

Impoverishment and the trauma of the communities’ social rupture have a more serious effect on women, and particularly on their affective relationships and health.  In some cases, impoverishment, generated by forced displacement of people and the violent arrival of major works, increase lack of understanding and family de-structuring, abandoning of families, male migration to urban areas, increasing the number of homes where women are the heads of the family, facing the responsibility of bringing up children on their own. Increased domestic violence as a consequence of alcoholism is another effect made more serious by de-structured families and impoverishment.

Regarding health, it is common that home management and family welfare are the woman’s responsibility. It is she who controls what is available and what is missing and sees the need to “economise” available resources to ensure their existence for a longer time.  This is reflected in the food situation, although cultural models in different regions of the country reproduce gender inequality when food is distributed among the family. In some studies it has been observed that unequal food distribution among men and women in the family was recurrent, especial during greater scarcity, as was the case after the arrival of the dams.  “Women and girls are given a smaller helping or are excluded from some items considered as more “strength-giving” (meat for example) as their work is considered to be “light” and demanding “less energy replacement.” 

Regarding women’s health, the arrival of workers from other regions and states to build the dams and the resulting urbanization of the region are factors that can increase sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS. Cases of teen-age pregnancy also increase, and these mothers are immediately abandoned because once the dam is built, young workers move on somewhere else.

As if such “occasional” relationships were not enough, one of the strategies used by the companies is to hire young men to seduce the girls and thus come closer to their families with the aim of convincing them to leave the community peacefully and not to participate in activities organized by those affected by the building of the dam.  The installation of “prostitution businesses,” popularly known as “zones” near the workers’ housing has been observed. This strategy on the part of the companies is aimed at “entertaining” the workers who have been far from their families for some time.  In some cases the sale of women’s bodies is accompanied by the sale of teenagers for prostitution, possibly influencing and facilitating international trafficking in women.

The above mentioned facts are just some of the losses suffered by women as a result of dam building. The consequences on women are innumerable and our objective is to open them up for discussion, emphasizing the problems that directly affect the women who were forgotten over time, almost making gender issues invisible.  Possibly there are many other questions that need to be opened to discussion and taken up for analysis and deeper thought in order to enable women to be recognized as political subjects in the process of social transformation.

By the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens – Brazil, sent by Setor de Comunicação – MAB,  e-mail: imprensa@mabnacional.org.brwww.mabnacional.org.br