In the Southern border of Sao Paulo State, Brazil, there is a large valley surrounded by mountains and cut by a major river, Ribeira do Iguape, with an abundance of streams and small rivers forming a large hydrographic basin. The Vale do Ribeira (Ribeira Valley) features some of the planet’s highest levels of biodiversity, a cave complex with 253 caves registered and an archeological site that presents vestiges of human groups living in the area more than 12 thousand years ago—all of which attracts researchers and tourists. In 1993, the region was declared by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve and world heritage site. It’s a landscape of extraordinary beauty that’s been threatened by a financial group called CBA: Companhia Brasileira de Alumínio (Aluminum Brazilian Company), a constructor of dams for electrical power generation, putting this Brazilian people’s heritage site at risk of inundation.
In this valley lives a community whose history goes back to the colonization of Brazil by Portuguese explorers in search for gold in the region. They brought African slaves with them for gold digging and farming. After the precious metal was extinct, the Portuguese explorers moved to other Brazilian areas in search of gold, leaving their slaves behind, who then, freed, formed quilombos (African Brazilian communities of former slaves). Runaway slaves also made their escape through the Ribeira Valley’s forests to join these settlements and formed new communities, building a network of friendship and family ties. Currently, there are around 60 communities in the Ribeira Valley in Sao Paulo state and over 20 in Paraná state originating from old quilombos, which live from farming the land, in harmony with nature. These communities live in interaction with the white habitants of nearby towns and still preserve their customs, language inflections, music, dance, food and culture. For these people, the land is invaluable and they are all related. Their ties are not only by blood, but also by destiny, in the shared land. For them, the land is their own mother. In 1986, nuns from the religious Congregation of the Good Pastor (known as Pastorinhas) came for missionary work. In their visits to these communities, they became aware of the local concerns about projects involving the construction of four dams for hydroelectric power generation in the Ribeira do Iguape River. People didn’t know what would happen if the projects went through—what would happen with these communities? Sisters Maria Sueli Berlanga and Angela Biagioni didn’t know either. So they founded a research group to study the impact of the construction of the dams. From 1986 to 1989, they researched several hydroelectric power dams in different areas in Brazil and came to the following conclusion: the construction of dams in the region would be ultimately a human and ecological disaster, removing people from their land, destroying their origins and resources, the river, its fauna and flora, and all the communities living along the river. The sole objective of the project was to benefit a financial group. Their work resulted in the first demonstration against the construction of the dams, in 1989, and the voice was unanimous: “We don’t want a dam in the Ribeira Valley.” A commission was created to organize the threatened communities. The nuns, together with the communities, made the commitment to help them form leadership groups, to build awareness and organize people against any projects that may put lives at risk. They started an anthropological study with the communities so that they could be recognized as remaining from quilombos and thus have their land legalized, giving them the right of indemnification if the dams were constructed. At the same time, they began an intense social-political program to raise awareness about the value of life, the memory of their ancestors and their history, working with local women and all the black communities on the importance of preserving afro culture in the region.
The organization for the fight against the dams wasn’t limited to people from the black and quilombo communities. Sympathizers from the region’s cities and towns joined the movement: churches, environmental organizations, various institutions, unions, indigenous groups and caiçaras (native/white miscegenation groups originally from the coast.) It became necessary to have a place that could function as an office and would give support to the movement’s activities. It gained a name: MOAB – MOVIMENTO DOS AMEAÇADOS POR BARRAGENS (Movement for People Threatened by Dams). As an organized movement, the MOAB grew significantly. It became nationally and internationally known. It’s an organization that is respected for its policies concerning preservation of the environment, of traditional communities and the entire population of Vale do Ribeira, threatened by construction projects of hydroelectric power dams. It’s formed by people who defend life, preservation of community living and environment, legalization of quilombo land, valuing people and culture, and work for improving health, education, income and economic alternatives.
The MOAB is a movement that started in 1989. It completed 25 years of existence and resistance in 2014. The projects that threaten lives are still up in the air, but the communities have strengthened. The MOAB continues to develop several actions with the local communities to move the fight forward. The MOAB keeps going with its echoing shout “LAND YES. DAM NO!”