This collection of posts was originally published over at Transparency International and reposted with their and the author’s kind permission.
Piauí is one of the poorest, driest states in Brazil, with a sliver of coastline and hectares of arid savannah. Most of the economic activity is clustered around the tourist industry on the coast. But those inland are having their livelihoods threatened by the lack of water.
From 10-24 July 2013, dozens of people marched from town to town in the dusty interior of Piauí, a state in the north east bulge of Brazil, to demand accountability and an end to corruption in the water sector. The march was organized by A Forca Tarefa Popular (the People’s Taskforce) with support from Amarribo Brasil and Transparency International. In the towns and municipalities along the way, the marchers helped the people confront their local administrations and review their public accounts to monitor spending and highlight corruption.
In 2013, the March was in its 12th edition. It started in the small town of Guaribas, 700 kilometres from the state capital Teresina, to verify how federal funds that were supposed to help bring water to the people have been used.
Lirian Pádua, a journalism graduate who works as a reporter, editor, and photographer, is volunteering for the NGO Batra (Bauru Transparente), a member of Amarribo Brasil’s network. She accompanied the march and this is her story.
About 25 volunteers from a number of different organisations gathered today in Guaribas, a town of 4,800 in the arid bushland in the south of Piauí, 700 kilometres from the state capital Teresina. We picked Guaribas because it has one of the lowest human development scores in the state and is famous for being the place where former president Lula Inacio de Silva launched the Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) campaign in 2003.
One of the first places we visited was where they were supposed to build a memorial to Zero Hunger and a cultural centre. It had been started eight years ago but was never finished. What we found was a disused building filled with broken computers, dusty sewing machines and even a room filled with text books published in 2013 strewn across the floor alongside school report cards, graduation certificates and birth certificates.“It’s revolting to see these books. This is a waste of public money. People pay taxes to pay for education but it must be accounted for,” said Nicole Verillo, one of the marchers and Amarribo’s Institutional Development Director. According to one resident of Gauribas, children in school have to share books: “There aren’t enough to go round. We’d like to know why they are hidden here. This corruption affects my life, my daughter’s and all poor people.”
We also went to see if streets that were supposed to be paved had in fact been paved and whether they now had electricity as promised. Unfortunately we were disappointed. When we went to the council offices these were shut and none of the nine representatives would meet us. We also went to the town hall but the mayor wasn’t there and no one could answer our questions.
Hope is what drives the population of the small town of Cajueiro, an arid, isolated community in the south-western corner of Piauí, Brazil. The approximately 2,000 people who live here have poor access to water and any kind of communication. There is no phone signal, internet or postal service.
The biggest problem facing the village, however, is the lack of water. “I know this is directly linked to corruption,” said Cláudia (name has been changed), a young teacher at the local school. According to her, the distribution of water is political. “Normally, only those who support the administration receive water”, she says.
Cláudia explained how, when the water trucks come, they only visit families who support the officials. Outraged, she demanded that her family and others should get water too. “Now the truck comes to my home, but others remain excluded from access to water.”
We met Cláudia on the second day of our March Against Corruption and for Life after our group of 25 activists walked the 30 hot kilometres to the village from Guaribas.
Igor, one of the marchers from São Paulo, takes up the story. “We were exhausted and were waiting for the rest of the marchers to catch up as we arrived in Cajueiro. Suddenly, we looked towards a hill and saw something we never imagined in the middle of the wilderness: a group of women and children holding large posters. We forgot how tired and sore we were and went to greet the villagers.”
The posters called for the village not to be forgotten: they called for access to information and a way to hold public officials to account.
Water is a great concern in Cajueiro. The water trucks only come once a month and deliver 7,000 litres per family, regardless of its size.
Cláudia lives in a house of 10 people. “The 7,000 litres are for drinking, cooking, bathing, water for the animals and all the rest.” (7,000 litres is the equivalent of about 10 sinks full of water a day.)
Because this is not enough, Cláudia and the other villagers have to go to the well every day to draw water and it is not always clean. “When it rains, the water goes down a creek and then we can drill a hole that is about eight metres deep. We use a ladder and climb down with a bucket,” she says. The last time it rained in Cajueiro was three months ago.
Despite the drought and hard conditions the villagers stick together. “It is a close knit community. Challenges and solidarity make us stronger”, she says.
“I have a dream”, says Cláudia. She wants to become a doctor to help her village one day. At present the village gets a visit from a doctor just once a week and he or she can only see 15 patients, which means that some people either have to wait or go to another, farther place to get help. “I want to be a doctor to serve those who need help, regardless of how many there are. If people are sick, I will work day and night”, she says.
Helping activate the activists
On the evening that we arrived in the village, the marchers organised a talk that was attended by more than 100 people who came to learn about how to advocate for their rights. Cláudia and others want to now form an association to monitor local government spending.
“We want things to get better in our community. We want water, better education, infrastructure, health and sanitation. I want to fight to change the situation. I want to continue living in the village. This place is my life”, she says.
The NGOs organizing the march, Amarribo Brasil, A Força Tarefa Popular and the Institute for Oversight and Control, will help the villagers form an NGO of their own and will integrate their work into that of the wider Amarribo network.
Between the towns of Caracol and Jurema, in the small neighbourhood of Pitombeiras we saw just what a difference water can make and the damaging effects of what we call the drought industry. This was day three of our march against corruption in the dry, heartland of Brazil’s north eastern state of Piaui.
On one side of the road was a plot of land, rich with produce that could clearly sustain a whole family. Barely 200 metres further on, there was a different picture: a lake without a drop of water and dry, cracked ground.
Lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, melons and other fruits and vegetables, even flowers, can grow in the transformed soil of Piaui. This was all the work of Gisele and Thiago’s family. A few years ago, Thiago dug a well and since then the family was able to start cultivating the property. The result not only feeds the family but Gisele takes the surplus around the community on her bicycle and sells it.
“We never got any help from the government. When the water runs out, I dig deeper. Today my well shaft is more than 11 metres deep”, said Thiago who added that his brother and his brother-in-law had also found water on their land and are now able to live off agriculture.
Water allows the family to be independent.
According to Francisco de Assis Soares, a member of one of the NGOs on the march (Ação Cearense de Combate à Corrupção e a Impunidade – Action to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Ceará), if there was political will the problem of drought could be solved. “There are solutions but those in power aren’t interested. They have no interest in people in the North East becoming financially independent because if that were the case politicians would lose a means to be elected.”
An independent citizen, according to Francisco, would not sell his or her vote. Someone who relies on government assistance to survive is much more easily influenced by politicians’ promises.
Without water, people are dependent on the water trucks and those do not come regularly.
This sad image of the cracked and dried out lake where families live in hope of a water delivery was made even worse by the fact that across the lake there’s actually a pump. We were told by the villagers, however, that it has never brought up a single drop of water.
“This is not just a problem of a dry climate; it’s a problem of bad management of public resources, corruption and inefficient administration. We’ve come across abandoned public works proving that drought and hunger are the result of poor governance,” reports Arimatéia Dantas, the founder and organizer of the march.
In an attempt to improve these frustrating conditions, we have sent invitations to the authorities to come a public meeting to discuss the situation when we reach the end of our march in São Raimundo Nonato next week.
The 12th March against corruption that wound its way through the arid countryside of Piauí came to end last week. Along the way in Jurema, Anísio de Abreu, São Braz and São Raimundo Nonato we checked up on public works and talked to people about how they can demand their rights from local government. In addition to this we also visited smaller communities where we saw the terrible problems people have to survive because of the lack of water, basic sanitation and poor public services.
Nevertheless, it’s not all sad in Piauí. During our journey we had the opportunity to get to know some exceptional people who, despite the tough climate, poverty and lack of public support remain very happy. They may have wrinkles because of their hard lives and the unpitying sun, but these people of the sertão always seem to be able to smile.
We found this at the party organized by the people of Novo Horizonte in the district of São Raimundo Nonato. As we reached the village we were welcomed by fireworks and music and even after our 16 kilometres on the road, their wonderful energy was contagious and we all started singing and dancing.
Part of the reason we marched was to confront the local governments with the issues about the lack of public works and the supply of water. We saw many building works that were either not finished or were not what had been planned. We went to the local government offices but many were shut.
However, the Chief of the Regional General Comproller of Piauí, Orlando Vieira de Castreo Jr, was very responsive to our claims. With us, he visited the community of Veredas and saw with his own eyes that people there didn’t have water despite the fact that they were promised access to water four years ago. The building works were supposed to be financed with federal resources but they were never finished. According to Mr. Vieira the evidence suggests that the funds could have been siphoned off. For this reason he wrote formally to the General Comprotoller in Brasilia to start a proper investigation into the case.
Along the way we found many other examples of unfulfilled promises. In São Raimundo Nonato, in the village of Caldeirãozinho, for example, we met Maria de Oliveira Ribeiro, 81, who had two water tanks in front of her house. She told us that she and her family could only use about 100 litres of water between them each day for drinking, cooking and cleaning and this didn’t come from the tanks but from a truck that only passed through the village once every three months. “This is the worst drought we have ever been through. We have no water for plants or animals”, she said.
Local residents report that the water tanks cost 1.5 million reais (US$660,000) to build and were supposed to serve about 1,000 families in an 80 kilometre radius. According to Maria, when the work was finished in 2011, the tanks were filled to overflowing. “Water ran like a river in front of the house but the water never flowed through the pipes to the other families.” Today it’s different. Maria says there’s water under the ground “but the tanks have no water, just air.”