Rebellion in the Brazilian Amazon

[Source – Americas Program]

During the month of March 2011 the biggest social protest by workers in many years erupted in Brazil. More than 80,000 workers all over the country paralyzed the work of “progress” in the form of hydroelectric plants, refineries, and thermoelectric generating facilities. The spark of the protest was lit in Jirau, in the Amazon jungle, provoked by arbitrary action, violence, and authoritarianism.

It all started with something very small, just like in Tunisia, the way all great social events begin. It was a fight involving a worker and a bus driver, on the afternoon of March 15, at the camp where thousands of laborers from the poorest regions of Brazil are building one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the country, a gigantic project on the Madeira River that will cost ten billion dollars.

Soon after the fight, in which the laborer was beaten, hundreds of workers began to set fire to the buses that take them from their barracks to the worksite. Some sources mention 45 buses and another 15 vehicles burned, but others raise the toll of buses burned to 80, in just a few minutes. The offices of the construction firm, Camargo Correa,[1] also burned, along with half the workers’ dormitories and at least three bank ATMs. Some 8,000 workers went into the jungle to escape the violence. The police were overwhelmed, and only managed to protect the facilities where the explosives used to alter the course of the river are stored. Calm was only restored when the national government headed by president Dilma Rousseff sent 600 troops of the military police to take control of the situation. But the workers, numbering around 20,000 in the Jirau site, went back to their places of origin rather than returning to work.

At the nearby Santo Antonio construction site a work stoppage began that involved the 17,000 workers who are building yet another generating plant on the Madeira River near Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia. In just a week the wave of strikes spread through the huge worksites: 20,000 workers left their jobs at the Abreu e Lima refinery in Pernambuco, another 14,000 at the Saupe petrochemical plant in the same city, 5,000 in Pecém, in the state of Ceará. What these strikes have in common is that they all have taken place in the gigantic projects of the Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimiento–PAC), and they have challenged the biggest construction firms in the country, the Brazilian multinationals contracted by the national government.

The Dams on the Madeira River

The Madeira River is the main tributary of the Amazon. Starting at the convergence of the Beni and Mamoré Rivers near the city of Vila Bela on the border of Brazil and Bolivia, it is 4,207 km long, one of the 20 longest rivers in the world and one of the top 10 in volume. It is fed by runoff from the Andes mountains in Bolivia and southern Peru, and thus has great potential for hydroelectrical generation.

Brazil’s growth plans require huge amounts of electrical energy, and national planners take the position that the rivers of the Amazon basin are underutilized. The plan for the Madeira River is to build four hydroelectric dams, of which two, Jirau and Santo Antonio in the Brazilian stretch between the Bolivian border and Porto Velho, are already under construction. The Jirau dam, 150 km from the state capital, will produce 3,350 megawatts, and Santo Antonio will have the capacity for 3,150 megawatts. These two projects are priorities of the Growth Acceleration Program, which seeks to connect the isolated systems of Acre state (adjacent to Rondônia) and Maranhão (on the Atlantic coast to the north) to the national electrical distribution grid. [2]

According to several analysts, the overall plan is to use the hydroelectric potential of the Amazon to benefit the regions of Brazil’s Center-South, which have the largest industrial concentrations, and to supply electrical power to those sectors that are intensive users of energy, such as mining, metal refining, and cement production. This will also support the agroindustrial sector, the “driving force of the Brazilian connection to the Pacific.” [3]

An expansion is taking place from the historic core region of the national economy, in São Paulo and the southern states, toward the north, where the great hydroelectric projects are being developed, along with the expansion of the highway system and growth of livestock and mining. President Lula launched the Growth Acceleration Program in early 2007 with enormous investments over four years of 503 billion dollars, equivalent to 23% of Brazil’s Gross National Product at the time. Leaving aside the petroleum sector, the biggest investment, of 78 billion dollars, was in electrical energy generation and transmission.

In 2010 PAC 2 was launched, with three times more resources, approaching one trillion dollars over 4 years. The production of electrical energy is one of the largest investment sectors. Brazil had a total installed electrical generation capacity of 106,000 megawatts in 2009, including hydro, thermal, petroleum, and nuclear sources. Hydroelectric power produced 75,500 megawatts in that year, but the potential generating capacity of its rivers is 260,000 megawatts, the largest of any country in the world. In other words, “only” 30% of its potential is being utilized.[4]

The National Energy Plan 2030 envisions reaching 126,000 megawatts of hydroelectric energy by the latter year, an increase of 65%, most of which would be concentrated in the Amazon and Tocantins river basins.[5] To double power generation along the jungle rivers, as proposed in the “Brazil 2022” plan, immense projects would have to be built in a very short time. The Jirau project was approved in May 2008, to be built by a consortium called Sustainable Energy of Brazil, including Suez Energy with 50.1%, Camargo Correa with 9.9%, Eletrosul with 20%, and the Companhia Hidroelétrica de São Francisco (CHESF) with 20%. The initial cost was set at 5.5 billion dollars, financed by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES).

From the start, the project was the target of criticism and accusations. It puts at risk indigenous groups who have chosen voluntary isolation. The National Environmental Institute (IBAMA) approved the project in July 2007 under political pressure and contrary to the opinion of its own technical experts. The consortium moved the site of the dam to a location 9 km downriver to reduce costs, with no study of the environmental impact of such a change. In February 2009 IBAMA decided to stop work on the project because it was using the new site without authorization, and imposed a heavy fine.[6] In June 2009, however, the definitive environmental permits to proceed were issued in the midst of protests and demonstrations by environmental groups.

Bolivia also criticized the project so near its borders, due to concerns that the large lakes behind the dams could increase the incidence of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.[7] According to the Brazilian media cases of malaria had increased 63% in the area of the project in the first seven months of 2009, over the previous year.

Rebellion in the Jungle

The two projects now under construction employ about 40,000 workers, 70% of whom are from other Brazilian states. At Jirau alone there are some 20,000 employees, the great majority poorly paid laborers (wages are around 1,000 reais per month, about 600 dollars). They come to the isolated jungle work sites from distant places in the northeast, far north, and even the south of Brazil, many times tricked by labor recruiters (called gatos, “cats”) who promise them wages and working conditions better than the reality. All of them must pay the gatos for the “services” they provide.

When they arrive on the site workers are already in debt, and food and medicines are more expensive because they must be purchased from company stores. Many are housed in wooden barracks where they sleep on mattresses on the floor. The bathrooms are few and distant, there is no electricity, and they are crowded. Maria Ozânia da Silva, of the Pastoral of the Migrant in Rondônia, says that the workers “feel frustrated by their wages, and for the deductions from them made with no explanation.”[8]

The first problem they complain about is that Camargo Correa, the company in charge of Jirau, does not pay overtime. But the “revolt of the laborers” is not about wages, but about dignity, says journalist Leonardo Sakamoto. The ten main demands of the protesters include: putting a stop to the aggressive actions of supervisors and security guards, who use private jails; respectful treatment of those who come into the barracks when inebriated; an end to the moral harassment of office workers and laborers; payment for transportation time when the trip to the worksite is long; efficient service in the dining halls so that the wait in line doesn’t take up the time for rest after the meal; and payment for rations that is based on local prices.[9]

According to Sakamoto the laborers of today have a profile quite different from those who worked in construction in the 1990s. Today they use cell phones and the internet, they know what is happening in world, they are proud of dressing well, they demand respectful treatment and they often use the word “dignity.” They are bothered by the precarious condition of the buildings and dormitories as well as the isolation far from their families, and the least mistreatment sets them off. Silvio Areco, an engineer with experience on large projects, notes the change: “Before, whoever gave the orders on the worksite was almost a colonel, he had authority. Nowadays that doesn’t work. A common laborer has more independence.”[10]

The companies are in a hurry because the work tends to fall behind schedule, so they put pressure on the workers. In September 2009 the Ministry of Labor freed 38 people who worked in slavery-like conditions, and in June 2010 it reported 330 violations of labor conditions at Jirau.[11] The main problem is insecurity. In Da Silva’s opinion the migrants become an easy target for labor recruiters and construction companies because they have no protection from abuses.

But the problems are not limited to the workplace. Aluisio Vidal is the pastor of Jaci-Paraná, a town near Jirau, and the president of the Party of Socialism and Freedom (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade—PSOL) for the state of Rondônia. He complains of the increase in crime and prostitution. Between 2008 and 2010 the population of Porto Velho grew 12% (it has half a million inhabitants), but in the same period homicides increased 44% and according to the child protection court the abuse of minors increased some 76% in that time.[12]

According to the social activist organizations in the region, joined together in the Amazon Rivers Alliance (Aliança dos Rios da Amazônia), “All possible problems are concentrated in Jirau: At an uncontrolled pace, the project has brought to the region the ‘development’ of prostitution, drug abuse among young fishermen and in riverbank settlements, real estate speculation, a rise in food prices, unattended disease, and all types of violence.”[13]

Elias Dobrovolski, a coordinator in the Movement of those Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens—MAB) who has followed the situation of the workers since the beginnings of the project, states that the districts around Jirau are experiencing very serious problems. “Towns that had two thousand inhabitants now house 20,000. There is no infrastructure for so many people—not enough schools, health clinics, nor police to support all the people that came in with the projects.”[14]

In addition to all this, the huge projects of the Growth Acceleration Program have above-average rates of job-related deaths. The Brazilian construction industry has a rate of 23.8 deaths per 100,000 workers, and in PAC projects the rate is 19.7. In the United States the equivalent number is 10 per 100,000, in Spain it is 10.6, and in Canada 8.7. The Brazilian figure is higher than it should be because the large construction firms “have sufficient technology to protect the workers.”[15] The Movement of those Affected by Dams also denounces work days longer than 12 hours, and epidemics in the worksites.

To make matters worse, the companies hired ex-colonels suspected of committing sabotage to bring criminal accusations against the unions.[16] The revolt attacked the symbols of power. “Witnesses of the attacks said that the men who came to destroy the living quarters first set fire to those of the supervisors and engineers.”[17]

Unions, Business, and Government

Those employed in civil construction in Brazil exceeded 1.8 million in 2006, and 2.8 million in 2010. Unemployment in the construction sector is only 2.3%. The unions estimate that when the infrastructure projects are in full swing, including those related to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games of 2016, the projects included in the Growth Acceleration Program alone will have a million workers. This is overwhelming to both the companies and the unions.

The revolt of the laborers in Jirau took everyone by surprise—government, business owners, and the unions. Víctor Paranhos, president of the construction consortium, said: “It is troubling because we don’t know the motive. There are not even leaders.”[18] The union leaders’ position is curiously similar. “In these revolts in Jirau we perceive that there is no leader who could negotiate a truce,” said Paulo Pereira da Silva, of the union group Força Sindical.[19] The Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), not to be left out, defended the government against the workers: “They have to return to work. I am Brazilian and I want to see this plant in operation.[20]

This shared culture of business and organized labor, which tries to redirect social protest into institutional channels and smother it with the massive police presence (the government sent in 600 members of the military police), fails to comprehend that the revolt is not only nor even mainly about wages. Groups such as MAB, the indigenous people, and the church-affiliated social movements have a different reading of the situation. “The revolt is a result of authoritarianism and the drive for accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of both nature and the workers,” says a statement by the Movement of those Affected by Dams. [21]

In the opinion of the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, neither the left nor the environmentalists were sensitive to what was behind the Jirau revolt. The sites of the movements barely covered the conflict. “The violence of the revolt in Jirau and that of the Arabs is similar, but the reception here, in both cases, was negative,” said the journalist Janio de Freitas.[22]

On April 5 the workers of Santo Antonio returned to work after 10 days on strike, following a vote of the membership in favor of an agreement between the CUT and the Odebrecht firm. The accord includes an early increase in wages of 5% in anticipation of further negotiations, an increase in the food stipend from 110 to 132 reals, and five days leave every three months to make family visits home, with a right to airfare.[23] Work at Jirau remained suspended after 20 days, awaiting negotiations with Camargo Correa.

As the report on “The Rebelion in Jirau” notes, “The Growth Acceleration Program is the synthesis of the developmentalist model that reproduces the project of a grandiose Brazil from the era of Getúlio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek, and the military dictatorship. It is a model based on huge projects, in particular on the exploitation of energy and its consumption by an emerging nation focused on commodity export.”[24] That plan for Brazil’s exponential growth ends up converting the Amazon and all its resources into commodities. It has few organized opponents, since the vision is shared by labor and business, left and right, government and opposition.

The Movement of those Affected by Dams (MAB) has been resisting what it considers a dispossession for 20 years now. Its motto is “water and energy are not commodities.” The Jirau revolt is the response of the poorest sector, the laborers of Brazil, to the ambitious project of modernization and the deepening of capitalism. Gilberto Cervinski, of MAB, summarizes the problem: “To build the generating plants of the Madeira River is to open the Amazon region to dozens of other hydroelectric projects, without even discussing questions that we believe are fundamental: Energy for what? And for whom?” [25]

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (

Translation by Dr. Thomas H. Holloway


Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira (COIAB), 24 March 2011.

Efraín León Hernández, “Energía amazónica. La frontera energética amazónica en el tablero geopolítico latinoamericano,” Posgrado de Estudios Latinoamericanos, UNAM, México City, 2007.

Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, “A rebelião de Jirau,” in Conjuntura da Semana, 28 March 2011.

Maria Ozânia da Silva (Pastoral do Migrante de Rondônia), interview in IHU Online, 14 March 2011.

“Manifesto de apoio aos operários e atingidos do Madeira,” MST, CPT, CUT y MAB, 31 March 2011.

Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of Those Affected by Dams-MAB),

“Trabalhadores de Jirau dizem ser tratados como bandidos,” Folha de São Paulo, 21 March 2011.

[1] One of Brazil’s large construction firms, which employs 60,000 people and has built part of the infrastructure of South America.

[2] Efraín León Hernández, op cit p. 137.

[3] Idem p. 138.,

[4] Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica (ANEEL), Atlas de energia elétrica do Brasil, Brasília, 2008, p. 57.

[5] Idem.

[6] Folha de São Paulo, 19 February 2009.

[7] O Globo, 13 March 2009.

[8] Interview with Maria Ozânia da Silva, IHU Online, 14 March 2011.

[9] “A luta por respeito e dignidade”, Leonardo Sakamoto en

[10] Folha de São Paulo, 20 March 2011.

[11] Leonardo Sakamoto, idem.

[12] “A rebelião de Jirau”, IHU Online, op cit.

[13] TheAlliance includes the Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre, Aliança Tapajós Vivo, Movimento Rio Madeira Vivo, and Movimento Teles Pires Vivo.

[14] “O conflito em Jirau é apenas o início do filme,” IHU Online, 24 March 2011.

[15] “Mortes em obras do PAC estão acima dos padrões,” O Globo, 26 March 2011.

[16] Nota do MAB, 18 March 2011 at

[17] O Estado de São Paulo, 19 March 2011.

[18] O Estado de São Paulo, 18 March 2011.

[19] “Dilma quer saída para greves em obras do PAC,” Jornal Valor, 24 March 2011.

[20] “A rebeliao de Jirau,” op cit.

[21] MAB, 17 March 2011.

[22] “Depois da hora certa,” Folha de São Paulo, 20 March2011.

[23] CUT, 4 April 2011 at

[24] IHU Online, 28 March 2011.

[25] Idem.

This post is also available in: Spanish