Bishop collapses during hunger strike to save Brazilian river

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The Independent US

A Catholic bishop in the third week of a hunger strike against a 1.8bn plan to divert one of Brazil's largest rivers has collapsed after learning that the project will go ahead.

Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio lost consciousness late on Wednesday following a Supreme Court ruling that restarted construction work on Brazil's largest infrastructure project. The bishop had been on hunger strike for almost 24 days in a bid to stop what he claims will be an environmental catastrophe for the Sao Francisco river.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is a strong supporter of plans to divert the continent's fourth largest river, claiming that it will bring drinking water to millions of people in the arid north-east of the country. However, environmental groups say that the plan will benefit big business interests and be a death sentence for the badly depleted river, threatening what remains of its bio-diversity.

The bishop has attracted a growing number of supporters to a dam in the state of Bahia where he has been fasting and praying. He has defied his own council of bishops by going on hunger strike and become an international embarrassment to President Lula, who has refused to halt the project and appealed to the Vatican to persuade the bishop to abandon his protest.

The bishop has lost 18lb since he began refusing food on 27 November and is suffering from renal failure. He has only consumed filtered river water with sugar.

President Lula, a former union leader, has disappointed environmentalists in his two terms in office, sidelining his respected Environment Minister Marina da Silva and signing off on a string of ecologically disastrous public works including the damming of the Amazon and Sao Francisco rivers.

The irrigation project aims to pump water from the already depleted Sao Francisco through more than 400 miles of canals to the dry, impoverished north-eastern states.

Opponents argue that cheaper and more effective measures are available to the government, if its true aim is to benefit the poor. Brazil's national water board proposed an alternative that would build cisterns and smaller canals to take water to 44 million of Brazil's poorest people at a third of the cost of the current scheme.

Green groups who have studied the government's proposals point out that 70 per cent of the water would be drained by the shrimp industry, with steel plants absorbing much of the rest, leaving only four per cent for human consumption.

Bishop Cappio successfully forced the government to shelve the scheme two years ago after a lengthy hunger strike. However, the promised public consultation that was meant to follow did not take place. The Supreme Court on Wednesday quashed the decision of a lower court to halt the works on the grounds that an environmental impact study had not been correctly carried out. Preliminary work has already begun after the government deployed the army.

In an open letter to President Lula written before the hunger strike Bishop Cappio wrote: "Mr President, you did not keep your word. You did not abide by your agreement. You betrayed me and all of Brazilian society."

The Sao Francisco river rises in the eastern state of Minas Gerais and wends its way almost 1,865 miles north through five states before pouring into the Atlantic Ocean. But the once mighty river has slowed to a trickle because of dam building.

Environmentalist Ruben Siqueira of the Land Pastoral Commission said: "The river just hasn't got enough water for the government's project."

Government representatives deny this and insist the diversion will not affect river flow.