The communities of Gerais and Ressaca, located in the municipality of Piatã, in the region of Chapada Diamantina, state of Bahia, have been enduring intense conflict with the company Hayashi Batatas, a local agribusiness enterprise. Gerais is a small region in Piatã that lends its name to the traditional “fundo de fecho de pasto” community that lives there but has not been recognized by the State; Ressaca is a community of small-scale and family farmers.
Piatã is located in a territory where the regions of the Cerrado, Caatinga, Campos Rupestres, and Atlantic Forest enclaves meet, and is home to rare and endemic species of fauna and flora, typical of the Chapada Diamantina region. In addition, the communities in this location produce award-winning coffees, recognized both nationally and internationally, as well as a great diversity of other crops. The means of production and livelihood of these communities guaranteed for decades their food and water sovereignty in the territory.
The region is home to the sources of the Contas River hydrographic basin, which are protected, in part, by the Área de Relevante Interesse Ecológico Nascentes do Rio de Contas [Area of Relevant Ecological Interest Contas River Source], a conservation area of 4,771 hectares. The region is also home to water sources that contribute to two other important hydrographic basins of Bahia – Paraguaçu and Paramirim, a sub-basin of the São Francisco River. These rivers, without exception, traverse the most arid regions of the state and sustain water supply and productivity.
In disregard for this region’s environmental and social roles, it has been targeted for agribusiness developments and the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which employ conventional, high-water-demand production models. Such is the case with the dispute afflicting the communities of Gerais and Ressaca, provoked by the development of a large potato monoculture enterprise, a crop that demands high water consumption and pesticide use. The company intends to establish itself in the territory of the Gerais community. Ressaca, nearby, is the first community to be directly affected.
Conflict and threats to water resources
The conflict dates to the 1980s, when the Hayashi company began a land acquisition process in the community of Gerais. Since then, the residents have reported accounts of land grabbing, free-range animals dying, fences emerging, violent threats, and overall forcible change in their traditional livelihood, based on shared use of the areas known as “Geraizeiras” – hence the name Gerais. It is currently estimated that Hayashi, together with two other agribusiness companies (Progresso and Trebesque), hold almost 75% of the arable land in Gerais, totaling around 7,000 hectares.
This conflict intensified in 2013, when Hayashi, alongside Bagisa (an agribusiness company that would later sell its land to Trebesque company), began clearing the forest area at the bed of the Gritador stream, located within the community of Gerais, for the construction of an irrigation dam aimed at servicing the potato crops. The company grounded its action on Decree No. 14,389 of 2013, which, due to drought conditions at the time, exempted projects from environmental licensing requirements that were sensitive to water limitations and beneficial social needs.
The works were carried out for a period of 25 days, after which the water piped to 6 communities – Baixo Fundo, Vieira, Falhado, Tijuco, Capão da Ponte and part of Ressaca –, approximately 30 families, delivered mud to their taps. In response, a complaint was filed with the Instituto de Meio Ambiente e Recursos Hídricos [Institute for the Environment and Water Resources] (INEMA), an environmental agency established in Bahia, which, following an on-site inspection, embargoed the company’s work due to illegal removal of vegetation, not encompassed by the decree. The area subject to deforestation has never returned to its original state, and neither has the river flow rate.
The conflict resurfaced on October 19, 2020, when INEMA issued two ordinances (No. 21,671 and 21,672), authorizing Hayashi to clear 958.33 hectares of native vegetation at Piabas farm, located in the territory of the Gerais community.
Three days before these ordinances were issued, on October 16, there was a major fire that started in a property of Trebesque adjacent to Piabas farm. This company housed the tractors and trucks that were used by Hayashi for the deforestation operation carried out on its property, following the authorization by INEMA to clear the native vegetation at Piabas farm.
The fire started at approximately 11 am and quickly took major proportions. The locally established fire brigade, Altitude Ambiental, made up of residents of the Piatã municipality who work voluntarily and autonomously, fought the fire for almost 18 hours, preventing its further spread. Were it not for them, a large area of the Gerais community and the encompassing region would have burned, including Hayashi’s Piabas farm.
For the minutes of the meeting of Comitê de Bacia Hidrográfica do Rio de Contas [Contas River Basin Committee], which contains references to the legal proceedings pertaining to operating licenses and the permits for the construction of the dam in the region, including INEMA’s embargo.
The communities remain at risk
At the present, the ordinances are not observed as a result of an injunction issued by the Single Court of the District of Piatã, subject to state jurisdiction, in connection with a public civil action filed by the state’s district attorney. Following the company’s appeal, the injunction was affirmed by appellate court justice Maurício Kertzman Sporer, of Bahia’s State Court’s 2nd Civil Chamber. For unknown reasons, justice Sporer later recused himself from the case, claiming there was basis for disqualification. There is an understanding that the next justice to preside over the case might have views that favor agribusiness enterprises, and thus reinstate the ordinances authorizing the clearing of vegetation in the Gerais region of Piatã.
Despite remarks by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, INEMA has acted favorably to the company throughout the litigation process, a clear departure from its supervisory role, which should be guided by the precautionary principle and comply with existing environmental legislation.
The project proposed by agribusiness for the region of Gerais jeopardizes the livelihood of local communities and other communities located downstream of the Contas River, as well as the region’s fragile ecosystems. Access to water, both in quantity and quality, will be seriously compromised, by both the intense exploitation of watercourses and use of pesticides. This same model of agriculture and “development” led, in the municipalities of Mucugê and Ibicoara, also in Bahia, to drastic reduction in family farming, high concentration of income and land, as well as to a significant drop in access to water at these locations. The communities of the Gerais and Ressaca regions fear that the same will happen to them.
Frente Socioambiental de Piatã [Socio-Environmental Front of Piatã]