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The São Francisco River: A Centipede Learns to Dance

MAP of São Francisco River

The São Francisco River : A Centipede Learns to Dance

Brian Harvey


For most people, “Brazilian river” means the Amazon. If you tell someone you're working on inland fisheries in Brazil, the Amazon is where they expect you to be.

Except for Brazilians. For them, the “most important” river is the São Francisco. Up till now, the Amazon has gotten the international headlines, but the São Francisco has always been there, cutting through five states and supporting fifteen million people in more than 500 municipalities. They even have a nickname for it: “Velho Chico.” What kind of a river is this “Old Frank” that means so much to Brazilians yet is so little known outside the country?

The São Francisco is the fifth-largest river in South America. It arises in the high Atlantic Forest of mineral-rich Minas Gerais and flows nearly three thousand kilometres to the Atlantic. Thirty-two tributaries drain into the river, making up a basin that occupies ten per cent of the entire Brazilian land mass, comparable to the Danube or the Colorado.

The São Francisco is the lifeblood of Brazil 's semi-arid, poverty-stricken Northeast. Culturally, the São Francisco is the Brazilians' Nile, their Mississippi, their Ganges. It represents Brazilian history and identity, a place of extremes of climate and geography. Toward its outlet in the Atlantic, the baroque churches of the earliest European colonization still dazzle in the ferocious sun. In addition to its nickname, the São Francisco has an official Brazilian title: “ River of National Unity.”

More than a hundred years ago, the great British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton knew about the São Francisco, and during his sojourn as British Consul he actually rafted down it – a journey that has recently been replicated by more modern reporters and adventurers. The river of Burton 's time has been forever altered by development. The vital cycle of flooding has been enfeebled by a chain of dams, and irrigation on the banks has replaced the native vegetation with corridors of sugar cane, soybean and eucalyptus. In Burton 's time the river raced over innumerable rapids and thundered through the Paulo Afonso falls - the "Niagara of Brazil." The rapids are diminished now by the dams, many of the villages he saw are under water, and the people of the parched Northeast are still struggling to survive.

The river people have always been survivors, fighting drought that kept the rain away for years, and floods that brought catfish into the churches. Today they and their beloved river face a long list of environmental and social problems: pollution, dams, erosion, irrigation projects, destruction of bordering vegetation. Most of the communities along the rivers have no basic sanitation services; most are poor. And now, with the launching of the first stage of the controversial São Francisco Revitalization project, there's the very real prospect of more water being withdrawn from the river to feed the parched economies of the northern states of Ceara and Rio Grande do Norte.

Commercial fishing on the São Francisco, though once the source of much of the fish sold in the country's major cities, has never attained the size and organization of better-known systems like the Amazon. Now, marginalized fishing communities along the upper and middle river depend on a limited resource that is already reeling from development. Numbers of fish are severely diminished, and the remaining productive stretches of the river (such as the famed Pirapora rapids) are often sites of conflict between professional fishermen and anglers who have been drawn to the river for decades.

Water, electricity, agriculture, pollution, fish – on the São Francisco they're all inter-related. The PPA project works to improve better management of fisheries, but every activity of the project is caught up with all these issues, and more. The fisherman's life is inseparable from the fish, which depend in turn on floods erased in the name of electricity or soy beans, and have to compete with new species introduced at the whim of sport fishermen and fish farmers. The links go on and on, and the number of organizations involved makes progress painfully slow, like a centipede learning to dance. In the years to come, the eyes of the world will turn toward the São Francisco as the struggle over its waters continues – especially if large-scale diversions between river basins come to pass. Recuperating the river has already been labelled top priority by the Brazilian government, on a level with the country's famed “zero hunger” program, with annual appropriations in the billions of dollars. It's the hope of Project PPA that, by the time the mega-projects get off the ground, the centipede of the São Francisco will be, if not actually dancing, at least moving in the right direction.


Books and articles about São Francisco fish and fisheries

Migratory Fishes of South America (2004), Chapter 5: Migratory Fishes of the São Francisco River (online version), for more information & to purchase go to worldfish.org, also available on Amazon.com

Aguas, Peixes e Pescadores do São Francisco das Minas Gerais (2004)

Food resources sustaining the fish fauna in a section of the upper São Francisco River in Três Marias, MG, Brazil

Websites on the river

Projeto Manuelzão

Peixes e Pesca no Rio São Francisco

Transposition/revitalization of the Sao Francisco River

Transposição do Rio São Francisco

Recent Exploration

BBC Brasil.com - Repórter BBC refaz viagem pelo interior quase 150 anos depois

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