From its headwater in the Serra da Canastra National Park in southern Minas Gerais, the São Francisco River (Ribeira de São Francisco) pursues a northerly and then easterly journey for a total of 2,700 kilometers through four other states (Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe) before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean along the Sergipe–Alagoas border. The São Francisco River is known as the National Unity River because it linked northern and southern Brazil when navigation was the major form of transportation. Today, the Old Chico is embroiled in a major controversy, the interbasin water transference plan, known as the São Francisco Project.
The São Francisco River has 168 tributaries, but only 99 are permanent sources of water. It is a continuous although not entirely navigable source of water in a region affected by repeated drought. Minas Gerais is responsible for almost 75 percent of the river's flow, while the São Francisco's drainage area occupies approximately 640,000 square kilometers, or 8 percent of Brazilian territory that contains the same portion of the nation's population.
In addition to water, the river provides fish for human consumption and feeds people's imagination as the habitat for several mythological entities, including the gigantic snake-fish figure Minhocão. Nine hydroelectric stations along the Old Chico generate power for Brazilian cities, and water from the river and its tributaries irrigate nontraditional export crops, such as mangoes and grapes. The São Francisco basin acts as a sink for agricultural and urban runoff, including untreated domestic, commercial, and industrial sewage. Once primarily important for navigation, the river's main use has shifted to hydroelectric power generation and irrigation.
Although human activity has long degraded the São Francisco River, proposed development is even more worrisome. The government of President Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula), led by the Ministry of National Integration, intends to divert substantial water from the São Francisco to other parts of the Northeast through two canals. Interbasin water transference, an idea that has been discussed for a century, might now become reality. Popular mobilization, rallies, and lawsuits have opposed the São Francisco Project. In October 2005, a Roman Catholic bishop named Luiz Flávio Cappio undertook an 11-day hunger strike against the project that ended only after Lula promised to reopen dialogue on the issue. Resistance to the project ranges from the new management committee for the São Francisco, created by law in 2001, to the World Bank. Nevertheless, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis) (IBAMA) issued an implementation permit for the project in March 2007.
The venture raises important ecological and social questions related to the withdrawal of water from a degraded river environment, thereby denying people access to it, to support irrigation and aquaculture schemes needed for export agriculture. Even the federal government's Revitalization Project, intended to restore the São Francisco River's environment, has not reduced opposition to the São Francisco Project. As of 2011, the project remains bogged in delays and lawsuits. Currently, the Brazilian Supreme Court has stopped work on the project because of irregularities related to the workers.
See also Agriculture; Hydroelectric Power.