Protesters attempt to stop Brazil river project

Protesters have invaded the site where army engineers are beginning work on a huge river-diversion project meant to irrigate Brazil's arid northeast.

The protesters - a coalition of environmentalists, land reform activists and Truka Indians - are seeking to halt work on the project they claim will cause widespread damage to the 3,160 kilometer (1,600 mile) Sao Francisco River, Brazil's fourth-largest.

The protesters, monitored by police, have camped out since Tuesday on part of the site where military engineers are surveying the spot where the river will be diverted into a new channel.

"The process, as it has been conducted up until now, has not been democratic ... and that discredits the project," the protesters said in a statement.

The project, estimated to cost US$2 billion (1.6 billion EUR), will speed the river's flow to the sea, causing parts of the river to dry up, the protesters say. They also claim it would principally benefit large agribusiness interests and builders.

Mayor Eudes Caldas of Cabrobo, a small town in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, near where the diversion will take place, estimated the number of protesters had grown from 200 on Tuesday to about 800 on Wednesday. The demonstrators said there were 1,500 people among their ranks

"The situation is under control," Caldas said in a telephone interview. He added that federal government officials had arrived to negotiate with the protesters and that police are awaiting a court order to remove them.

Caldas said the protesters, who were camped out under tarpaulins in lean-tos, had only partially succeeded in stopping work on the project.

Protesters also claim the government failed to honor its promise to Roman Catholic Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio, who held an 11-day hunger strike in Cabrobo 2005 in an attempt to stop diversion of the river.

Cappio called off his hunger strike only after the federal government agreed to halt the project until it could be submitted to ample public discussion.

The government says that changing the river's course will benefit some 12 million poor people.