Environmental and social aggression

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Bruna Pastro Zagatto & Luiz Enrique Vieira de Souza*

Since the end of August, the Brazilian population has watched desolately as the northeastern coast is contaminated with oil spills. So far, the records already indicate more than two hundred affected locations, which extend from Maranhão to the coast of southern Bahia. According to the president of Petrobrás, Roberto Castello Branco, the leak is already the “greatest environmental aggression” in the country’s history, and the volumes found on the beaches would be comparable to the leak from the rig. Deepwater Horizon, operated by British Petrol, in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“Environmental aggression” was also the expression used by the Commander of the Brazilian Navy to refer to the case, also stating that “in military terms, it is as if Brazil had suffered an attack”. This pronouncement takes on a rather emblematic character because it does not offer convincing explanations for the fact that, despite the magnitude of the leak, the Navy has so far not been able to trace its origins and thus hold those responsible for what happened.

No less astonishing was the ineptitude of the federal government to react to the catastrophe, completely ignoring the measures provided for in the National Contingency Plan for Incidents of Oil Pollution in Waters under National Jurisdiction (decree 8127, December 2013). Instead of acting like a head of state and assessing possible environmental mitigation actions, Bolsonaro took the alleged Venezuelan origin of the oil to continue the ideological fight against the neighboring country and thus exempt himself from his responsibilities. In the absence of a president worthy of the post, the northeastern population embodied the spirit of citizenship and took responsibility for cleaning the beaches, often without having the most basic safety equipment and risking their own health to remove, even partially, the waste. of the leak.

The environmental impacts that result from this crime involve long-term consequences for both marine ecosystems and human health. The oil spilled in the Atlantic Ocean spreads with the movement of the tides, jeopardizes biodiversity and has led countless animals to death by suffocation. On the other hand, even if some species of fish and shellfish are more resilient, they accumulate highly toxic substances in their bodies, such as benzene, which has a high carcinogenic potential. In this way, walking on contaminated sands, bathing in the sea or eating fish from the Northeast cease to be idyllic experiences and become real risks to the health of tourists and residents of the region.

The results of the oil spill are also disastrous when one takes into account the damage they cause to some of the region's main economic pillars. In several cities on the coast of Bahia, a considerable part of the economically active population draws their source of income from activities aimed at tourism, so that they will inevitably fall upon them with an increase in anxiety about job prospects.

This concern also affects the communities of fishermen and shellfish gatherers, as the impacts of oil on corals and the ecosystem compromise of mangroves affect the food chain and the reproduction habitat of fish and other seafood. This explains the speech by Eliete Paraguaçu, leader of the Movement of Fishermen and Fisherwomen of Bahia (MPP) who, during the occupation of IBAMA headquarters in Salvador, stated that the fishing families were literally starving, because in addition to having been recommended not to eat their fish, nor could they find buyers for what they brought in their boats.

In this context, it is worth calling attention to the letter addressed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos to the governor of Bahia on October 27th. In the letter to Rui Costa, the Portuguese sociologist conveys his solidarity with the northeastern people and takes the opportunity to recall the history of struggles of the fishing communities of Ilha de Maré (Salvador), which has been suffering for decades from episodes of environmental contamination.

Boaventura used his intellectual prestige to reinforce, before the governor, the fishermen's claim to participate in contamination monitoring operations and contingency plans, a desire that was more than fair in light of his deep knowledge and dependence on the marine environment to guarantee the survival itself.

“I visited it [Ilha de Maré] several times and learned from this community an extraordinary lesson in dignity and tenacity in defending its way of life and its community economy, which impressed me a lot and remained forever etched in my memory. I was especially impressed by knowing that, while fighting for the quality of their lives, the women and men of Ilha de Maré were fighting for the quality of life for all of us and they were doing so in the worst conditions and in the midst of discrimination, silencing and misunderstandings, which generated in me a deep feeling of injustice and an unshakable desire to feel not only solidary with this community, but above all above all to feel part of it.”

The fishing communities mentioned by Boaventura had already been protagonists of the movement that fought for environmental justice in 2007, when Baía de Todos os Santos experienced the episode known as the “red tide”, which at the time represented the biggest ecological disaster in its history.

More than 50 tons of fish and shellfish appeared dead from asphyxiation on the beaches and surrounding cities and, although the authorities characterized the phenomenon as due to natural causes, analyzes carried out by oceanographers and marine biologists concluded that its true causes were related to pollution. of water due to lack of sanitary sewage and emission of industrial waste. As a result of the contamination, fishing was banned for a few months that year, but there was no change in sanitation policies and no investigation of responsibilities for toxic effluents.

Since the 1980s, movements of fishermen and environmentalists have denounced the contamination of the waters and the deterioration of the mangroves in the Baía de Todos os Santos by industrial waste. The state environmental agency at the time (formerly the Environmental Resources Center) was being charged for issuing licenses granted to highly polluting companies, which harmed the way of life and the health of the local population. This systematic degradation of the environment is due to developmentalist policies applied in the region since the 1950s, when oil extraction platforms and the Landulpho Alves refinery were built.

These investments implied the need to build outlets for production, which led to the inauguration of the Port of Aratu (1975), boosted industrial development in Bahia and helped to make the Aratu Industrial Center and the Camaçari Petrochemical Complex viable. In the municipalities of Candeias and Simões Filho, several chemical industries were installed, some of them very close to key fishing spots for fishing communities and quilombolas, such as Ilha de Maré.

Throughout this process, the claims of fishermen and shellfish gatherers were systematically neglected. Different governments succeeded one another at the state and federal levels, but, regardless of their party color, they were all aligned in conducting neo-developmentalist policies for the region. The increase in deaths from cancer in all age groups led researchers from the Federal University of Bahia to conduct a study in 2007, which found high levels of lead and cadmium in the blood of children on Ilha de Maré. Even so, the authorities remained aloof from the dialogue and, in the rare episodes in which the public authorities addressed the issue, their pronouncements followed the strategy of denying evidence of contamination.

In recent years, fishermen on Ilha de Maré have continued to report cases of environmental injustice, as evidenced by oil stains on their fishing nets and toxic fumes from industries and refineries installed there. In 2013, there was an explosion on a Braskem ship full of propylene en route to the Bahamas. The freighter burned for three consecutive days, but to date the company has not been held accountable and residents have not received any compensation for the damage caused. In light of these facts, fishermen leaders consider that public and private investments in Todos os Santos Bay represent a flagrant case of “environmental racism”, since the vast majority of those who have their work and health compromised are black communities, many of them quilombolas, in a situation of socioeconomic vulnerability.

Like the environmental degradation that has been going on for decades in Baía de Todos os Santos, the oil spill on the northeastern coast has its roots in an anachronistic model of development that neglects human beings and life in general in the face of the needs of capitalist accumulation. These developmental measures do not correct social inequalities and are still supported both by politicians historically aligned with the Brazilian elites and by those who call themselves “popular government”.

For the current tragedy in Northeast Brazil to bring us some lesson, we need to base ourselves on reflections such as those of Boaventura de Sousa Santos and take seriously not only the environmental catastrophes of great proportions, but also the systematic aggressions to the local ecosystems that afflict, via as a rule, the poor, black and hitherto invisible communities.

*Bruna Pastro Zagatto Professor of Anthropology at UFBA

*Luiz Enrique Vieira de Souza Professor of Sociology at UFBA

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