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Footprints in the sand: A mysterious oil spill in Brazil threatens livelihoods

The fisherpeople of Bahia state’s last intact mangrove forest are facing the cleanup alone

Estimates of the amount of crude oil that has landed on Brazil's northeast shores reach above 4,200 tons. Courtesy of Esther Milberg Muniz
14 November 2019

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In the remote estuarine villages of Siribinha and Poças, which perch on white sand near the mouth of the Itapicuru river on Brazil’s north-eastern coastline in the state of Bahia, fishing has been a way of life for generations. People here claim a mixture of Indigenous, African and Portuguese heritage, but they identify first and foremost as “fisherpeople,” and over the years have established a unique array of fishing methods tailored to their local patch.

Biologically, the place is special too. The estuary hosts Bahia’s last intact mangrove forest, which is home to a number of threatened species such as the Atlantic goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), the gray-breasted parakeet (Pyrrhura griseipectus) and the yellow-breasted capuchin monkey (Sapajus xanthosternos).

But over the last two months, the villagers have had to set aside their daily lives and step into urgent action as a black, sticky scourge threatens their health, food security and livelihoods.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has not commented on the origins of the oil spill. Courtesy of Esther Milberg Muniz
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said that the oil did not come from Brazil. Courtesy of Esther Milberg Muniz

Since late August, over 2,400 kilometers of Brazil’s coastline has been affected by an oil spill of mysterious origins; the Brazilian Navy reports that more than 4,200 tons have already been removed from beaches, but more continue to wash up every day.

For Siribinha and Poças, the impact has been disastrous. They can’t eat or sell their fish for fear it might be contaminated, and with the beaches polluted and unswimmable, most would-be tourists to the area have cancelled their plans. Without an income, the villagers can’t even pay power bills for the freezers where they store their fish caught prior to the spill.

“So they are running out of fish to eat, too,” says Esther Milberg Muniz, a Wageningen University student. She arrived in Brazil to do fieldwork in Siribinha around the time that the spills appeared and found her plans quickly diverted toward supporting the communities through the crisis.

After the first globules of oil washed ashore, the people of Siribinha and Poças mobilized quickly and set to work scraping oil deposits off the beaches. It’s baking-hot, dangerous work, says Milberg Muniz. Even with masks, gloves and boots – which not everyone can access or afford – there’s really no way to avoid inhaling fumes, and the long-term health impacts of doing so are unclear. Worse still, there seems to be no end in sight to the cleanup: “you clean one day, and the next day it’s back again,” she says. “It’s really demotivating.”

The livelihoods of the fisherpeople of Bahia, which have long relied on a fishing economy, are now under threat from the oil spill. Courtesy of Esther Muniz
The livelihoods of the fisherpeople of Bahia, which have long relied on a fishing economy, are now under threat from the oil spill. Courtesy of Esther Milberg Muniz

There’s also been woefully little in the way of institutional support, says Milberg Muniz. The municipality is making an effort, but they don’t have sufficient capacity or funds, and regional and national government have yet to step in. “The community is very disappointed,” she says. “They cannot believe the state is not helping them.”

While the communities have bonded deeply over the crisis, they now risk being forced apart by practicalities. “They’re sending their kids to school hoping they can eat something there, because there’s no food at home right now,” says Milberg Muniz about some of the communities in the northern part of the state. “The only possibility for them now if they don’t get any help is to migrate somewhere else, which would be terrible.”

Milberg Muniz and her colleagues at the Federal University of Bahia and the Mãos da Terra Institute, which have been collaborating with the residents of Siribinha and Poças on conservation and development projects since 2013, have put together a crowd-funding campaign to raise cash for crucial protective equipment such as gloves for the ongoing cleanup, as well as to provide food and other practical support for families whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the disaster.

In the longer term, the communities face some very difficult questions about the viability of their existence in this one-of-a-kind ecosystem; hopefully, they will not face these questions alone.


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