Brazil’s Largest Environmental Disaster Hits Northeast Fishing Communities

Nov 7, 2019 · 4 min read

By Enrico Marone and Simone Madalosso, Rare Brazil

Since August 30, oil has contaminated over 2,500 km of Brazilian coast creating the biggest environmental disaster in the country’s history. Meanwhile, the origin of the oil remains unknown.

Over the last two months, the oil has reached nine states, more than 100 municipalities, almost 300 beaches, estuaries, and rivers, and at least 16 protected areas, according to data from IBAMA (the government agency responsible for environmental licensing, enforcement and monitoring). The oil has also reached current and former sites of Rare’s Fish Forever program — in Brazil’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in Pernambuco and Alagoas states, and Brazil’s largest reef bank, Abrolhos, which encompasses numerous MPAs in the South Atlantic Ocean.

This disaster could have irreversible consequences on coastal people and the nearshore coral reef and mangrove ecosystems, as such ecosystems may take decades to recover. These affected areas constitute rich and biodiverse ecosystems and marine habitats with more than 1,300 species of fauna and flora. Endangered species such as manatees, turtles, and humpback whales depend on these areas to survive. The affected areas are also an indispensable income source for 144,000 artisanal fishers and a national tourist destination.

Conserving these coastal ecosystems is critical for protecting the resources upon which traditional communities and fishers directly depend. The tourism and seafood sectors are already heavily impacted, as many tourists are choosing to skip traveling to the coast or eating seafood. In response, the national government has authorized additional closed season security for fishers in the impacted areas. However, the government has not updated the national register since 2014, and many unaccounted fishers may not receive income. Moreover, this solution should be treated as a short-term response to a social crisis, given that the impacts of the disaster may be long term.

While the northeastern states have by now removed more than 5,000 tons of oil from the sea and beaches, the oil continues to spread along the coast. Efforts are being made to clear the area and curb the spread of the stain into the region’s estuaries and rivers, where the manatee lives.

Fishers, Volunteers Lead Clean-Up Efforts

Numerous efforts have been made to mitigate and prevent impacts on local ecosystems and populations. Volunteers — including researchers, non-governmental organizations, and local community members — have been at the forefront of supporting local clean-up efforts. Activities include fundraising, distributing protective equipment for volunteers, and monitoring the affected areas.

Rare Brazil has invested efforts to strengthen dialogue and coordination among the different government and non-government stakeholders to align the emergency responses. Rare Brazil and partners are proposing measures to mitigate the incident, e.g., create a fund to protect the affected areas; establish integrated management through a representative group including government, academia, civil society, third sector, and the private sector; provide technical and financial assistance for the affected municipalities; provide personal protective equipment and proper training to volunteers, such as traditional communities, who are still at imminent risk of contamination; ensure that the oil removed is properly disposed of; plan and establish impact assessment and monitoring; and promote research investment.

Further, to add fuel to the catastrophe, the National Petroleum Agency (ANP) also conducted an oil and gas auction on October 10 and 16, offering four oil and gas blocks in the Camamu-Almada sedimentary basin. In this region, the Abrolhos complex is recognized as the largest and most biologically-rich area of coral reefs in the South Atlantic, with many endemic species such as brain coral (Mussismilia braziliensis). For this reason, it’s considered an ecologically sensitive region for oil exploration.

In response, the Abrolhos-Connection — a group comprised of some of Brazil’s leading social and environmental organizations involved with marine conservation, including Rare Brazil, WWF Brazil, CI Brazil, Oceana Brazil, SOS Atlantic Forest, and Women’s League by the Oceans — created a campaign warning companies about the risk of exploring oil in this area. As a result of the pressure, no company bid for the blocks. Despite this victory, the oil incident continues to plague the northeast coast of Brazil.

With the oil’s origin still unknown, the Federal Public Offices must continue focusing efforts on ascertaining how to mitigate the oil’s impacts and learning who is responsible for causing this environmental disaster.

Call to Action: Help the volunteers to remove the oil in the Abrolhos region

Abrolhos-Connection coalition has created a fundraising campaign to support local clean-up operations in Bahia state. Many residents of Bahia’s southern cities have voluntarily mobilized to remove the oil that arrived in the Abrolhos region on October 28th. The oil has already reached the beaches of the Canavieiras Extractive Reserve and Belmonte and Santa Cruz de Cabrália municipalities.

On October 29th, the region’s fishers removed more than 600kg of oil without safety equipment. The arrival of oil to the sensitive reefs and mangroves of the Abrolhos region represents a massive threat to marine conservation in Brazil. Donations will equip more volunteer brigades that are extracting oil from the beaches, estuaries, and mangroves of the Abrolhos region with personal oil removal protection kits and will support vessel monitoring efforts to clean up the sea.

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Photo credits: Clemente Junior and Reef Conservation Project

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