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After Rio+20, Brazil’s Cemetery of Mangroves and Fisherfolks

In a follow-up on the report Activists speaking at the People’s Summit are killed – we bring a blog from EJOLT partner Nnimmo Bassey. He visited the conflict zone where the fishermen were killed and he explains the struggle they were fighting – linking it with his own struggle in Nigeria. 

By Nnimmo Bassey

Two visits outside the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marked the highpoints of my visit to that city for the infamous Rio+20 summit.

The first was on 14 June with colleagues from the Oilwatch International network and that visit took us to Caxias. This is a community that has had to bear fifty years of toxic assault by petrochemical installations including the Refineria Duque de Caxias (REDUC).

This refinery is the heart of petrochemical factories that dot the Caxias landscape and is the fourth largest supplier of refined petroleum products to the country. Potable water is a problem in this municipality and some folks reportedly rely on untreated water from the refinery.

The locals see the petrochemicals, including a proposed new refinery set to become the largest in Latin America, as developments that excludes the participation of the citizens. They bemoan a dearth of health facilities even as they bear the assault of multiple pollutions from the petrochemicals complex.

Men and Women of the Sea

The second visit was on 17 June as part of the Rio +Toxic tour to Mage. It doubled as a solidarity visit to the struggling community people at the Guanabara Bay area.

During the visit we met with members of ‘Homens e Mulheres do Mar Association’ (AHOMAR) – Association of Men and Women of the Sea in the Guanabara Bay. That name did not include women initially, but after years of gender struggles the role of the women had to be duly recognized and acknowledged in the name.

This last visit commenced from a point between the head offices of Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company, and the offices of the Brazilian National Development Bank known to be a major financier of toxic projects in the country. The bank has a budget larger than that of the World Bank and extends its tentacles all over Latin America and deep into Africa. The bank turned 60 years on 20 June and fittingly holds itself up as the flag bearer for green capitalism.

Life turned unpredictable for the fisherfolks in the Guanabara Bay when Petrobras constructed its pipelines through the Bay. When an oil spill occurred in 2000 it increased the challenges faced by the fisherfolks. The footprint of that oil spill is still visible in the Ipiringa area and the destroyed mangrove is yet to recover. Indeed, the locals call the area the “cemetery of mangroves.”

As much as Petrobras has tried to restore the mangrove, the best result is seen only in photos where mangroves planted in pots are photographed before they wilt, according to local sources.

Our team went through various locations in Mage in the company of members of AHOMAR. A rather uncomfortable aspect was that the leader of AHOMAR, Alexandre Anderson de Sousa, had to travel in a police car as it was considered unsafe for him to travel with us in our bus or by any other means. Since 2009, Alexandre and his family have been under 24/7 police protection under the Human Rights Defenders Program of the government. The officers go with him everywhere, everytime.

Perhaps this level of protection is necessary for Alexandre’s safety. It could also be a way of ensuring that his activism is curtailed. I found the presence of the cops rather unnerving. But, as Alexandre said, they are living in difficult times and terrain and their struggle is one of survival. Their struggle has been one of ensuring minimal impacts from petroleum installations as well as resisting expansion of the facilities.

Already some communities have been displaced by pipeline construction and their overall fishing grounds has been reduced to about 12 per cent of the area over the past few years. According to the fisherfolks, about 9000 families are involved in the struggle.

According to research done by the department of Geography of the University of Rio de Janeiro, since the oil spill occurred the fishing stock has depleted by 80-90 per cent of what it was in the 1990s. Twelve years after the incident, the stock is yet to return to normal contrary to assurances they had received from Petrobras. They regret that the best fishing grounds are no longer accessible to them but are taken up by oil installations, pipelines and related mega-projects.

In addition, commercial fishing companies use big vessels that destabilize the smaller boats used by the locals. In addition they complain that they get shot at with automatic weapons at times by private security outfit. The objective of the harassment is to stop them from fishing, according to the locals.

“When Petrobras is accused you can be sure there would be no investigations,” one of the local leaders told us. “We are being squeezed out of business because we cannot go to the deep seas in our small boats.”

Death and Dignity

The bay has literally become a platform for Petrobras and sections are fenced off and cannot be accessed by locals. One leader told us: “we are resisting because we have no options. We might live or die. Our death may not result from gun shots, but because our livelihoods have been destroyed.” He added, “We are not seeking to be rich, we just want to live our lives in dignity.”

The reality of the precarious situation of the AHOMAR activists was underscored by the murder of two of their leaders a few days after our visit. They are indeed denied dignity in life and in death. The shocking news reached the world that:

“Almir Nogueira de Amorim and João Luiz Telles Penetra, artisanal fishermen and members of Homens e Mulheres do Mar Association (AHOMAR) went missing after going out to fish on Friday, 22 June 2012.” Further, reports of the brutal murders inform, “Almir’s body was found on sunday, June 24th, tied to their boat, submerged close to the São Lourenço beach in Magé, Rio de Janeiro. The body of João Luiz Telles, Pituca, was found on monday, June 25th, with hands and feet tied in fetal position, close to the São Gonçalo beach.”

Recalling past incidents, reports have it that in “2009, the men and women of AHOMAR occupied the construction sites of land and sub-sea gas pipelines for transport of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), built by a consortium between two contractors: GDK and Oceânica, hired by Petrobras. This construction is directly making artisanal fishing impossible in the Mauá-Magé beach, Guanabara Bay, where the AHOMAR headquarters is located.

“They anchored their boats close to the pipelines and stayed there for 38 days. Since then, the fishermen are suffering constant death threats. That same year, in May, Paulo Santos Souza, formerly in charge of the association’s accounting, was brutally beaten in front of his family and killed with five shots in the head. In 2010, another AHOMAR founder, Márcio Amaro, was also murdered at his home, in front of his mother and wife. Both crimes have never been cleared up.”

Nigerian Gas imported and Flared

On the way to “the cemetery of mangroves” we saw gas pipelines that had an interesting story behind them. Around 2002 when Brazil had an energy crisis due to reduction in levels of water in her hydroelectricity dams, the country began to import liquefied natural gas from Nigeria. With an improvement in the energy situation the importation continues and the excess gas is simply flared. It can be said that Nigeria, the second biggest flarer of natural gas after Russia, flares at two ends of the pipe: in the Niger Delta and in Brazil.

Another similarity with the messy oil fields of Nigeria is that most of the spills are first reported by fisherfolks. The Petrobras spill of 2000 at Ipiringa is said to have occurred by 1 AM and was discovered by fisherfolks six hours later. The massive spill destroyed a huge swath of mangrove and with it took the bottom off the livelihoods of at least 300 families who used to pick crabs, prawns and other seafoods here.

The toxic tour ended with a standing meeting with the environment secretary of the Mage Municipality. Before that meeting we visited Surui community heavily impacted by an oil pipeline that cuts right through it. Stories of buildings cracked by heavy earth moving machinery during the laying of the pipeline as well as displacement of several families are rife here.

The land acquisition process is quite interesting. According to the locals, Petrobras officials would arrive at your door and offer you a certain amount of money for your property. If you refuse, they leave. But when they come a second time they would inform you that the money they offered has been set aside for you in a special account. In other words, you have no option but to accept their offer. When the officials come a third time, their mission is simple: to evict you from your property.

We are all fisherfolk

The deaths of Almir, João Luiz, Paulo and Márcio must be denounced in the strongest terms. We cannot stand apart from this assault simply because it is not occurring in our territories. Our realities are not different whether in the oil fields of Nigeria and Ecuador, the mines of Philippines or the tar sand pits of Alberta Canada. Communities with oil, gas and mineral resources are daily being assaulted. The least we can do to defend our common humanity is to stand in solidarity with challenged peoples all over the world and proclaim that: we are all fisherfolk; we are all AHOMAR activists!

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