- Since the 1950s, an area with one of the largest Black populations in the state capital of Bahia has suffered damages to the health of its people and ecosystem as a result of nearby operations of a port, an industrial complex and an oil refinery.
- Many of the approximately 4,000 residents make their living from fishing and shellfish gathering — activities directly affected by contamination of waters and destruction of mangroves.
- Recent research has detected levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in the children from Ilha de Maré, or Tide Island, four times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
As unbelievable as it may seem, a neighborhood in the city of Salvador did not have electricity until the late 1980s and piped water until the end of the 20th century. By way of comparison, the city’s first street with electricity dates back to 1908. The island still has no sewage network. It is no coincidence that they claim to be the blackest neighborhood in Bahia’s capital: In the 2010 census, 93% of the approximately 4,000 residents declared themselves to be Black or brown (pardo, according to Brazilian census classifications). A neighborhood that is actually an island: Tide Island.
Its closeness to the Port of Aratu, the Aratu Industrial Center and the Landulpho Alves-Mataripe oil refinery, which belonged to Petrobras until 2021, have caused illness to the population and its local ecosystem for more than 70 years. Research being conducted by the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) with local children found levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead four times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
As if that were not enough, recently — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — a 131-acre area of mangroves near the island was devastated by the company Bahia Terminais to establish a port development near the Port of Aratu, in breach of a court decision. The injunction granted by the 3rd Federal Civil Court points out flaws in the license issued by the Bahia Institute for the Environment and Water Resources, such as the lack of an environmental impact study and report (EIA/RIMA) and inconsistencies between the information submitted by the company on its license application and the real magnitude of the enterprise.
The island is female
Currently, five communities on Tide Island are self-declared Quilombola remnants recognized by the Palmares Foundation. In Bananeiras, the oldest of those communities, elder residents say the first inhabitants were enslaved men who fled from the Freguesia plantation in the 16th century — now housing the Recôncavo Wanderley Pinho Museum — and took shelter in what they called “Paradise” — an inland, hard-to-reach part of Tide Island.
According to fisher Marizélia Lopes, shellfishing in the mangroves has always been a time for organizing Black struggle. She says that while women were gathering shellfish, away from the eyes of people in the plantation house, they used the opportunity to set up strategies for the men to escape. The men would swim to the island and the women would come back claiming that they had drowned.
“That’s why, even today, during low tide, we talk a lot, gossip and organize to carry out our struggles. It’s a legacy from our elders,” she says. Unfortunately, there is a process of denial of historical peoples in our country, which tries to say that we should be doing our duty rather than building something. But the truth is that no ‘progress’ can come and take development away from those who are already here.”
For Daiane Bonfim, shellfishing is therapy rather than work: “We work for ourselves. Nobody tells me what time I have to go or come back. The moon and the wind are our bosses.”
It is in this exchange that leaders are formed and struggles for collective rights are organized. That is a network for exchanging affection and support to overcome everyday challenges. “We’ve supported ourselves since we were 12,” says Lopes. “I was the one who paid for my first lipstick, my first blouse. We women guaranteed and built our way of being. I don’t depend on any man to have what’s mine.”
The sand crowns that form at low tide also become a nursery, since mothers have no place to leave their children and end up taking them along when they go shellfishing. Therefore, a day-care center was one of the first demands made by the island’s residents to Petrobras, back in 2004, as a way of being compensated by the company that had operated there for 50 years. When the plant was established, there were no laws to guarantee the rights of locals or research to measure the environmental impacts on the region and the population.
According to the leader of the Porto dos Cavalos Quilombo, Eliete Paraguassu, the first direct confrontation with the company took place in 2004. When Petrobras proposed the oyster farming project, the community rejected it. The offer of shellfish in that stretch of the bay is naturally large, so there was no need for tanks to cultivate them. Then the community asked for a training center and a community day-care service — which were denied by Petrobras.
In 2008, the dangers of having an oil refinery and a port like Aratu nearby were part of everyday life for Tide Island residents. The Norwegian-flagged ship NCC Jubail, which was working for Petrobras, spilled around 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of lubricating oil into the Bay of All Saints, contaminating local fauna and flora and causing vulnerability for the entire population that works with and consumes fish.
At the time, Paraguassu led a group of women who occupied Petrobras’ barges, holding a series of pieces of equipment for a few days, which were only released through a court injunction granted to the company. Finally, in 2012, the community submitted the following list of demands: to fence off oil wells and pipes, which had already caused accidents with children; to implement project Shellfishing Is an Art (Mariscar é uma Arte) for processing shellfish; and a telecenter. Once again, the demands were not accepted, and the company’s recommendation was that the residents of Tide Island participate in public selection procedures to get government funding for their needs.
Women put their bodies through the struggle and through the mud. Their skins are in contact with the mangroves for hours while they gather shellfish. There is no information about the consequences of this prolonged contact with contaminants that have been thrown into the environment in different ways and for many years. Companies often fail to inform residents. “Not even the government fulfills its function of guaranteeing citizens’ right to life,” Lopes says.
Then, in 2014, Paraguassu and the Women of the Water, as women from the Porto dos Cavalos community call themselves, carried out a new occupation. This time they retained for 17 days a Petrobras rig that could not remain idle, forcing the company to negotiate directly with the residents and offer 2 million reais ($397,000) for the release of the equipment.
“Two million is nothing for the time and for the poverty that has settled in the community since the company’s arrival,” says Paraguaçu, adding: “Wherever development goes, it brings hardship and hunger. My territory has been exploited by Petrobras for almost 80 years, and all it left behind was poverty and environmental liabilities. We don’t have a single Petrobras employee on Tide Island. But Porto dos Cavalos has 21 oil wells.”
She says it was only in 2021 that the community was able to sign a compensation project with Petrobras for all these years of exploitation, called Shellfishing is an Art. The project created shellfish processing units spread over Tide Island, which can carry out the entire process of washing the product and storing it until it is sold.
“Where there is the so-called ‘development,’ there is poverty and hunger,” Paraguassu argues. “We are facing a silent war at Bay of All Saints. It’s not different from a war in Europe. In Europe we see blood, but at Bay of All Saints, we die silently, and those who kill us — chemical pollution and environmental racism — leave no fingerprint.”
The invisible enemy
Imagine waking up early to the sound of birds, on an island in the middle of the calm and warm waters of the Bay of All Saints, sailing in your boat, fishing for your own food and then selling the surplus. This was everyday life for 75-year-old Altamira Simões, who saw her peace of mind end when, six decades ago, she witnessed the Port of Aratu arrive in the area.
“I remember that, when the port was being built, I’d go out with my husband to fish early in the morning; we’d go to a very good place, where there’s always fish,” she says. “But we started to be threatened. Guards would point guns at us and expel us from the places where we used to go fishing.”
In addition to the loss of territories for her livelihood, Simões began to notice a decrease in shellfish due to the port’s environmental impacts, as the estuary ecosystem was being degraded by the drainage works made to increase the depth of the Aratu Bay so that larger vessels could dock there.
On Petrobras’ website, a text describes the construction of the Landulpho Alves Refinery in 1950, the first one in Brazil: “One day, the equipment started arriving: huge metal tanks, towers and pipes. They came by train, barge, sloop and even on tractor-drawn sleds improvised on tubes. With the machines, came the men — from all over Brazil and also from abroad: the United States, England, France, Germany, Poland, Italy. The people from the Recôncavo Baiano area, who were used to dealing with farming, fishing and cane fields, were going to learn a new trade: oil refining.”
The question remains whether the people from Recôncavo Baiano really learned a new trade or whether that development actually improved the quality of life of those who already lived in the territory. In practice, relations between Petrobras and the residents of Tide Island barely went beyond barter, with the oil company offering ready meals or diesel oil in exchange for a pound of shellfish or a banana bunch.
In 1950, there were no specific environmental laws to regulate the implementation of these enterprises, and many informal exchanges used to be carried out by individuals. Then there were cases of Tide Island residents selling their land for very low prices or even being expelled from their territory. “Many people lost their land without any compensation,” says Paraguassu.
Lead in children’s blood
More than 70 years later, it is important to compare the official views of the company responsible for establishing the refinery with the opinions of residents and those of professor Neuza Miranda, a UFBA researcher. Miranda sees the petrochemical industry throwing contaminants without an impact study, in a predatory and savage way, by invading territories and changing the habits of a population, as a systematic practice of environmental racism.
The diet of Tide Island residents is traditionally based on fish and shellfish — 90% of them live off fishing. But after decades of anthropic action combined with exposure to gases and vapors from the petrochemical industry, many plant species did not resist and can no longer be cultivated on the island, such as banana and mango trees, which get sick and die.
But that is not the worst part, according to a study led by Miranda and involving 116 children from Tide Island. The study found that 89% of them have lead levels above 10 mg/dL in their blood. In some samples, the number rises to 19 mg/dL — the normal level is zero, but the World Health Organization (WHO) considers up to 5 mg/dL acceptable.
In the 1970s, tetraethyl lead — an antiknock agent — used to be added to gasoline produced in refineries to prevent the fuel from being too flammable. Later, lead was banned by the WHO, precisely because of high levels of contamination worldwide. The mineral is neurotoxic and affects children’s bone and cognitive development. One of the main findings of Miranda’s research is that the higher the frequency of fish consumption in children’s diet, the higher the concentration of lead in their blood and hair.
In addition to lead, cadmium was also found in children, especially in the western part of the island, in Porto de Cavalos, which is very close to the Landulpho Alves refinery. Cadmium is harmful to people’s kidneys and may cause osteoporosis in adults and children, affecting their bodily development. It is used in many types of batteries and, when discarded in the environment, it returns to the food chain by contaminating fish and shellfish. In addition to batteries, cadmium is also present in petrochemical vapors that reach the region from the industries in the Aratu industrial complex.
Perhaps this is the worst possible news for a population that lives off the food provided by the sea. A diet based on fish and shellfish has been synonymous with quality of life, but it now means illness. Where there used to be plenty of seafood, today the fear of getting sick is a constant. But the fishers and shellfish gatherers of Tide Island send word that they are not going to stop consuming food from the sea. This is their way of life, and they have been resisting for more than 522 years.
Banner image: Marizélia Lopes, leader of the Bananeiras Quilombo in Tide Island, with the Port of Aratu in the background. Photo by Rafael Martins.
This article was first published here on Jan. 24, 2023, on our Brazil site.