Brazil’s Quilombos Are Fighting to Save Their Waters From Pollution
The descendants of escaped slaves are claiming their stake against big corporations
Bold as her red lip, Eliete Paraguassu glides in wearing a coordinating set as she directs us to a pier on a picturesque beach in São Tomé de Paripe, Bahia where we embark on a cruise of a different kind to All Saints Bay.
Awaiting her is a group of artisanal fisherpeople from the waters of Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. They’ve convened to dialogue, organize, and strategize with her and the quilombos of Ilha de Maré. Their communities share a reverence for water that extends beyond the comprehension of the masses. Water is equal parts life source, income generator, and culture. Accompanied by academics, activists, and creatives alike, The Second Latin American Exchange of Fishermen and Fisherwomen Against the Exploitation of the Sea commences.
Paraguassu guides participants to a quaint boat initiating our journey through the history of Ilha de Maré. As communities formed by fugitive slaves in the Americas during the colonial era, quilombos’ glorified histories often overshadow their present-day experiences. Their almost nonexistent media representation reduces them to antiquated relics of Brazil’s past. Today, through grassroots organizing residents are telling their own modern stories.
The island is made up of 11 communities, 5 of which received quilombo designation from The Palmares Cultural Foundation: Bananeiras, Martelo, Ponta Grossa, Porto dos Cavalos, and Praia Grande. These quilombos formed when plantations plundered the island and slave ships regularly trudged through All Saints Bay. Slaves on passing ships jumped overboard and swam to freedom on Ilha de Maré’s shores. Other slaves escaped plantations in the island’s center and the Recôncavo Baiano region. In hidden meeting points called “patience,” escaped slaves assembled to strategize, resist, and build community — later becoming quilombos. Ilha de Maré’s communities have several configurations, but escaping via the waters, forests, and mangroves asserted fishing as its strongest community identity.
While these communities organized themselves as Black quilombos since the slavery era, Brazil only legally recognized them in 2003–2004. The fall of a 21-year military dictatorship facilitated a new Brazilian Constitution in 1988. Article 68 recognized the land rights of descendants of slave-era quilombos and indigenous communities. This enabled communities to make legal claims to land they’d inhabited for centuries. After a decade of organizing, five quilombos of Ilha de Maré’s legal claims were acknowledged and they obtained quilombo designation. It was a foundational component of Ilha de Maré’s grassroots work. It validated their land rights and opened the door for legal resistance. Prior to designation, they were legally handicapped when contesting Petrobras (Brazil’s semi-public oil company) or wealthy farmers’ abuse of their land.
On the “toxic tour,” our boat circles oil tanks like a shark to prey as a megaphone echoes Paraguassu’s testimony on Petrobras’ history of abuse and manipulation of the community. Even participants assisted by a strained translator listen intently to her words. There’s a revolutionary quality to the authority and precision in her voice.
Decree No. 3,352-A (1864) initiated Brazilian oil exploration in Bahia and simultaneously condemned its communities. After nearly a century of unsuccessful attempts, the first commercial well was discovered in Candeias, Bahia (1941). Shortly after, discoveries in Dom João (1947), Agua Grande (1951), and creation of the Landulpho Alves Refinery (Brazil’s first oil refinery) established Bahia as the oil-producing powerhouse, known as the Recôncavo Basin. Inevitably in 1953, President Getúlio Vargas established Petrobras, with the intent of developing Brazil’s petroleum industry for national self-sufficiency. Petrobras is a state-owned, mixed-capital, publicly traded company. Petrobras’ acquisition of the Landulpho Refinery, brought them and allied companies like Gerdau Química and Odebrecht to the island in the 1960s. Residents mark this arrival as the beginning of state-sanctioned environmental racism.
A study by Neuza Miranda, professor at the Federal University of Bahia, examined 117 children on the island and proved “90% of children are contaminated with more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, above what is recommended by the World Health Organization.”
A bold proclamation follows as Paraguassu passes the megaphone to a new speaker “the government treats us as if we are invisible. We don’t want to be poisoned anymore. We don’t want to die of cancer!” The speaker is Marizelia Lopes, but she goes by, “Nega.” She’s also a leader in the struggle for Ilha de Maré. Pain seeps from her voice when detailing decades of environmental damage: water and atmospheric pollution, toxic waste contamination, dredging, and pump fishing (fish and seafood mortality) of All Saints Bay, and the destruction of critical mangrove swamps.
Residents of the island, know firsthand how life-threatening environmental issues can become. A study by Neuza Miranda, professor at the Federal University of Bahia, examined 117 children on the island and proved “90% of children are contaminated with more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, above what is recommended by the World Health Organization.” Miranda’s study showed that water pollution generated heavy metal accumulation throughout the regional food chain. Additionally, enterprises and ports introduced prostitution (including child prostitution), drug trafficking, and increased violence into the community. Right before their eyes, the health and social norms of their community are disintegrating.
Listening to the recountings of the failures of environmental regulation, it’s evident why they feel forsaken. Residents claim organizations like The State Institute of Environment and Water Resources (Inema) and Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) are not enforcing port licensing, degrading regulations, nor promoting risk and exposure assessments for local populations meant to protect them.
There’s no sugarcoating suspicion as Nega professes “The governor, our leaders, and the president won’t do anything. They cover up the fact that they want to destroy our livelihoods.” As she breaks down recent environmental catastrophes in Port of Aratu (All Saints Bay), the community’s feelings seem justified.
In March 2008, the Norwegian-flagged NCC Jubail ship spilled 5,000 liters of lubricating oil in the port. The spill contaminated the fauna and flora of the area and mangroves near Bananeiras. Fisherpeople lost wages because customers feared fish contamination. Inema issued a fine of up to 50 million reais ($12 million) for the accident and relief seemed near. When Inema reported local seafood was unaffected and omitted fisherpeople from damages, the residents felt betrayed.
Then on December 17, 2013, Golden Miller (a Bahamian-flagged, propylene gas ship) exploded and caused an oil-slick, fire, and toxic smoke. The port authority reassured the community that the material was incapable of causing health problems, even though island residents suffered nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and severe headaches.
On June 8, 2018, a Petrobras pipeline disruption in Candeias released oil into the bay and the São Paulo River. The city of Candeias fined Petrobras 5 million reais, yet Petrobras maintained that environmental monitoring teams were in place to assess impacts and take appropriate action and there was no harm to people living in the region. Communities no longer trust the reports, reassurances, or monitoring teams.
There is a recurrent saying in the fishing communities, “The Brazilian flag doesn’t represent me. Only the flag of the Fisherman’s Union represents me.” Learning the ways state-owned Petrobras prioritizes foreign-flagged ships over the well-being of Brazilian communities, the saying begins to resonate with participants. As the testimonies end, the boat restarts and cruises away from the oil tankers toward mangroves and darkening water. Muddy beaches littered with crab shells signal our boat’s approach to the shores of Ilha de Maré. In the town square, a table holding a bounty of traditional Baiano dishes awaits. From seafood Moqueca, Vatapá, Caruru, rice, black-eyed peas, farofa, and fresh juice, Ilha de Maré hospitably opened itself for our education. Between Samba and food, we form a community.
On the second day, convened in a circle under the shade of a mango tree, participants bear witness to each other’s collective struggles. From fracking in Colombia to soil contamination in Ecuador, heartbreaking accounts are affirmed. As fisherpeople, they can relate to Paraguassu’s journey into activism.
During the movement for quilombo designation, meeting the Council of Pastoral Fishermen helped Paraguassu find her activist voice. “They made me fall in love with the work. They helped me identify this fight as one where we, ‘the fishermen’ are the protagonists of our history and communities. Before them, we hadn’t established our grassroots work. We were fighting and losing a very land-based struggle against farmers denying us our land rights.” Between 2000–2002, Paraguassu began advocating for her community throughout the country. Her fight became personalized when she discovered via Miranda’s study, her daughter was one of the contaminated children. Since then she’s represented Ilha de Maré at seminars, public hearings, and city council meetings. She’s spearheaded the resistance through organized blockades in front of Port of Aratu (in 2010 and 2014) and occupied the headquarters of CODEBA (2017). Paraguassu’s even traveled to Geneva to represent quilombos and fishermen’s movement at the 42nd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
While Paraguassu continually reiterates the struggle is communal, she acknowledges the fishermen’s struggle is especially a woman’s struggle. “Women are the ones directly confronting the companies, placing their bodies on the frontline, imprisoned, the most impacted. They work in the mangroves, get sick from the oil spills, and experience the full force of environmental crimes. Women are also the educators and administrators of their homes, sellers to the markets. In this unequal fight, women’s lives are threatened because they defend the rights to survival, nature, and a better quality of life.”
“Nevertheless, Ilha de Maré and other artisanal fishing communities are on the frontlines facing the most significant risks from oil exposure. Federal, state, and local governments continually fail them and this incident is no different. ”
As we developed this story an all too familiar tragedy brought Ilha de Maré’s experience to the forefront of Brazil’s consciousness. As of August 30, an unconfirmed culprit caused the reported presence of crude oil along the entire coastline of Northeastern Brazil, reaching at least nine states. As we wait for the identification of the definite source of the oil leak, current estimates suggest that over 1,000 tons of oil have already collected along the beaches. Evidence of oil in the coral beds, mangroves, and the open water are just some of the devastation to the flora, fauna, and marine ecosystem. As the Brazilian government alleges that the oil is not from a national source, various nations are offered as suggested culprits. The geopolitical guessing game is not focused on identifying the total amount of crude or the full extent of its damage. The once unmatched splendor of the beautiful coastline is now home to shiny black blobs of crude oil. The spill’s toll on human life has been more devastating.
Ilha de Maré and other artisanal fishing communities are on the frontlines facing the most significant risks from oil exposure. Federal, state, and local governments continually fail them and this incident is no different. This current crisis is a reflection of the inadequate emergency response planning, inconsistent compliance with weak environmental regulations, and insufficient enforcement Ilha de Maré suffered for decades. Ilha de Maré will continue to fight systematic environmental racism enacted toward quilombos and indigenous communities of Brazil, as they say, “without a fight, there’s no victory. We will continue fighting and we will continue defending our territory and our lives and the lives of our children.”
But this fight should not be theirs alone. They are asking for support and accountability, “Society needs to support the struggles of the traditional indigenous quilombola movements and be present for the people who have been defending the environment on their behalf.”
Throughout the world, Indigenous communities like Ilha de Maré are unacknowledged environmental innovators and defenders against climate change. Ilha de Maré, an island of quilombos mobilized by Black fisherwomen, is fighting not only for their community but for yours too, for the safety of your food, purity of water, and health of your environment. They will no longer be silenced, and they leave you with a call to action:
“To help the struggle of the fishermen of the traditional communities in Brazil, society needs to understand that this struggle is not only of these communities. This is a struggle for everyone. The environment belongs to everyone and everyone has the right to take care of the forest, the waters, and the countryside.”