Words by Leandro Barbosa
In the island of Boipeba, in southern Bahia, a colorful sign with a childlike design brings up the question of all Brazilians: Who spilled oil into the sea? The answer has been debated for more than four months, since the first oil slick was found in Paraíba, on August 30, 2019. After that day, 1,004 localities in the northeast and southeast of the country were affected, culminating in the largest environmental disaster in the history of the Brazilian coast. So far, more than five thousand tons of oil have been removed from beaches, rivers, and mangroves in Brazil.
The first—and few—initiatives of the Brazilian government were too late. A 2013 decree stipulates that, in situations of major proportion oil spills, government agencies Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), National Petroleum Agency (ANP), and the Navy should monitor the situation and trigger the National Contingency Plan; this was done 38 days after the first oil slick was sighted. As a result, the toxic oil spread over 3 thousand kilometers, reaching beaches, mangroves, rivers, and protected marine areas such as the Abrolhos National Park (one of the South Atlantic’s main coral banks and marine biodiversity cradles).
It’s yet known how much this environmental crime has affected and will continue to affect the marine ecosystem. In all, 159 animals were found oiled. Of these, 113 died. But it’s important to emphasize that these numbers refer to animals found on the beaches—it isn’t possible to account for the ones affected on high seas. For example, in the Coral Coast, an environmental protection area in Alagoas, divers found corals, crabs, and lobsters dead under the sea. Additionally, numerous mangroves have been reached in the northeast of the country. This situation endangers several species, considering that around 80% of marine life spends at least one stage of life in the biome.
The government’s inaction led the population to handle the cleanup themselves, rolling up their sleeves and exposing themselves to the toxic material that “the sea threw up on the beach” (an idiomatic expression used by fishermen in oil-affected regions). Men and women, children and the elderly, unaware of the health risks, jumped into the sea and removed the material with their own hands without any protection. According to Fio Cruz, a Brazilian entity of health and social development research and promotion, all people directly involved with the cleanup must be monitored for at least 10 years as the benzene present in the oil may cause cancer.
One of the people who took such a risk is 35-year old Gláucia de Lima, who lives on the outskirts of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, in Pernambuco. With her husband Alexandre, she sells coconuts and handicrafts on Itapuama Beach. 1,300 tons of oil were removed in the region—1600 tons in the state. Gláucia says she had no choice but to run to the beach and clean it. “When the oil arrived in Itapuama, I didn’t take my foot off the sand. I would arrive early at the beach and leave only at the end of the day. That’s where my bread comes from. I had to do something,” she said. Gláucia went back to work after the oil slicks had ceased.
At the time, Parley For the Oceans was in the state helping to support the local beach cleanups. The organization, with collective financing resources, strengthened local initiatives and distributed appropriate protective equipment to volunteers. According to Parley’s Brazil director, Juliana Poncioni, "being in the field was important to understand the scale of the problem and to provide adequate support to organizations and people involved in the beach recovery. We were able to organize volunteers and develop cleaning actions with our partners, strengthening local initiatives. Also, it was possible to obtain visibility to this issue, producing audio-visual material about this environmental crime and sharing the voices of those who were affected.”
On the border between the Bahian cities Caraíva and Corumbau, Pataxó indigenous peoples experienced the same dilemma. Trying to save the beach and the mangrove that cut through the village, they joined the fishermen to remove the oil that invaded the region. According to reports within the community, around 100 people entered the mangrove without any protection to try to remove the black stain that stuck to the roots of the trees. Headaches, vomiting, and skin irritation were some of the symptoms that many of them complained about. Still, the government hadn’t provided medical assistance to anyone. For Gilmar Pataxó, an indigenous person who was part of the group, action was necessary: “That’s where our food comes from,” he explained. The indigenous leader Raoni Pataxó said that “all this tragedy only shows how much human beings do not care about nature.” He asks: “How much of this is still out there?”
On December 30, two beaches in the state of Ceará that had already been reached in October were impacted again. The Navy removed 500 kilograms of oil from the region. At the time, Institute of Marine Sciences researcher Rivelino Cavalcante said that this proves oil remains adrift in the sea. “Probably, this material is being remobilized. It could be at the bottom of the ocean floor,” he said. For the professor, the material would resurface due to sea surf.
The government’s only claim is that the oil is from Venezuelan wells. Taking this into account, the Federal Police launched an investigation into ships that left the Bolivarian country and sailed along the Brazilian Coast. Of the 30 ships identified, police highlighted the Greek vessel Bouboulina as the prime suspect. According to the agency, the vessel was carrying 1 million barrels of crude oil when it passed by Brazil on July 28, 2019. Delta Tankers, the company responsible for the management of the ship, denies the charge. According to the company, there is no evidence that the ship “had stopped to perform any kind of operation between two ships, leaked oil, decelerated, and deviated from its course from Venezuela to Melaka, Malaysia.”
Brazil has set up a Special Commission of Inquiry (CPI) to investigate the origin of the oil and the federal government’s responses to deal with this environmental crime. Through the Commission, the country’s legislative branch now has the same power of investigation as a judicial authority. At a public hearing sponsored by the CPI, Navy Vice Admiral Marcelo Francisco Campos, responsible for the coordination of field investigations and operations, said that the origin of the oil is still a mystery: “We don’t know yet what the origin of this spill was, nor the date [when it happened].”