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Small-scale Fisherfolk in Rio de Janeiro – a Vanishing Species

Isac de Oliveira points at the mud that has buried the beach at Pedra de Guaratiba on Sepetiba Bay at the western tip of Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 2 2012 (IPS) - “My sons will be anything, but never fishermen,” said 32-year-old Maicon Alexandre, the youngest of the leaders of Ahomar, a union of small-scale fisherpeople on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

That determination is shared by his colleagues, like the president of Ahomar (the Association of Men and Women of the Sea) Alexandre Anderson de Souza, who has especially strong reasons to feel that way. Besides feeling responsible for the future of his fishing community, he is living in constant danger.

The 41-year-old activist, the leader of what could be the last generation of small-scale fisherpeople of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, has not only received death threats, but has survived several attempts on his life.

He is now accompanied around the clock by two military police assigned by a federal human rights defenders protection programme that is overwhelmed by demand in a country with one of the highest gun-related death rates in the world.

The threat he faces is anything but abstract: four members of Ahomar, people close to him, have been killed since 2009.

The last two drowned in June after they were tied hand and foot and thrown into the waters where they were fishing. One of their boats was filled with bullet holes. None of the cases have been solved so far.

“It was torture, they made them die slow deaths” in the same place where they worked, to send a threat to their fellow fishermen, said Anderson de Souza, one of the 30 people in Brazil facing the worst threats to their life, according to a list kept by the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic Church organisation that issues an annual report on violent land conflicts and human rights abuses in Brazil.

Last year, there were some 350 activists and community leaders whose lives were in danger, according to the Pastoral Commission’s latest report, published in May.

Defying death is a new aspect of the mission that the leaders of the Ahomar union have begun to admit is virtually impossible: preserving Guanabara Bay so that it is environmentally capable of supporting the marine life that the fisherfolk depend on.

There are 22,000 officially registered fishermen and women in Guanabara Bay. “But today, only around 6,000 families make a living from fishing,” said Anderson de Souza. The families live in five different “colonias” or poor neighbourhoods along the bay.

Fishing was normal up to 2000. “It didn’t make for a lavish lifestyle, but you could live decently,” said Paulo Cesar, 56, who has been fishing since the age of 11, when he began working with his father and grandfather in Magé, a municipality to the north of the bay.

He said back then it was possible to pull in up to 100 kgs of fish on a good day, but now “you’re lucky if you catch 10 kgs.”

In January 2000, a pipeline running between a refinery and a local port spilled 1.3 million litres of oil into the bay, polluting about 50 square km, equivalent to 12 percent of the bay’s surface area, including mangroves, islands and beaches.

Marine life in the bay never recovered, the fishermen say, although Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, which was responsible for the spill, has sponsored studies that claim that the company’s quick clean-up response was successful, and that fish stocks had recovered by 2001.

But fishing in the bay, which is surrounded by greater Rio de Janeiro, an area home to 12 million people, is also threatened by the normal operation of an oil industry that is growing rapidly in the area, Anderson de Souza said.

Sixteen pipelines carry oil and natural gas across Guanabara Bay, between the Duque de Caxias refinery and fuel storage tanks and processing plants on two islands in the middle of the bay and in nearby ports.

Added to this is the growing number of wharfs and ships which, like the pipelines, are surrounded by “zones of exclusion” stretching hundreds of metres, where fishing is banned.

These areas are watched by private security guards “who shoot at fishing boats that come near,” said Paulo Cesar, showing IPS photos of boats containing bullet holes.

The pipelines, which carry hot oil or cold gas, affect the temperature of the water, driving away fish. Fish are also chased away by the noise and vibration of the high-pressure pipelines, Anderson de Souza said.

Petrobras’ Petrochemical Complex of the State of Rio de Janeiro, which includes a refinery that will process 165,000 barrels a day of crude and seven petrochemical plants and is set to begin operating in 2015, will further expand the oil infrastructure and activity in Guanabara Bay.

Its location in the municipality of Itaboraí, on the northeast side of the city, was selected for the local logistical infrastructure and the “synergy” with units of the company already functioning on the other side of the bay, said Petrobras officials.

But the oil industry is not the only source of pollution in the bay, where a number of smaller industries dump waste, and where sewage and rubbish are an increasingly serious problem as the number of people living around the bay expands.

A costly clean-up of the bay failed to bring results.

The 1,873-member Ahomar, which has a humble office on the Mauá beach in the municipality of Magé, is facing forces that are “far out of proportion” to the union’s size, Anderson de Souza said, referring to Petrobras – the 10th largest company in the world, according to Forbes magazine – and other oil firms.

Nevertheless, the group showed its strength when its members’ numerous small boats came out in force to block the construction of a new pipeline in April 2009. During the protest, Anderson de Souza was shot at. And three weeks later, Ahomar treasurer Paulo Santos was tortured and killed in front of his family.

“We are an endangered species,” said the activist, whose family and those of his colleagues come from generations of fisherfolk.

“The shrimp used to jump on the beach,” remembers Ezelina Moren, 58, lamenting the disappearance of shrimp, which she began to catch when she was a young girl. Three of her six children fish as well. “But my grandchildren will not be fisherpeople,” she said.

Anderson de Souza has gained international prominence in the struggle waged by communities in different countries affected by the oil industry. Invited to visit other areas of conflict, he has travelled to Argentina and Colombia, as well as to Ecuador, where Petrobras backed out of a project to drill for oil in the Yasuní National Park, an enormous tropical rainforest reserve, in the face of opposition from local indigenous groups.

He is one of 15 human rights defenders around the world on whose behalf the Dublin-based rights group Front Line Defenders launched an online and social media campaign on Jul. 27 to call attention to the threats, harassment, intimidation, prison and violence they face because of their human rights work.

The activist has also shared his experience with fishing communities facing similar pressures in other Brazilian states.

The centuries-old tradition of small-scale subsistence fishing appears to be dying out all around Rio de Janeiro. In Sepetiba Bay at the extreme western end of the city, small-scale fishing “won’t last five more years,” predicted Isac de Oliveira, president of the Association of Fisherpeople of Pedra de Guaratiba, a local neighbourhood.

The old beach “where we used to play football” is now covered up by a 1.5 metre-deep layer of mud, he told this reporter as we walked along the muddy waterfront. He said the sedimentation and environmental imbalance had been caused by a port where exports of minerals and steel industry products are shipped out, and by a nearby industrial centre.

De Oliveira has nonetheless trained an apprentice. “He has been working with me since he was eight years old, and is a born fisherman,” he said.

When he turns 18 next year, the young man will be able to register as a professional fisherman, so in the future “he can say he was a fisherman, preserving the memory” of the age-old fishing tradition of Sepetiba Bay, de Oliveira said.

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