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Climate Change Justice

Women Organize to Fight Coastal Erosion in Southeastern Brazil



Sonia Ferreira watched as the sea toppled buildings all around her for years. Finally, the impact of the rise in sea levels wrecked her home in 2019. Fishermen find their access to a fishing port limited, affecting their livelihoods. The residents of the coastal town of Atafona in southeastern Brazil count their losses due to rising sea levels and climate change.

A view of the port of Atafona's fishing boats on the Paraíba do Sul River. The sedimentation of the mouth of the river makes it difficult for larger vessels to enter and they have started to operate in ports in other locations, with additional costs and losses for the economy of Atafona. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS

A view of the port of Atafona's fishing boats on the Paraíba do Sul River. The sedimentation of the mouth of the river makes it difficult for larger vessels to enter and they have started to operate in ports in other locations, with additional costs and losses for the economy of Atafona. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

ATAFONA, Brazil , May 17 2024 (IPS) - Coastal erosion has been aggravated by climate change and has already destroyed more than 500 houses in the town of Atafona in southeastern Brazil. Movements led largely by women are working to combat the advance of the sea and generate economic alternatives.

Atafona, one of the six districts of São João da Barra, a municipality of 37,000 inhabitants, is 310 kilometers by road northeast of Rio de Janeiro. It is a town with its own identity. Fishermen, who were joined by middle-class families from nearby large cities, built their vacation homes there.

Sonia Ferreira did so in 1980, when she lived in Rio de Janeiro. She moved permanently to Atafona in 1997, when she witnessed the disappearance of the three blocks that separated her house from the beach. In 2008, she saw the town’s tallest building—four stories—collapse across the street from her house.

She has photos recording the downfall of the building that housed a supermarket and a bakery on the first floor and a hotel upstairs. Her house would have been the next victim, but the sea granted her an 11-year grace period. “I will only leave when the wall around the house falls,” she would tell her family when they pressured her to move to a safer place.

Sonia Ferreira, 79, president of SOS Atafona, stands next to what is left of the rubble of a four-story building, toppled by the sea in 2008. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS

Sonia Ferreira, 79, the president of SOS Atafona, stands next to the remains of a four-story building that the sea toppled in 2008. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

But from 2019 to 2022, the sea level started to rise again. “In 2019, the first piece of the wall fell. I fixed up the little house at the back of the lot and moved in, but I kept the big house with the furniture until 2022, when the water reached the house and the floor gave way,” she told IPS at her current home, near her daughter’s house.

“The sea does not hit in overpowering waves, but erodes the sandy soil, infiltrates underneath the buildings, undermines their structures, and the house is basically left hanging in the air,” she described.

In late 2022, she decided to demolish the “big house” in a painful process after sadly seeing the wall fall down in pieces. But then she could not live in the small house in the backyard, which was invaded by a large amount of sand, so she was taken in by her daughter. Widowed, she has two other children who live abroad.

At the age of 79, Sonia Ferreira channels her love for the area as president of SOS Atafona, an association with about 200 active residents, mostly women, who debate and lobby the public authorities for solutions to stop the advance of the sea and other problems in the neighborhood.

Sonia Ferreira stands in front of what was left of her home, which she decided to demolish in 2022, after coastal erosion knocked down its outer walls and washed out the sandy base, leaving just columns. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS

Sonia Ferreira stands in front of what was left of her home, which she decided to demolish in 2022 after coastal erosion knocked down its outer walls and washed out the sandy base, leaving just columns. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Fishermen Suffer Climate Injustice

“Fishermen have been hit the hardest,” she said, as vacationers have resources such as other homes.

The original settlers are the main victims of climate injustice in Atafona. The rising sea level and the intensification of the northeast wind not only destroyed their houses but also exacerbated the siltation at the mouth of the Paraíba do Sul River, limiting the access of boats to the fishing port on the river through a narrow channel.

Faced with the difficulties, the larger vessels prefer to deliver their fish to distant ports, some 100 kilometers to the north or south, at the expense of the local economy, lamented Elialdo Mirelles, president of the São João da Barra Fishermen’s Colony.

The president of the São João da Barra Fishing Colony, Elialdo Meirelles, is photographed at the repair port for fishing boats on the Paraiba do Sul River, near its mouth. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS

The president of the São João da Barra Fishing Colony, Elialdo Meirelles, is photographed at the repair port for fishing boats on the Paraiba do Sul River, near its mouth. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Meirelles estimates that about 400 fishing families lost their homes on Convivência Island, which was in the Paraíba do Sul River delta, where the problems began.

Only 200 families were given new houses by the government, while the rest were dispersed or have been living for years with the benefit of “social rent,” a small sum from the municipality to help pay for rental housing.

That is why he believes that the houses engulfed by the sea in the entire area numbered much more than the 500 or so estimated by the city government and that the erosion actually began before the 1960s, which is the time frame indicated by researchers.

Dunes are growing and threatening the streets and coastal housing in a part of Atafona beach, after the sea and sand destroyed more than 500 houses on the beach closest to the mouth of the Paraiba do Sul river. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS

Dunes are growing and threatening the streets and coastal housing in a part of Atafona Beach after the sea and sand destroyed more than 500 houses on the beach closest to the mouth of the Paraiba do Sul river. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

“I was born on Convivencia Island in 1960, where my grandfather and father lived. My father lost two houses there, I lost two, and two of my brothers lost one each. The northeast wind was the cause,” he said. In 1976, the government began to remove settlers from the island, and the last ones left in the 1990s.

Then many families living in Pontal, the end point of the river’s right bank, also lost their homes. “Five streets were submerged,” he noted. As the island disappeared, that mainland area lost a barrier against the wind, he said.

"The sea does not hit in overpowering waves, but erodes the sandy soil, infiltrates underneath the buildings, undermines their structures, and the house is basically left hanging in the air." —Sonia Ferreira

Meirelles, who sought a new home away from the shoreline on his own, represents 680 registered fishermen in his entire municipality of São João da Barra, 56 percent of whom are from Atafona.

Causes of coastal erosion

“Climate change definitely aggravated the problem unleashed by several factors, especially human action that reduced the river’s flow,” said Eduardo Bulhões, marine geographer and professor at the Fluminense Federal University.

The main factor was the transfer of water from the Paraiba do Sul river to the Guandu river system, which supplies nine million inhabitants of outlying areas of Rio de Janeiro and was inaugurated in 1954. Since then, there have been expansions that have drastically reduced the flow of water in the river that runs into Atafona.

The river rises near São Paulo and crosses almost the entire state of Rio de Janeiro—in other words, a densely populated area of 1,137 km. Its waters, destined for other cities, industries, and hydroelectric generation, lost the volume and strength to carry sediment to the delta at the mouth as a barrier against the sea.

In addition to engulfing Convivencia Island and many blocks of Atafona, the sea advanced upstream, salinizing many kilometers of water table and affecting the municipality’s water supply.

The collapse of houses due to erosion is also caused by their irregular construction on dunes that have always existed in the town and are growing on part of the beach, said Bulhões.

The northeast wind, which is intensified by climate change and pushes the waters that erode the constructions and the sands that threaten to clog the coastal road and nearby houses, contributes to this, he said.

A solution to coastal erosion depends on studies to identify long-term feasibility and effectiveness, and the city government is preparing terms of reference to contract the studies, reported Marcela Toledo, São João da Barra’s secretary of environment and public services.

Women-led projects

This municipality is also located in an area impacted by oil exploration in the Campos basin, offshore Rio de Janeiro state. Due to environmental requirements, the state-owned oil company Petrobras, the main explorer, is financing the Pescarte Environmental Education Project to mitigate and compensate for these impacts, carried out by the North Fluminense State University (UENF).

In the project, which is focused on fishing as the most affected activity, women constitute the vast majority. The main proposals approved were refrigeration plants, industrial kitchens, fishmeal factories and processing plants, said Geraldo Timoteo, a professor at the UENF and the head of Pescarte.

In the Pescarte team, initially looking at environmental education and now at production, 48 out of a total of 59 employees are women. Of the 14 supervisors, 11 are women.

Fernanda Pires, an activist seeking solutions that add value to fish, runs the Arte Peixe cooperative, which produces eight types of fish and shrimp snacks in Atafona, Brazil. CREDIT: Mario Osava / IPS.

Fernanda Pires, an activist seeking solutions that add value to fish, runs the Arte Peixe cooperative, which produces eight types of fish and shrimp snacks in Atafona, Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS.

The organization of artisanal fishermen and their families is the central objective of the long-term (2014–2035) project. It also seeks to increase income through expanding the use of fish and providing better access to markets and cooperatives.

Now the idea is to promote aquaculture based on experiments conducted at the UENF.

Pescarte has also accumulated knowledge about the world of fishermen. It conducted two censuses in the 10 participating municipalities in 2016 and 2023, Timoteo told IPS.

In the second one, 46 percent of the people interviewed were women and 21 percent of them were responsible for 100 percent of the family income. In 37.9 percent of the cases, they shared this responsibility with their husbands.

Fernanda Pires is one of the participants of Pescarte in Atafona. Her activism for fish processing as a way of adding value is reflected in her practice as leader of the Arte Peixe cooperative, which produces eight types of fish and shrimp snacks.

Founded in 2006 by her mother, Arte Peixe has 20 female members, seven of whom work directly in production. The profits are limited, serving as a supplement to the main income obtained from other work or employment. Pires is a municipal employee, but new markets open up prospects for better profits in the future.

The leading role played by women in overcoming the problems in Atafona, threatened by coastal erosion and the decline in fishing, is perhaps due to the fact that “they study more, and have greater concern for the future, and a stronger sense of community,” said Bulhões.

In Pescarte, its directors observe that while men prioritize fishing in itself, upgrading their boats and equipment, and are absent from the city, spending more and more time at sea every day, women take care of processing the fish, sales and adding value; that is, they focus more on the future of the activity and of their lives.

IPS UN Bureau Report

Note: This feature is published with the support of Open Society Foundations.


  
 
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