Oil Spill Continues to Decimate Brazilian Coast Two Months On

Volunteers come together to clean beaches as coastal communities, wildlife suffer amid ongoing crisis.

It’s been unbearable to see the destruction being done to my home country’s environment this year. First wildfires tearing through the Amazon, and more recently, oil washing up on Brazilian beaches. For two months now, the thick sludge has been contaminating shorelines in nine different northeastern states — including Bahia, Alagoas, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, and Sergipe — burdening local communities, harming marine wildlife, and contaminating the stunning beaches that make the region popular with tourists. So far, the oil has impacted more than 250 beaches and estuaries along some 1,400 miles of coastline.

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People removing oil from Viral Beach, in Aracaju, Brazil. So far, some 2,000 tonnes of oil have been collected from Brazilian beaches. Photo courtesy of Aracaju Municipal Press Office.

The source of the oil remains unconfirmed, though last Friday Brazilian authorities pointed to Greek-flagged ship that departed Venezuela for Malaysia in mid-July. The ship’s owner, Delta Tankers Ltd, has said there is no indication of an oil leak from the ship.

What scientists have been able to determine with more certainty is the oil’s country of origin. Analysis of samples collected from the water, sand, and turtle’s shells indicates that the material is compatible with oil extracted in Venezuela. As of October 26, Brazilian petroleum corporation Petrobras had identified three unnamed Venezuelan oil fields from which the oil might have originated. (Venezuela has denied any responsibility for the spill.)

Whatever the source of the spill, with more than 2,000 tons of sludge collected so far from Brazilian beaches, it is taking a steep toll on the marine environment. So far, the official count of impacted turtles, birds and manatees by the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (IBAMA) is at just over 100. That number does not include other animals like fish and crabs, and local fishermen say the actual number of animals killed or harmed by the oil is much higher. The oil has also washed up in a manatee sanctuary. And while the impact on beaches is most visible, the crude involved in the spill is water-logged and heavy, which means it is floating out of sight just below the ocean surface. A survey by the Federal University of Bahia, for example, found oil in the respiratory and digestive systems of all 38 marine animals collected from three coral reefs.

In addition to the environment, local communities — many of them living in poverty — have also been deeply affected by the spill. On a recent trip to the northeast coast, I saw families going hungry because of the loss of their primary source of nourishment — locally caught fish — which are now contaminated. One fisherman I spoke with told me that the most desperate are eating a mixture of sand, water, and the vegetables or beans or fruit they are able to afford ,because eating sand helps alleviate hunger. This practice could lead to diseases such as schistosomiasis, caused be a freshwater parasitic worm that can be found near the coast where rivers meet the ocean, and ascariasis, a disease caused by roundworms and linked to sanitation problems.

The spill is also wreaking havoc on the fishing industry. Tens of thousands of fishermen and fisherwomen throughout the region are struggling to sell their catch due to concerns about contamination. The federal government will start providing a small stipend to 60,000 fishermen beginning in November, but the $270 will only go to those who caught three types of fish.

The impact is rippling out to others as well. Camila de Oliveira Santos, a 15-year-old girl I spoke with in a small seaside town in the state of Pernambuco, told me how she had been previously employed by a family of fishers to sell fish at the local street market. A few weeks after oil began washing up, she started receiving complaints from customers about contaminated fish. “There was this woman, you see, I sold her three pounds of fish in the morning, but then she came back in the afternoon, screaming at me that I had sold her rotten fish,” she said, eyes down and picking at her nails. “I tried to calm her down and said that it must have been a mistake, because the family I worked for would never bring rotten fish back. She then put a single one the balcony and tore it apart with a knife she brought with her: the fish’s guts were indeed covered in black, stinky oil, and the whole thing stank like it had been rotten for a month,” she adds, sighing, resting her elbows on her knees.

“Yesterday I lost my job,” Santos continued. “ The fisherman and his wife told me they couldn’t keep paying me to sell fish that people wouldn’t even buy, and that they would close their spot in the local market. … They kept that spot for thirty years. My father worked for that family before me, and now none of us has a job.”

She notes that she has a three siblings, and is worried about providing for her family.

As the Southern Hemisphere approaches summer, those employed in the tourism industry — including by hotels, resorts, and restaurants — are concerned about their livelihoods as well. Already, hotels and resorts in the region have had reservations cancelled due to the current state of the beaches. So long as oil continues to appear in the sand and water, tourism is likely to suffer.

Volunteers have arrived from all over the country to help clean the beaches. The Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (IBAMA) has also been working on the clean-up, though the federal government recently cut its funding, limiting the agency’s resources. One IBAMA officer told me neither she nor her colleagues were going to get any extra payment for what they were doing to help clean the oil, and that most of them were moved by their own conscience and decided to help not because they’re governmental employees, but because they cannot endure to see their country’s environment suffer.

Every volunteer has a different reason to be there: many are environmental activists, but there are also scientists, biologists, chemical engineers, zoologists, veterinarians, doctors, photographers, journalists, and even teachers. Paulo Guimarães Júnior, a 30-year-old man from Rio de Janeiro, south of the spill, told me he decided to go and help after his four year old daughter spent an entire afternoon crying because she had seen a picture of dead a turtle covered in oil. “By the time I had set my eyes on that picture, I was just as moved as her,” he said, his gloves covered in oil and seaweeds, “and I knew I needed to do something. My daughter turned to me and said ‘we need to help these turtles, daddy’, and I told her, ‘yes, sweetheart, we are going to help them.’”

Maria Helena Fionucci, a young volunteer in her early 20s, wrinkles her nose and forehead when I ask what’s the most difficult part about helping with the clean-up. She says that the manual work is not as bad as one might think, and that it is what comes after that is much worse: extreme nausea and vomiting, terrible headaches, and itchy skin allergies that “can make anyone go mad from scratching.”

She’s not the only one experiencing such symptoms. Many volunteers, often working without proper equipment, have been reporting illness related to exposure to the oil and/or the solvents being used to clean it.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who has yet to visit the impacted region, has been criticized for his government’s slow and tepid response to the crisis. Though IBAMA began an official response to the spill on September 2, by mid-October the federal government had only sent 1,500 troops to help with the clean-up. Last week Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced that it would send 5,000 more. The Brazilian Navy has also said that it is prepared to intervene should the spill threaten Abrolhos Marine National Park, a protected area that’s home to rare coral formations and one of the country’s largest reefs.

But this is not enough. As a Brazilian citizen and environmental activist, I cannot help but feel that this urgent crisis destroying our coast isn’t getting enough attention. The poor communities living in these regions need all the help they can get, as do the all the plants and animals dependent on a healthy coastal ecosytem. It’s time for both the Brazilian government and the international community to step up and support the thousands of volunteers working to clean my country’s waters and beaches of this toxic sludge.

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