Locals take oil spill cleanup into their own hands

. Oct 21, 2019
Locals take oil spill cleanup into their own hands Volunteers are cleaning up Northeastern beaches. Photo: Léo Domingos

“I had oil all over my hands, arms, and legs. I didn’t know what to do. I washed it off with soap and then with cooking oil. It was the first time I’d ever seen it here.” Natalia Jessica stared out at the ocean with a mix of incredulity and sorrow, after her unusual bath. The high tide helped sweep away some of the oil that the local task force couldn’t remove from the beaches in the small city of Coruripe, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas. That Saturday, at least two tons of sludge had been collected.

</p> <p>Born and raised in Coruripe, she was barbecuing with her friends and family in front of an idyllic landscape, surrounded by what are usually some of Brazil&#8217;s most pristine beaches.</p> <p>It has been 49 days and counting since <a href="">crude oil stains appeared</a> across Brazil’s picture-postcard landscapes in the Northeast. The first signs were spotted off the coast of Maranhão state. Since then, the substance has spread to 187 beaches across all nine states of the Brazilian Northeast.</p> <p>While unclean beaches are certainly unsightly, the impact is even worse on the animals. Dozens of birds and sea turtles have been found suffocated and caked in crude oil since the end of August.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Over 10 tons of crude oil were removed from the Cabo de São Agostinho beach. Photo: Léo Domingos" class="wp-image-26212" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Over 10 tons of crude oil were removed from the Cabo de São Agostinho beach. Photo: Léo Domingos</figcaption></figure> <p>“The situation is terrible in the reefs. I saw 50-centimeter stains there. Human beings are destroying the environment. This isn’t normal,” said Darlan Souza, Jessica’s friend, who also ended up with oil stuck on his body that same weekend.</p> <p>“We can’t deny it: this is a serious problem. There are over 180 beaches affected. Some more than others, as it depends on the tide and the winds,” explains Patricia Oliveira, an analyst of the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) and a member of the agency&#8217;s emergency team in Alagoas.</p> <p>The Northeast coast is over 2,000 kilometers long and is often known as the “Brazilian Caribbean,” packed with tourists who flock to its warm waters and white sands. The local economy is heavily reliant on these visitors and activities linked to its rich ecosystem, as is the case of fishing. The coast of Alagoas is part of a protected area called the “reef coast,” where hundreds of natural pools are filled with the ocean’s crystal clear waters.</p> <p>“The damages to marine fauna are incalculable. It hasn&#8217;t only harmed sea turtles, but also seaweed, microscopic organisms, and invertebrates, such as mollusks and coral,” says Bruno Stefanis, a biologist at Biota Institute, an NGO based in Alagoas which has been treating animals washed up on the beach, and mapping the appearance of oil.</p> <p>He notes that the sea turtles&#8217; mating season is approaching, and the disturbance of the oil spill could have huge long-term effects on the population. “These animals will be submitted to a catastrophe.” Mr. Stefanis also remarks that the whole food chain is at risk—including humans—as the contamination of microscopic organisms affects the fish and seafood that makes it onto Brazilian dinner tables. “Soon it won’t be only a matter having oil stuck to our skin, but of having it inside our bodies,” he warns.</p> <p>The cleaning shift in Alagoas starts early in the morning and goes until around 3 pm, when the tide washes the sand, taking any uncollected waste back to the ocean and bringing more oil from the high seas. “We can’t estimate how long will it take to clean up the beaches, as long as we can’t find the oil’s source,” says Patricia Oliveira.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Investigations: delays and political feuds</h2> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro only ordered an investigation into the spill on October 5, 35 days after the first stains appeared in Maranhão. On September 26, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong><a href=""> showed</a> the oil had already reached 99 beaches.</p> <p>Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has visited the Northeast twice since the first oil spills appeared. In Alagoas, he said that the government is<a href=""> still measuring</a> the consequences on tourism, fauna, and flora. Led by the Navy and Federal Police, investigations have delivered no answers on the source of the oil so far. State-owned oil company Petrobras analyzed the substance and concluded that it is a blend of three types of oil produced in Venezuela, a claim<a href=";view=article&amp;id=9357:comunicado-de-prensa&amp;catid=10:noticias&amp;Itemid=589&amp;lang=es"> denied</a> by its Venezuelan counterpart PDVSA.</p> <p>Researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro believe they have come the closest in identifying a source, using mathematical models to affirm that the spill comes from an area between 600 and 700 kilometers from the shore—that is, outside of Brazilian waters.</p> <p>The researchers say it is impossible to be more accurate at this moment, as authorities don&#8217;t know exactly when the stains reached the coast. But, with more data, it would be possible to know if the crude oil leak was a one-off event or whether it persists.</p> <p>On October 18, federal prosecutors filed a complaint ordering the government to deploy its “National Plan for Oil Incidents.” Created in 2013, it establishes a protocol to deal with such disasters. Prosecutors claim that the federal government has been “neglectful, idle, inefficient, and ineffective” and request the administration be fined BRL 1 million fine per day in which the plan is not carried out.</p> <p>President Bolsonaro has said three times that the oil spill was &#8220;criminal,&#8221; but has not provided evidence of such claims. His relationship with the Northeast adds fuel to the crisis. In the presidential race, this was the only region where he was beaten by Workers Party’s candidate Fernando Haddad. </p> <p>In July, Mr. Bolsonaro used a <a href="">slur</a> to refer to people from the Northeast, who now claim that the tragedy is not gaining the same attention as<a href=""> the fires in the Amazon rainforest</a>, the apple of Mr. Bolsonaro’s eye, as well of that of his military entourage, and the international community.</p> <h2>Community work and hope</h2> <p>Despite the government’s lack of response with regards to the source of the oil, the work in the field is limitless. In Alagoas, the most active arm of the federal administration is Ibama. Roughly one hundred agency employees are monitoring the areas affected by air and ground, as well as helping in animal rescue efforts. They are part of a task-force that includes local volunteers, biologists, NGOs, and municipal governments.</p> <p>“There was a day when I couldn’t stand it and cried a lot. But on that same day, everybody on the beach was thanking us and acknowledging our work. Tourists and locals are asking how they can help. We’re exhausted but we keep on working, as this is very gratifying. It makes me feel more optimistic,” says Patricia Oliveira, adding a note of hope in a disastrous context.

Maria Martha Bruno

Maria Martha is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has already collaborated with Al Jazeera, NBC, and CNN, among others. She has also worked as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at