Fishing for justice in Brazil
Lydia James talks to Brazilian fisher and human rights defender Alexandre Anderson de Souza.
How did you come to be a fisher in Rio de Janerio’s Bay of Guanabara?
I started fishing in 1998. Before that I worked for a transnational corporation. Then I saw fisherfolk in my parents’ village. I thought it was a very beautiful profession; that is why I still fish today.
Can you tell me about Petrobras? When did they come to the bay?
Petrobras is a semi-public Brazilian oil and gas transnational corporation, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. We started noticing Petrobras occupying the bay in the year 2000 when there was a big oil spill that contaminated the whole local ecosystem. At that time there was just one petrochemical plant in the bay – there are now three, along with 16 platforms. We began to lose the space in which we could previously fish; that is why we started our organization – the Association of People of the Sea (AHOMAR). Our quest is to find out why the company is occupying our space.
What impact has Petrobras had on the local environment?
The company has devastated the vegetation and the mung grass. It builds pipelines and platforms that reach far into the bay. The pipelines display artificial lights and these confuse the fish. Petrobras tanks, ships and submarines kill shoals of fish. The fish can’t survive in the area so there is a reduced amount of fishing. Fewer fish reduces the number of other sea creatures.
How many fisherfolk are there now in the area?
The Bay of Guanabara covers seven municipalities in Rio de Janeiro and curves all the way around to the town of Magé, where I am from. In the year 2000 there were 23,000 families in the bay; today there are 9,000. There are 28 fishing villages; 15 years ago there was twice that number. They have been removed by Petrobras.
How have they been removed?
People have been forced out. The government, the municipality and the police supported this. Families are offered a small amount of compensation but they have no choice but to move out. It is always the same.
Can you tell me about the work of the Association of People Of the Sea (AHOMAR)?
AHOMAR started in 2003, two years after Petrobras’ first oil spill when we found out that instead of sorting out the devastation, Petrobras was occupying more and more space in the bay. We didn’t feel that other organizations were representing us, so we founded our own to find out what was happening. We started with 600 fisherfolk in 2003, now we have 4,280. AHOMAR is a registered charity and it is the largest one protecting traditional fishing in Brazil.
Does the Brazilian government support your resistance?
The government has two opposing interests – one protecting the oil and gas industry and the other dedicated to environmental management and protecting people.
What have been the consequences of this conflict of interest?
I know the real motives of the government. I am a representative of the communities. There is no conflict of governmental interests – that is only what the media report. There is no interest in protecting the people or the environment, only with protecting Petrobras. All Petrobras’ buildings and infrastructure are financed by the Brazilian government.
You have been under Brazil’s federal programme, the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, for the past five years. What effect does that have on your family?
I have two sons and two grandchildren and we all live together in the same apartment. We are all hiding, though my children have external activities. I made an agreement with my wife not to talk much about it. My wife is part of a fisher organization for women. She says that at any time she expects her husband to be killed. They shot me twice, in 2009 and in 2012.
Some of the police who are meant to protect you are corrupt and have tried to kill you. Can independent officers protect you instead?
I have been without proper protection for a while. Police officers give me protection and an apartment, but I am not protected. One day the officers protect me, the next day I see them working on an oil platform.
The worst thing about it is the judges and people in the legal profession who are involved. There have been kidnappings of other fisherfolk. Five people have been killed and two are still ‘disappeared’.
Has anyone claimed responsibility for these killings?
In the case of two colleagues who were murdered in 2012, many articles were written about them in the international media. One person was charged and went to prison but he was found to be innocent. They believe he was a scapegoat. The police never found the real culprit. None of the cases concerning the six attempts on my life have ever been solved – in fact, sometimes the police refused to register the cases.
The main funders of Projecto Legal – the organization reported to be helping you with your legal case – are Petrobras. Have you been able to find alternative legal protection?
The lawyers I have do not have a connection with Petrobras, but in the country lots of lawyers do. We found out that one of the NGOs – I’m not going to say their name – received money from Petrobras. Petrobras has responsibility for everything that happens in the bay and they are trying to quash resistance. How do they do this? Only through connecting with NGOs and the government.
Can you tell me more about how Petrobras manages to gets away with its numerous human rights violations?
To give you one example, all of the board of Petrobras are linked to the party in power in Brazil. The senates and governors are in the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores, translated as the ‘Workers Party’]. The judges are all from PT too. Despite that, we managed to stop one of their new projects. We’ve had some successes and the international media really help in spreading information about the actions of Petrobras.
Petrobras don’t deny what they’ve done, but they don’t acknowledge it either. They have contracts with other companies that do these kidnappings. They are not directly responsible themselves.
Brazil has received the world’s attention this year. But still few people know about your plight. What can the international community do to support you?
The most important thing is to raise visibility and awareness of what is happening in the bay. The media in Brazil is influenced by money and the national TV is funded by Petrobras. Human rights groups in Berlin and Canada have campaigns. Amnesty is also going to start one in London. It’s not just me; all fisherfolk need support. We live every day at risk of death. And it’s not just us in the bay – it’s the same for all fishing communities around the country.
Anything else you would like to add?
We don’t only protect the ecosystem, we also have a culture and a history that has survived for 500 years – violence won’t put a stop to that. It’s not about me. It’s a story about 9,000 men, women and children, and it’s for them that that I am talking to you now.