Fishing for justice in Brazil

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Fishing for justice in Brazil

Lydia James talks to Brazilian fisher and human rights defender Alexandre Anderson de Souza.


When did you start fishing in Rio de Janerio’s Bay of Guanabara?

I started fishing in 1998. Before that I worked for a big international company. Then I saw people fishing 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 half-public Brazilian oil and gas company. It is one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. In 2000, we saw Petrobras in the bay, when there was a big oil spill that affected the whole local ecosystem. There was only one petrochemical plant in the bay then – there are now three, and 16 oil/gas platforms too. We began to lose the area where we could fish; that is why we started our organization – the Association of People of the Sea (AHOMAR).We need to know why the company is in our space.

What effect has Petrobras had on the local environment?

The company has destroyed the vegetation and the mung grass. It builds pipelines and platforms that reach far into the bay. The pipelines have artificial lights and these confuse the fish. Petrobras tanks, ships and submarines kill many fish. The fish can’t survive in the area so there is less fishing. When there are less fish, there are not so many other sea creatures. How many people now fish in the area?

The Bay of Guanabara covers seven municipalities in Rio de Janeiro and goes 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. Petrobras took them away.

How did they take them away?

They forced people to leave. The national and local government and the police supported this. They gave families a small amount of money as compensation but the familes have no choice. 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. We found out then that Petrobras were not making the environment better, but taking more space in the bay. We didn’t think that other organizations were fighting for what we wanted to fight for. So we started our own organisation to find out what was happening. We started with 600 fisherpeople in 2003, now we have 4,280. AHOMAR is a registered charity and it is the largest charity that protects traditional fishing in Brazil.

Does the Brazilian government support your work?

The government has two very different interests. They want to protect the oil and gas industry; and they also want to manage the environment and protect people.

So what happens because of these 2 different interests?

I know what the government want to do. I am a representative of the communities. There is no conflict of government interests – that is only what the media says. The government have no interest in protecting the people or the environment. They only want to protect Petrobras. The Brazilian government pay for all the buildings and the structure of Petrobras’.

You have been protected, 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, but 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 should protect you are corrupt and have tried to kill you. Can independent officers protect you instead?

I have not had 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. Some other fisherpeople have been kidnapped. Five people have been killed and two are still ‘disappeared’.

Has anyone said they are responsible for these killings?

Two were murdered in 2012, and 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. The police never found the real guilty person. Nothing has been found to explain the six times people have tried to kills me. Sometimes the police refused to register the cases.

The main company that gives money to Projecto Legal (the organization people say is helping you with your legal case) is Petrobras. Can you find other 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 stop people disagreeing with them. How do they do this? By connecting with NGOs and the government.

How can Petrobras not respect human rights and not be punished?

To give you one example, all of the management board of Petrobras have connections with the political 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. But 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 say they haven’t done what they have done, but they don’t agree that they’ve done it either. They have contracts with other companies that do these kidnappings. They are not directly responsible themselves.

Brazil has had the world’s attention this year. But not many people know about your situation. What can the international community do to support you?

The most important thing is to help more people see and know about what is happening in the bay. The media in Brazil is influenced by money and the national TV is supported financially 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 fisherpeople 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.

What else you would like to say?

We don’t only protect the ecosystem, we also have a culture and a history that has survived for 500 years – violence won’t stop 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.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).