Valeria Maria de Alcântará, marisqueira

Roughly 5000 women participate in Pernambuco’s “straw hat” community education course for fisher women. Unlike their male counterparts, who generally use boats to fish off-shore, the women fisher folk are marisqueiras, shellfish women. They collect mollusks, sand crabs, brown crabs and other shellfish from the tidal mangrove swamps that hug the state’s coast. They do the work barefoot since they can since up to their mid-calves in the muddy terrain. At times, the women will be waist deep in water or higher as they pry mussels from tree branches or coax small crabs out from their shelter among the mangrove trees. Marisqueiras subsist on what they catch, which generally supplements the income the men in the household earn on the water or through other work.

But the marisqueiras say that the conditions in the mangrove swamps has deteriorated dramatically over the past several years. The decline corresponds to expansions at the Suape Port and Industrial Complex which houses two shipbuilding firms, a coca-cola bottling plant, and various chemical companies, among other enterprises.

The complex is located roughly 2 hours south of the state capital, Recife, on a coast known for its beautiful beaches. For some, the expansion has led to job opportunities in the port complex, which contributes roughly 10% of the state’s revenues. For Brazil as a whole, the new oil refinery offers a way to process some of the country’s oil wealth and avoid paying a premium for refined products it has to import. For many others in the area, the expansion disrupted lives and livelihoods by displacing people from their homes and crippling damage to the mangrove swamps’ ecosystem.

I owe tremendous thanks to Valeria Maria de Alcântará, who is featured in this slideshow, as well as to Melé Dornelas of the Comité Pastoral da Pesca, which organizes subsistence fisherfolk like Ms. de Alcântará. Many others deserve recognition for their help:  Helenilda Cavalcanti of the Fundaçao Joaquim Nabuco and Nivete Azevedo of the Centro das Mulheres do Cabo.

San Francisco integrates climate-change planning into its capital expenditure budgeting requirements

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco has taken an important step towards protecting itself and its infrastructure investments from potential flooding and other climate-change related issues. Vice News asked me to cover this for them, and my story is here


Reporting on the Wisconsin gubernatorial elections

Scott Walker celebrates his 2014 victory. Photo by
Scott Walker celebrates his 2014 victory. Photo by

I have had the good fortune to do some reporting for The Guardian on the very intense election season here in Wisconsin. Below are links to three stories I wrote last week. Two deal with the state’s new voter ID law and the large numbers of people who will likely be disenfranchised by its implementation so close to the election. The third focuses on a facebook page that received media attention because of its call for an armed poll watcher “militia” to challenge voters who had signed recall petitions and have outstanding warrants. Later the group’s owner said it was a hoax.

Palafitas in Recife

A shrimp farm lies next to a polluted stream in the Afogados neighborhood of Recife.
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During my time in Olinda and Recife, I was privileged to meet Andréia Vieira and Fatima Brayner, José Elisio da Costa, “Dançarino,” and his daughter, Alma. All of them helped me gain access to two “palafitas” communities in Recife:  Coelhos and Afogados. These are communities where low-income individuals and families live in stilt houses on the river’s edge, and they are some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Water regularly floods these homes when the river rises with high tide, and fire is another threat. But real estate speculation may be the most significant danger facing these areas now as the city expands and developers seek new spaces to build high rises.


Suape’s Children: The Social Impacts of Brazil’s Top-Down Development

After reporting on the BP oil spill and its aftereffects, I became interested in the dynamics of oil production and coastal communities. Suape, a port and industrial complex in Brazil’s northeast gave me an opportunity to do some research into an area with some similarities to coastal Louisiana. What I found is a pattern of development that has received a fair bit of attention in relation to the World Cup:  a top-down model that imposes plans on low-income communities, all too often with violent methods.

Many people helped me over the course of this project. I am particularly indebted to Alex Shankland, my professor at the Institute of Development Studies, who first mentioned the Suape complex to me. Alex also connected me with Renato Athias, who provided extensive contacts and support during my first months in the area.

One result of my efforts is this piece published by Pacific Standard Magazine.

Valeria de Alcantara hunts for crabs on a beach near the Suape port complex.
Valeria de Alcantara hunts for crabs on a beach near the Suape port complex.

Brazil’s Fragile Energy System: Another Impetus for World Cup Protests?

An image from the massive 2009 blackout that struck Brazil.
An image from the massive 2009 blackout that struck Brazil.

“The big frailty today in the electrical system is the national grid system,” he said.

In early March I saw an article about the risk to Brazil’s power supply presented by low reservoir levels. Al Jazeera America agreed to work with me on an article about the way the instabilities in the country’s power system could feed into social tensions leading up to the World Cup. The result is here.  I owe a huge thanks to Pedro Telles for connecting me with a key source in this story, as well as Peter Ratcliffe, for the same reason.


Photo from the MadeInBrazil typepad blog:

Industrial Impacts Highlighted in The Guardian

The Guardian recently published a piece of mine about the impact that the Suape Port Complex, just south of Recife, is having on traditional fishing communities. This is the project that brought me back to Brazil, and I’m working on developing other outputs for it. My hope is to create a photographic and audio installation that will communicate some of the experiences of the people who live in the area near the port. In the meantime, you can read the story on how pollution from the port is impacting women shellfishers here.

  • Vania Maria de Alcàntara contemplates a mangrove tree at the start of a shellfishing expedition in a swamp near the Suape Port Complex.
  • Valeria Maria de Alcàntara tests a stream bed to ensure she doesn't step on a stinging eel.
  • This kind of exposure to polluted water results in high rates of skin and reproductive infections according to a study done by the Sociedade Nordestina de Ecologia.
  • A kilo of crab meat will sell for roughly 70 Reals, and it now takes 3 mornings to collect this amount, when it used to take just one.
  • Valeria Maria de Alcàntara styles her daughter's hair after a morning's work in the mangrove swamp.



“Rolezinhos” Fill Brazilian Malls — And Reveal Racial and Class Tensions

Janaína Oliveira, a racial justice activist in Recife, Brazil, tells onlookers at the Rio Mar shopping mall that this "rolezinho" aims to ensure that malls are accessible to people of color.
Janaína Oliveira, a racial justice activist in Recife, Brazil, tells onlookers at the Rio Mar shopping mall that this “rolezinho” aims to ensure that malls are accessible to people of color.

In January, Brazil was filled with news about “rolezinhos,” little outings. Rolezinhos are get-togethers organized on facebook. Primarily, they have offered way for low-income youth, who are also often people of color, to hang out, flirt, and shop in malls. But in early December roughly 6,000 youth came out to a rolezinho in São Paulo, and the event was accompanied by rumors of theft and mass muggings, although only three people were reportedly arrested. This blog post by Rio Gringa, offers an excellent review of the course of events and the debates around the gatherings. Repression by mall administrators and police, including pre-emptive arrests, led Amnesty International to call the response to the rolezinhos discriminatory and racist. Solidarity rolezinhos were planned and held in different parts of Brazil, including Recife. Public Radio International´s The World gave me an opportunity to cover this phenomenon for them, and to talk about the class and racial tensions that the rolezinhos are revealing as Brazil heads into the final months of preparing to host the World Cup.

Cockroaches: They’re at London’s Science Museum

Roaches learn about human eating habits from Professor John Cockroach, a.k.a. Michael Bendib, center.
Roaches learn about human eating habits from Professor John Cockroach, a.k.a. Michael Bendib, center.

On a visit to London this summer, a buddy of mine, Matt Davis, mentioned that London’s Science Museum has a cockroach tour. That is, one can go to the museum and experience something similar to Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a bug by donning a cockroach costume. DW was planning a special edition focusing on climate change education, and they thought the story engaging enough to publish. You can listen to the audio version or read the text one.

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