In 2016, I was fortunate to make contact with the environmental news site, Mongabay. The group supported my travel to the Tapajós region of the Brazilian Amazon where approximately 40 new hydropower dams are being planned. The region is facing other environmental threats as well, such as a shipping canal that would lead from the heart of Mato Grosso state to the Atlantic Ocean along the course of the Tapajós River. Thanks to a former AMARC employee, I made contact with Father Edilberto Sena in the city of Santarém. He founded the Amazon News Network, which I profiled for Mongabay. I also reported on the conflict and tensions between small-scale gold miners in the region and local indigenous populations. In the city of Altamira, the hub for the disastrous Belo Monte dam project, I interviewed traditional fisherfolk whose needs have been almost entirely overlooked by those planning mitigation measures for the dam.
This work would not have been possible without the support I received from a range of people, from the Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens (MAB), the environmental NGO Xingu Vivo, and the Federal Public Ministry, among others.
In August, just before the Olympics, I had the pleasure to collaborate with Ana Terra Athayde on a story for the Guardian. The piece focused on the growing trend among Afro-Brazilian women to use natural hairstyles instead of straightening their hair. Whether in braids, afros, or dread locks, more women are embracing their natural beauty, and with it, their political and social power.
The outbreak of Zika and the associated cases of microcephaly in Brazil have terrified many, and as the Rio Olympics draw near, the media are returning to the issue. Earlier this year, Al Jazeera English published my report from Recife on how gender, race and class play into this scenario. Recife is a majority Black city, yet wealth is unevenly distributed, and most low-income residents are people of color. One women’s rights advocate explained that women also represent the bulk of Brazil’s self-employed workers, which means they have no sick leave or safety net.
And while Brazil is fumigating to control the mosquito population, public health researchers sustain that mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue, which are devastating the population, will be controlled more effectively once Brazil ensures universal access to running water and sewer systems.
I owe a debt of thanks to Allison Mills who suggested I look into the Creativist (now Atavist) platform for this project. Below is a link to the project I put together after my eight months in Brazil exploring the issues affecting women, especially women fisher folk, south of Recife near the Suape Port and Industrial Complex. The idea was to explore the impact that an expanding port and industrial complex (complete with a brand new Petrobras refinery) was having on the women and the environment that sustains their livelihoods. There is much more to say about this and the overall impact, but the link below will take you to the multi-media piece that I have finally finished.
This project was only possible thanks to the tremendous generosity I found in Pernambuco from people like Renato Amram Athias, Méle Dornelas and Diana Moura. The Centro das Mulheres de Cabo de Santo Agostinho deserves acknowledgement as well for all the connections and support they provided.
Since I started this project, Petrobras has come under investigation for corruption, corruption exemplified by the Suape refinery. Brazil’s economy has slowed down significantly, and the country’s political landscape is much more unstable than it was. The stories in this piece are stories you would not likely hear elsewhere. They come from the grassroots and express some of the realities of people who have been living a subsistence lifestyle in the midst of an expanding capitalist project. Please share the link widely.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.