Far from the plush surroundings which hosted Rio+20, the most ambitious global conference on the environment of the past two decades, events in a fishing village in the state of Rio de Janeiro show the cost of fighting environmental crime can be as high as life itself.
The people living in a coastal village on Mauá beach on Guanabara Bay, in the municipality of Magé, 84 km north of Rio, had no time to digest the results of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in this city Jun. 20-22.
On Friday Jun. 22, the same day heads of states signed the conference’s final document – which was criticised for its lack of commitment on crucial issues like the protection of the ocean – two fishermen and environmental activists, Almir Nogueira and Jõao Luiz Telles, went missing from their homes.
Nogueira’s body was discovered two days later, tied to his boat which was sunk in the waters off a local beach. Telles was found dead on Jun. 25, washed up onshore in a nearby municipality. He was tied hand and foot in foetal position.
The bodies showed signs the men had died by drowning.
“‘Men of the sea are going to die in the sea.’ That is the message they are sending us,” Alexandre Anderson, head of the Associaçao Homens e Mulheres do Mar (AHOMAR), tearfully declared at a protest meeting held Jun. 29 to demand an immediate investigation by the authorities.
The murder victims were leading members of AHOMAR, an association of some 2,000 artisanal fisherfolk who are fighting against pollution of the bay that has been their home, workplace and the source of their livelihood for generations.
Guanabara Bay is heavily polluted with untreated sewage and contaminants from refineries and other industries close to its shores, and the environment is suffering.
AHOMAR raises awareness of the social and environmental impact of big industries, and tries to prevent the companies from killing off the fish on which they depend. The association has been complaining since 2007 about pollution from construction of the huge Complexo Petroquímico (COMPER, a petrochemical complex) of the state of Rio de Janeiro.
COMPER represents a major investment by Brazil’s state oil company, Petrobras, and is part of the country’s growth acceleration programme launched by the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and continued by his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.
AHOMAR alleges that construction work on COMPER, sub-contracted by Petrobras to GDK and Oceánica, has reduced the fish catch in Guanabara Bay by 80 percent, as well as causing harm to human health and local wildlife.
The fisherfolk have been targets of threats of violence, and even killings, since 2009 when they used their boats to block access to underwater and onshore construction sites for pipelines for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
The threats intensified in late 2011, when AHOMAR mounted protest demonstrations against the decision by Rio’s state environmental institute (INEA) to implement plans to transform the Guaxindiba River, which flows into the bay, into a waterway for the transport of heavy machinery. Implementation of the plans had earlier been shelved at the environmental licensing stage.
A police station close to AHOMAR’s premises was closed down.
Anderson has a permanent personal police escort, provided by a protection programme for human rights workers, but he has nevertheless suffered threats and violent attacks.
“We want to preserve our environment because we are part of it. We fisherfolk are part of Guanabara Bay. But we don’t want to have to die by drowning in its waters,” Anderson said.
The treasurer of AHOMAR, Paulo Souza, was attacked and shot to death in front of his family in 2009, as IPS reported at the time. He was killed by five bullets in the head.
In 2010, Marcio Amaro, a founding member of AHOMAR, was murdered in his home in the presence of his wife and his mother.
Neither murder has been solved.
“It is regrettable that all these journalists are gathered here, in front of two more dead bodies, as if this were needed to call attention to a problem that has been going on for such a long time,” Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) lawmaker Marcelo Freixo, chairman of the human rights commission of the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, told the protest rally.
“I hope the next time we meet here, it won’t be because Alexandre has been killed!” he exclaimed.
Soon after this meeting, Anderson was again the victim of intimidation in front of his home. IPS has not been able to contact him by telephone since then.
“We’re no longer just talking about a state of insecurity. People have died as a result of their activism, their legitimate resistance to the destruction of Guanabara Bay,” activist Sandra Carvalho of the human rights group Justiça Global (Global Justice) told IPS.
Activists are calling for police and federal justice authorities to investigate the deaths, which they say have “clear signs of being execution-style murders”.
“I am requesting the authorities to investigate in depth, because (the perpetrators) have already got what they wanted: they took away men of the sea from their own homes,” Anderson emphasized.
The fishing boats have not returned to their usual occupation since the murders. No one dares to go to sea, which paradoxically used to be a “haven” for fishermen when “something bad happened at home or onshore,” Anderson said. “Now our only road is to the cemetery.”
Human rights organizations are convinced that these are “political crimes”. Freixo told IPS that the companies contracted for the construction work sometimes hire security firms that rely on “intimidation, threats and even killing”.
But Freixo, who is running for mayor of the city of Rio de Janeiro, said he did not believe the perpetrators of the murders had been hired by Petrobras to carry out “hit jobs”.
He stressed, however, that the oil giant “cannot pretend it has nothing to do with these cases. It is Petrobras’s investment project and the company must take responsibility for whomever it contracts,” he said.
Everyone at AHOMAR is certain who the killers are, said Anderson.
“They are people who are making a lot of money out of the industrialisation of Guanabara Bay; they have jobs in security, or in land or water transport. They are inside the provincial and municipal governments, and also in the public security services,” he said.
In Magé and other municipalities in the Rio metropolitan area, hit squads known as “militias” exist; they are made up of active or retired state security agents and have the support of local politicians, as a parliamentary enquiry led by Freixo has demonstrated.
Freixo, too, has a police escort because he has received threats related to his denunciations of these mafia-style militias.
In response to requests for information by IPS, Petrobras sent a communiqué in which it said the oil company was unaware of the deaths and denied making any threats against the fisherfolk.
Petrobras said the process of environmental licensing in Brazil takes into account all ecological impacts as well as possible effects on the communities. Moreover “a rigorous study of the impacts of the initiatives is carried out before the licence is granted, and the licensing body establishes compensation measures and supervises their fulfilment,” the communiqué said.
Petrobras is a “socially and environmentally responsible company that demands the same standards of behaviour from its suppliers,” the communiqué said.
At their next meeting, the fisherfolk will discuss whether to give up the struggle or, instead, to take vigorous actions such as interfering with shipping.
AHOMAR is enmeshed in a battle between “the artisanal fisherfolk and big oil capital,” according to Margarida Pressburger, chairwoman of the human rights commission of the Brazilian bar association (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil) for Rio de Janeiro.
Anderson put it a different way, saying it was not a case of David versus Goliath, but a struggle “against the devil himself”.
This article was originally published by IPS.