Brazil: Oil exploitation project worries fishermen at Amazon River estuary

In the city of Oiapoque, in the far north region of Brazil, most inhabitants use artisanal phishing for their income | Image: Willy Miranda/Agência Pública

This report, written by Rayane Penha, is the result of the Oil and Climate Change Microgrants, run by Agência Pública in partnership with WWF-Brazil. It was originally published on Agência Pública's website on June 12, 2023, and is republished by Global Voices under a partnership agreement, with edits.

Júlio Teixeira arrived in the northern state of Amapá at age 12, on a fishing boat from Salvaterra, about 1,150 kilometers away, where he had been working since he was 8. There, he joined the residents of the fishing village of Taperebá, within the Cabo Orange National Park, an 18-hour boat ride from the nearest town of Oiapoque.

“There were only fishermen there, stilts, bridges, there was no dry land. It was there that I grew up and I was already working,” he recalled. Now, he is president of the fishermen's settlement of Oiapoque, a city on the border of Brazil and French Guiana.  

Teixeira says that state-owned Petrobras has been conducting studies for oil exploration in the region for more than four decades. Data from the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels corroborate this: in 1969, the company had a presence at the Amazon River estuary for geophysical survey studies. 

In August 2021, Petrobras filed an application for a license with Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) to search for oil at the Amazon River estuary, even though the agency had previously denied requests from the former owner of the concessions, the French company Total E&P. The area is located 175 kilometers from Amapá's coast, on the Equatorial Margin, a coastal region that extends from Oiapoque to the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, seen as Brazil's new frontier of oil exploration.

Last May, Ibama denied Petrobras the license, stating that, among other things, the company did not provide guarantees for the protection of local fauna in the event of an accident. But the state-owned company said it had met “all requirements thoroughly,” and it appealed the decision.

The debate over extraction at the Amazon River estuary has prompted politicians to take a position and divided the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in particular causing friction between the Ministry of Mining and Energy and the Ministry of the Environment.  

The “oil issue”

The oil issue is also hanging over residents in Amapá. According to the state's Institute of Scientific and Technological Research, there are at least 7,000 local fishermen there, which may be an underestimate. 

When walking around Oiapoque, a town with 28,500 inhabitants, you hear the chatter about Petrobras’ plans. As in most communities in the Amazon where such large-scale projects take place, fear of damage is a constant in the local people's lives.

Cláudia Barbosa, who makes a living selling crabs that she catches with her husband, was worried about the livelihoods of workers like her. “If there's an oil spill, how will we survive? Many are born already working in fishing,” she said. “There are no jobs here. And for those who only know how to live doing this work? How will they support their families?”. 

According to Teixeira, a fisherman spends at least 6,000 reais (about US$ 1,200) to go out fishing, which moves the local economy.  “It's not just selling fish. [You] buy the oil, buy the ice, pay the advance to the fisherman – fishermen don't go out if you don't advance R$300, 400, 500 for each one,” he said. “You have to buy food, [and] materials. There are boats that take materials worth up to 20,000 reais to spend 20 days [fishing].”

The production chain, mostly family and artisan-level, also generates work, making fishing and the jobs associated with it an alternative for many people who stop working in illegal mining and logging in the region.

Political pressure 

Amapá is Brazil's most-preserved state, with the largest intact forest cover, with mangroves, fields, meadows, savannah, firm land forests, floodplain forests, and igapó forests. Despite its great socio-environmental importance, it is constantly pressured by the political and business classes to exploit natural resources. 

The fishermen in the village feel that governments and public authorities, in general, are not interested in the effects of oil extraction on the region, said the fishermen interviewed by Agência Pública. 

“They're in a fairy tale, they only think about the royalties,” Teixeira says.

Royalties are financial compensation paid to the federal government, states, and municipalities by oil and natural gas companies for the use of non-renewable resources.  

The current leader of the government in the senate, Randolfe Rodrigues, senator for Amapá, is one of those arguing for research into possible oil extraction in the state. The issue led to him leaving the Rede party (in English, Sustainability Network), to which the Minister for the Environment, Marina Silva, belongs. 

Rodrigues claims that the debate now is only about exploratory drilling. “The people of Amapá must have the right to know whether or not there is oil [on the state's coast],” he said through his press representatives.

The senator argues that, if the federal government chooses not to extract, Amapá state should receive compensation. 

Janaína Calado, a researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Territorial Development of the State University of Amapá, has been working since 2018 to understand residents’ perceptions about the exploitation of oil and the Amazon's reefs. For her, the problem is that there is no broad popular consultation, nor has a robust environmental impact study been presented to give certainty about the project's impact. 

“Our main problem here at the Amazon River estuary is the lack of basic knowledge about this region. If well carried out, planned, and with wide popular participation, the initiative can, indeed, bring economic benefits to the state,” she said.

The researcher points out, however, that this economic impact would be through bringing royalties, with no expected creation of directly-linked jobs for local people. 

In May, Amapá's Legislative Assembly held a public hearing in Oiapoque to discuss oil exploitation with the local community. However, the fishermen claimed that the event was a “political stage” and that they were not allowed to speak, according to the fishermen interviewed by Agência Pública. Traditional and Indigenous communities also criticized the event for being poorly publicized and lamented that they were not invited in a timely manner to attend the hearing

In conversation with journalists during an official trip to Japan in May, President Lula said he will veto any intention to extract oil at the Amazon River estuary if there is a real risk to the environment.

In a message released on social media, the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Amapá and Northern Pará (APOIANP) said that they are against oil exploitation at the Amazon River estuary that does not assess the impacts or include prior consultation with Indigenous peoples, and they support Ibama's decision to deny Petrobras the license.

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