The mysterious oil slicks were first spotted on the beaches of the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba on Aug. 30. In the days and weeks that followed, 4,000 tons of the crude, viscous substance, propelled by the wind and tidal currents, spread across the region’s nine coastal states, extending for more than 1,500 miles. By mid-October, photos of sea turtles distorted by thick coats of tar and mummified-looking birds had drawn national attention. But the image that has come to symbolize one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history is that of a desolate boy, eyes closed and arms open in a sign of resignation, as he walks out of the water dressed in a black garbage bag that is almost indistinguishable from the oil around him.
After more than two months, the origin of the oil spill remains largely unknown. The latest investigations by Brazilian authorities point at Greek-flagged tankers carrying Venezuelan oil, but the companies have denied any involvement. The lack of satisfying answers combined with the nature of the heavy oil, which doesn’t float on the surface for the most part, has made it hard to determine the extent of the problem and predict when it will be contained. “We’re working with what I classify in marine pollution as the worst possible situation,” said Monica Ferreira da Costa, a chemical oceanography and marine pollution professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco. “We can’t know what we’re fighting against until we know what the source is.”
The already-challenging circumstances were hardly made better by the federal government’s lethargic response to the disaster. In one of his first public statements, President Jair Bolsonaro said, without presenting evidence, that the oil spill was most certainly a criminal act. He has since suggested, “The worst is yet to come.” Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, who was on a tour to restore Brazil’s image abroad, which was tarnished by the government’s poor response to the Amazon fires in August, attempted to place blame elsewhere, on anyone from the Venezuelan government to Greenpeace. Salles first set foot in the affected region 40 days after the detection of the first stains.
Meanwhile, groups of volunteers have mobilized to clean the more than 490 localities impacted by the oil spill, often exposing themselves to toxic substances when collecting the sludge with their bare hands. “It’s devastating,” said Katley Ellen, a volunteer with Greenpeace in the state of Ceará who said the organization is providing the local population, including fishermen and surfers, with latex gloves and masks. “Many people are directly dependent on the ocean to survive and we’re seeing how desperate they are to find a solution.”
The public prosecutor’s office has since opened an investigation into the federal government’s response to the oil spill, characterizing it as inert and ineffective. It also urged the government to set in motion a 2013 national contingency plan that established protocols for the state’s response to such incidents. The administration says it created a unified command group including the Navy and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) in early September, but that plan wasn’t put into action until mid-October, according to the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. By that point, the oil had already reached dozens of cities. Thiago Almeida, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil, thinks the government lacks the political will to fight the oil spill. “While the oil stained the northeast coast, the government was auctioning off oil reserves [off Brazil’s southeast coast],” Almeida said.
According to IBAMA environmental emergencies coordinator Fernanda Pirillo, the agency acted quickly considering the complexity of this oil spill, which she called “unprecedented.” “The government wasn’t expecting a stain of unknown origin,” Pirillo said.
What this disaster reveals is a pattern of unpreparedness to prevent and control major environmental disasters, one that is only being exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s anti-environment agenda. In 2019 alone, Brazil has seen the collapse of the Brumadinho dam, the wildfires in the Amazon, and now the oil spill. Experts say they all reflect the aggravated consequences of a historically unsustainable developmental model—based on fossil fuels and extractivism—and the dismantling of environmental legislation and policies.
January’s Brumadinho disaster happened less than four years after a mining dam operated by Samarco—a company controlled by Vale, also the owner of Brumadinho—collapsed in Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais. Combined, they have taken almost 270 lives. Both tragedies can be partially attributed to lax licensing laws and flawed oversight mechanisms, making Mariana and Brumadinho less like a disaster and more like “political-institutional failures,” the anthropologist Andréa Zhouri told National Geographic.
In addition to Bolsonaro’s pro-development policies and anti-regulation rhetoric, environmental agencies have suffered severe budget and personnel cuts. His administration has also moved to ease fines for environmental law infractions, eliminate conservation units, and reduce spaces dedicated to civil society participation in advisory agencies like the National Environmental Council. The result, Verônica Korber Gonçalves, a climate governance specialist and professor of international politics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, says, “is a process of naturalization of noncompliance with environmental legislation.”
In August, the world watched in horror as blazes engulfed the Amazon, exposing the consequences of these policies. Bolsonaro attacked the space agency monitoring forest loss and rejected resources from the Amazon Fund to fight the fires. Under pressure, he eventually sent the army in and signed a 60-day ban on land-clearing fires in the region. The rates of deforestation have still continued to spike, though, increasing the risk of wildfires. In September, the amount of deforested area in the Amazon went up by 96 percent in comparison with the same month last year.
As miners and loggers feel emboldened and authorized by this administration, the intimidation of enforcement agents, invasion of indigenous lands, and fatal attacks on environmentalists have become increasingly common. To make matters worse, just last week, Bolsonaro revoked a decade-old decree prohibiting the planting of sugarcane in the Amazon and the tropical wetlands of Pantanal, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. For days now, fires possibly caused by human activity and worsened by high temperatures and dry vegetation have been ravaging across Pantanal without generating much outcry. Bolsonaro’s latest measure, environmental groups say, exposes already-vulnerable ecosystems to predatory economic expansion that could lead to more land-clearing fires and further deforestation.
“Because of the littering of environmental policies, we’re collecting disasters,” Gonçalves said. “These are foretold tragedies.”
Indeed, in the case of the oil spill that now threatens Abrolhos, the richest area of marine biodiversity in the south Atlantic Ocean, some of its effects might have been mitigated. In April, the Bolsonaro administration extinguished a number of administrative committees in charge of putting the contingency plan in action—despite warnings that the measure could hinder the government’s ability to respond to precisely this kind of incident—which experts believe may have contributed to the delay in its implementation.
According to Ferreira da Costa, the wait was fatal. “There would still be pollution, but some areas might have been spared,” she said, adding that the problem is far from over and that it will take time to understand the scope of the damage to ecosystems, communities, and people’s health. “It will be around for decades.”