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 sink up to their mid-calves in the muddy terrain. At times, the women will be waist deep or higher in water as they pry mussels from tree branches or coax small crabs out from their shelters among the mangrove roots. For generations, Marisqueiras and their families subsisted on their catch. The women's crabbing generally supplements income men in the household earn on the water or through other work.
Valeria Maria de Alcântará, marisqueira
Marisqueiras like Valeria Maria de Alcàntara and her sister Vania say that the conditions in the mangrove swamps have deteriorated dramatically over the past several years. They blame expansion at the nearby Suape Port and Industrial Complex, which houses two shipbuilding firms, a coca-cola bottling plant, various chemical companies and other enterprises.
The complex sprawls roughly 2 hours south of the state capital, Recife, on a coast known for its beautiful beaches. The complex includes a strategic oil refinery and attracted tens of thousands of workers to the area to build new facilities during the aughts. For some area residents, the expansion has led to job opportunities in the port complex. For many others, Suape's growth has disrupted centuries-old lifestyles and livelihoods. To accommodate its development, the Suape complex has displaced families from their homes and inflicted crippling damage on the mangrove swamps' ecosystem.
But it is the women who are suffering most. Victims of sexual harassment and violence, many women complain that they no longer feel safe in the areas where they have lived their entire lives. The loss of income and sustenance from crabbing exacerbates tensions within the home as well, forcing more women to seek outside employment and burdening family budgets.
“Throughout the history of fishing in Brazil, women's activity has been rendered invisible.” Laurinede Maria Santana told me at a conference for traditional fisherfolk. “What these women produce doesn't enter into official fishing statistics,” Santana explained, stating that this government policy marginalizes the women's work. It also makes it impossible to hold officials accountable for income lost to environmental damage.
The Petrobras refinery in the complex was supposed to help Brazil position itself better in the global energy market. Scandals at the state-owned firm and plunging oil prices make it unclear if that calculation will pay off. In the meantime, the fisherwomen and the small-scale farmers who live in the area around the Suape Port and Industrial Complex have been sacrificed like pawns in this global game of chess.
Janaína Maria da Silva
In communities such as Ilha de Tatuoca, where da Silva lived before her accident, eletricity and water supplies are generally jerry-rigged, creating potential dangers such as da Silva's life-threatening shock. She was happy to be able to move into a proper house with a safe electrical system built by the Suape Port and Industrial Complex. Other residents of Ilha de Tatuoca were not pleased about being forced from their homes and say that the their new environment leaves them stranded in terms of work opportunities. Even da Silva said that while her new home was a big improvement, and she appreciates that her children are closer to a school, there are still problems.
Maria José Fatima da Silva Barros
Edjane José de Maceno
De Maceno and her family bought a plot of land from de Alcântará's father and built themselves a home. Land ownership in Brazil is highly complex, and such a transaction doesn't necessarily entitle the purchaser to full ownership rights under the country's law. Others near the Suape Port and Industrial Complex have built homes for themselves only to have them torn down by officials who argue that the homesteaders are squatters who are invading the Complex's property. Others argue that the Complex itself didn't acquire the land properly. The dispute offers insight into the housing issues facing millions of Brazilians across the country.
Since discovering massive offshore oil deposits in 2007, Brazil has bet heavily on this oil to drive its economic growth. Yet officials also recognized the danger of being oil rich but with limited capacity to refine its own petroleum products. So the refinery that Petrobras built at Suape – at a price ballooned by corruption – offered a way to shift that balance and to keep more of the wealth from Brazil's mineral resources in house.
Officials from the Suape Port and Industrial Complex say that the entity makes up roughly 10% of the state of Pernambuco's gross revenue. Certainly, the expansion in recent years brought in thousands of temporary workers. But the expansion work is basically finished, and Brazil's economy has slowed down significantly over the past two years. Meanwhile, many local residents lack the education needed to obtain higher-skilled jobs in the port, which they complain are given to migrants from other parts of the country or the world.
Prof. Bertrand Cozic described the transformation of Ipojuca, a small city near the port complex into a “favela” as a result of the expansion. While he describes the situation in traditional fishing and farming communities near the Suape port complex as “dramatic,” he insists that “Suape is essential to the northeast; what's missing is a plan.”
Zoe Sullivan is a multi-media artist and journalist. This project was inspired by her experience living in New Orleans during and after the 2010 BP oil disaster. Her work has been published and broadcast by Deustche Welle, Radio France International, Marketplace, The Guardian, Pacific Standard Magazine, and many other outlets. @firstname.lastname@example.org