by Jusleen Basra
The imposition of large, resource-extractive corporations on Indigenous and peasant territories around the world strips land access from local communities and deeply damages ecosystems. This is an all-too-familiar pattern that the Quilombola community of Boca do Rio, located near Salvador, Brazil knows well. Over the past few decades, various petrochemical companies have taken over the land that the Boca do Rio community and their ancestors have lived on for over a century, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment that have caused serious health issues and destroyed waterways that the people rely on to support their families.
To learn more about the challenges the Boca do Rio community is facing and to better understand how WhyHunger and other international allies can support their urgent needs, we spoke directly with members of the community.
In light of this ongoing situation, we are keeping all names anonymous to protect the identities of the individuals we spoke with for this interview. The interview has been translated, edited and condensed for clarity.
WHYHUNGER: Can you tell us more about your community and details that are key to understanding your background/situation?
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 1: My parents lived on this territory for 70 years, but before then, my grandparents also lived here. We are Quilombolas (inhabitants of territories of freed slaves). My father used to tell us how they lived here: fishing, gathering mussels, we used to have some crops. And then a company took over some of our territory. Today, we are struggling against many companies because they arrived and quickly whittled away at our territory and took over our land – grabbed our land. So today we’ve lost many of our rights so we don’t have the ways to live as in the past because the company gradually shaved away at our territory and sometimes we are caught between two of them [companies], squeezing us. They have taken over so much of our space that a lot of the things we used to be able to do we are no longer able to do. That is making us suffer, because our grandparents left us so much land and suddenly these companies come and take it over. That is the truth. We are suffering a lot because of that.
CODEBA, the first [company], entered our area 50 years ago. My grandparents have lived here for longer than a hundred years. So today the companies, particularly CODEBA, they say that we are the invaders. We are the invaders! How can we be the invaders when we have been around for over a 100 years and they have been around for 50?
We are living through hell with all these companies around us because we can no longer come and go. If we leave, sometimes when we come back, we have to explain to the companies why we have to enter the territory, but it was always ours and we no longer have that privilege to come and go.
Some of us also suffer from the chemicals. Dow is a big chemical company, it had gas pipelines. My mother lives 15 meters away from the residue from the factory. The wind is from the south and we smell it every day, especially when the ships are operating. It is a lot of suffering. The company called BAHIA TERMINAIS, the new one, is taking away our sleep, our livelihood, our possibility to go fishing, and the mangrove is being destroyed. That’s where we collect our mussels and other sources of our food so we can no longer access our mangrove areas. Most of the mangrove areas have been destroyed by these companies.
When the weather gets dry, they [the companies leveling the ground] raise a lot of dust which means that our elderly people, our young people, our children have respiratory problems. I went to show the company representatives all the drugs I have to give to my children just for them to survive.
That’s the situation we’re experiencing right now. We need your support, we need your help. We want to live in peace in our land, there is no money that can pay for what is ours. We want to live our heritage. We have received this land from our parents, our grandparents, and those that came before. We are the owners, the legitimate owners of this area.
My father used to tell us how they lived here: fishing, gathering mussels, we used to have some crops. And then a company took over some of our territory. Today, we are struggling against many companies because they arrived and quickly whittled away at our territory and took over our land – grabbed our land.
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 2: When we ask the BAHIA TERMINAIS what they were doing, destroying our territory, the manager said it was none of our business. How could it be none of our business? They think they are superior, there’s no law for them, they think they are above the law.
Braskem (Dow Chemical intermediary) put in a gas pipeline and it goes through the backyard of my grandmother’s place and when they switch on the pump on the ship, for some reason there’s some kind of leak and the smell that comes out of that duct of that pipeline, is terrible. And we’re sure that some of the health problems my family experiences are because of that leak. They shouldn’t be able to operate because the leakages are a recurring problem.
I am 27 years old, Braskem is 20 years old, so I’ve been around longer than these people. In other words, I came first. And my family, my forbears, prior generations have been here much, much longer. So, everybody is pressurizing, threatening my family even to go into our own lands. We have to show ID to these companies, otherwise they won’t let us through, they even hit us. We’re not animals, we have beautiful history. We discovered that when the Portuguese arrived here… who knows, maybe my forbears were descendants not just of Indigenous people but also Quilombolas so we need help and I’m very grateful for your interest in our situation.
WHYHUNGER: Have you received any support from the government or municipality?
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 1: We can’t get anyone to help us. No government agency is helping us. They don’t do anything for us. Because here we don’t have access to school and to a hospital. We have to go from our community to speak with the local government. But if somebody in the city council wanted to help us, the city government likely would block it. Also, regarding jobs, the city government is making sure that our youngsters would not work for the companies that are present here. We also don’t have schools, a health center – we have nothing. If we need anything, if you want to send a letter or open up a bank account, we have to go to Candeias [local municipality], and the transportation system is very bad. From here to Candeias, we have to walk about 4 km to a bus stop because there’s no public transportation for us. Either we pay for a taxi or we walk, if necessary, sometimes all the way to/from Candeias. We do not have internet. We are here talking to you because we have the help of a friend. There’s nothing here. That’s the truth.
The companies, all of them, and there are many, carry out improvements for some communities around us but not here. They provide courses for other localities but not for us. If we want anything, we have to go out and seek help. We can’t get jobs for our youngsters. There are many companies here that could provide jobs for local people, but they bring people from outside, for example welders. They prefer to hire people from outside. My two brothers-in-law have to leave to work because they can’t get jobs here in the local companies. My husband can’t get work either, he’s been unemployed for 10 years. We have to rely on our own resources.
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 2: Those people you see are my family members. I am here in Salvador, the state capital because there are no jobs in my home community. We look for work in the local companies – CODEBA, Braskem, all the companies. They throw away our resumes, even if we are qualified, if we’ve been to college, we finished school, etc. Unfortunately, they turn their backs on us. So, we have to go to the city to other towns to find work. I also am a fisher person, so I do go when it’s time to go fishing.
WHYHUNGER: Where do you get resources to survive?
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 1: Everything is harder now because after they [BAHIA TERMINAIS] destroyed the mangrove areas, we have very little to survive because the mangrove areas are where we used to get the mussels to eat and to sell. I am surviving with the support of my parents and my mother-in-law. We have [some] crops.
[Before,] my husband worked at the beach and we would sell the mussels at the beach. Very often nowadays we have to buy mussels if we want to eat them! Even fish, it’s very hard to catch them here because it’s very hard to get around in the area that BAHIA TERMINAIS sealed off. That was where we could earn our living. All the area of the mangrove was destroyed. There’s nothing left.
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 2: There were many species of birds as well that are rare and so that area was completely destroyed. It was a beautiful green mangrove swamp area, anyone that arrived would want to take photos and so we would look after it, we would take our living from it and there were people from other areas, other islands, they would use some of the wood for crafts and it was completely bulldozed and landfilled. And if we try to come near, they threaten us.
They didn’t come to my family to say that they were going to do what they were going to do. They came with their machinery, their trackers, their equipment, their workers, set up shop aggressively and not respecting the community, the environment.
There are laws that say that mangrove swamp areas cannot be destroyed. The environmental laws are not being enforced. You know how long it takes for a fish to spawn? There were mangroves with thick trunks that are 50 year-old plants and they just chopped it all down as if it nothing else matters. But it does matter, because when we would go into the mangrove area, we could breathe the fresh air provided by those plants. We would not chop down those mangroves to be able to always enjoy it and take the food. And what they’ve done is a crime.
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 3: I am also a Quilombola descendent and a member of this community. These companies came in without asking permission.
We used to have access to all the areas of our surroundings and the companies have basically shrunk our territory. We used to have access to our areas to go fishing, take the crustaceans, the mussels. They’ve cut off our access… we need a new one to replace it. We have a right! What about the children? Their education, leisure, and health. They expand their business, they expand their premises, but never ask us what we need! They don’t care whether what they’re doing harms us or not. They know that what they do harms us – that they are taking away our freedom. And in the past, everything was ours. So, we are constantly suffering retaliations, humiliations, every day, from every side, and they are causing a lot of damage with chemicals. Some of them cause cancer. Our seniors really suffer. This product that they ship through here, causes cancer. We’re asking for help.
We used to have access to our areas to go fishing, take the crustaceans, the mussels. They’ve cut off our access… we need a new one to replace it. We have a right! What about the children?
WHYHUNGER: Can you tell us more about the actions you have taken in your area to organize & defend against threats made to your community?
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 1: We have entered administrative processes with the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCRA) which is a federal government agency; also with the state prosecution office and we also have launched a campaign to share about our situation.
WHYHUNGER: We understand that you have launched an international campaign to give visibility to the issues you are facing. Can you tell us more about that and what organizations like WhyHunger can do to support you?
BOCA DO RIO COMMUNITY MEMBER 1: What we need is help. We want to have a constructive dialogue with the authorities and also people from abroad. We want that this interview gets publicized across the world so others can join forces with us to support us. This case is very emblematic and serious in that the violations that are being perpetrated by the companies here, they have a complicity, strong complicity of the state. The state is the main violator of these community’s rights.
BAHIA TERMINAIS is destroying the mangrove area and the forest and the fishing grounds. It is a licensed company that has an environmental license granted by the state government of Bahia. It’s regrettable, lamentable, that this culture of corruption that exists in the Brazilian state generates terrible situations such as this one. In general, the companies finance the campaigns of the politicians who are in government, and in return, they hand owner the leadership of state agencies to members of these corporations. So generally, they take over the environmental agencies. For example, the state environmental agency of Bahia is much more of an office of the corporations than a technical body to defend the environment. It’s very important that our partners from the U.S. can help us to pressure the government to say that this situation exists, and to share this information in the media, on social networks.
BAHIA TERMINAIS belongs to the same business group as that owns the biggest newspaper in Bahia, A Tarde newspaper. They ban and forbid any kind of dissemination of this situation in their media outlets. Publicity outside of Brazil would be very important, and on the other hand, to lobby in the Brazilian government, if our American allies, partners, can put pressure on the Ministry of Justice, the state government of Bahia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, demanding justice for this community, that would be very important. And lastly, you all can support us as we present our case to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. We’ve written reports for the Inter-American Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination. So, to corroborate these denouncements, these complaints, that would be very helpful.
It’s very important that our partners from the U.S. can help us to pressure the government to say that this situation exists, and to share this information in the media, on social networks.
View this note to learn more about the Boca do Rio community in Bahia and ways to support.
Jusleen Basra is a former WhyHunger Communications Intern, and has been passionate about telling and amplifying stories to bolster a just, sustainable global food system.