12 / 1997
In the 1970s, small-scale fisheries production represented about 60 per cent of Brazil’s total catch and provided a large range of employment opportunities for the rural poor. Since then artisanal fishers are being threatened by the rapid expansion of the industrial fisheries sector and by the degradation of fragile coastal habitats. The growing pollution of lakes, rivers and estuaries affects them directly, since they earn their livelihood from these waters.
The Brazilian government’s programme to modernise fisheries through fiscal incentives, which began in 1962, has marginalised most of the artisanal fishers. The new export- and profit-oriented fishing industry rapidly overfished most of the commercial fish species, such as shrimp and lobster. When catching these species was no longer profitable, the industry moved to the untapped resources of the Amazon basin. In the process the livelihood of hundreds of coastal and riverine communities was negatively affected, fish being the main source of subsistence among the Amazonian populations.
Speculation in land is another important cause for the destruction of coastal habitats, particularly of mangroves- an important ecosystem for the reproduction of many fish species. Brazil has the world’s second largest mangrove area. Although legally protected, mangroves have been extensively cut along many parts of the coast for the construction of houses.
As a result, large areas of mangrove have been destroyed in Guanabara (Rio de Janeiro)and Todos os Santos Bay (Bahla Bay). Sand barriers and islands are still being privatised to build marinas for rich people, marginalizing the artisanal fishermen who live in those areas.
Further, most of Brazil’s chemical and petrochemical industries have been built in biologically rich ecosystems, as in Mundau and Manguaba lagoons in Alagoas Province, in Suape (Pernambuco), Cubatao estuary (Sao Paulo)and a lagoon in Rio Grande do Sul.
In the north-east region, where over 35 per cent of the small-scale fishermen live, the main source of pollution is the toxic waste produced by the large sugar-cane mills and illegally dumped into the rivers and estuaries, leading to high fish mortality.
A recent source of pollution is the use of mercury for extraction of gold in most of the rivers of the Amazonian basin, particularly in Madeira-Mamoré and Guaporé rivers. The situation is alarming for many communities.
Paradoxically, the establishment of protected areas has also badly affected small-scale fishermen. Many national parks and ecological reserves are being set up in the remaining forest areas of the coast where fishermen live.
However, according to the existing law, whenever a protected area is set up, coastal fisherfolk have to be expelled, with complete disregard to the roles these communities have traditionally played in protecting these important ecosystems. Fishermen are forced to move into the slum areas of coastal cities.
Although the artisanal fishermen in Brazil are still not well organised, they have reacted against pollution and coastal degradation. By the end of the 1970s, when the military regime was still in force, small-scale fishermen organised protests against the pollution caused by sugar-cane waste in the Goiana river, close to Recife.
In 1984, by the time the military regime ended, this fight against pollution was the initial step for a national mobilisation to reorganise the existing structure of fishermen’s social representation: the fishermen’s guilds (Colonias de Pescadores). Local non-fishermen leaders frequently controlled these guilds in a very autocratic way. The first guilds and federations were finally taken over by fishermen leaders in 1984 and 1987 in Pernambuco and Alagoas States.
Between 1986 and 1988, regional and national meetings were organised by small-scale fishermen to present suggestions to the Constitutional Assembly that approved the new constitution.
According to the 1988 constitution, fishermen are free to establish their own organisations. After 1988, the organised fishermen created MONAPE: the National Organisation of Fishermen. MONAPE has been highlighting the threats to artisanal fisheries in Brazil at national and international fora.
The threats to artisanal fisheries in Brazil are not unique. All over the world similar processes are affecting the livelihood and way of life of artisanal fishworkers. The rapid industrialisation within fisheries has led to overfishing and stock collapses. In addition, the degradation and depletion of vital coastal habitats, essential spawning and breeding grounds of fish, due to urbanisation and pollution, has affected fish resources. Fishworkers in Brazil, as in other parts of the world, recognise these threats to their livelihood. They have organised to protest forms of `development’ that adversely affect their interests. They are raising these issues at various national and international fora in order to influence policy. Hopefully, their struggle will lead to a development, which is socially and ecologically sound.
Articles and files
DIEGUES, Antonio Carlos, Challenging Degradation in. Samudra Report, 1994/12, 10 11