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Oil spills
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Guardiões da Baía de Guanabara - Marlúcia e Rafael

Oil spills on the Guanabara Bay have occured on different scales and according to different chronologies. The most impactful, widespread spill took place on January 18, 2000, environmental disaster shaping the history of the bay. This oil spill, in particular,  is a vivid in the memory of the fishermen, an open wound which continues to shape their lives in numerous ways. During fieldwork, memories of the spill frequently came up in conversations with fishermen, especially women.

According to the artisanal fishermen, they experienced several violations related to this event. The first concerns the oil spill itself. The fishermen say that they continue to feel the socio-environmental impacts of the disaster  to this day. According to them, the mangroves have never fully recovered, and the fish and crustacean species have yet to recover their biodiversity and populations. From the point of view of the crabbers located in the city of Magé, when they go crabbing, they often find oil about a meter below the mud.


The second violation occurred in the financial compensation process. Petrobras, as the company responsible for the oil spill, was legally obligated to provide compensation to fishermen for the damage caused. However, the vast majority of the artisanal fishermen we spoke to say that they never received compensation of any kind. They told us that only the large fishing organizations weren called in for negotiations, but that these entities do not represent the majority of artisanal fishermen in Guanabara Bay. In addition, they said that these large fishing organizations allowed registered workers from other areas, such as bus drivers and construction workers, to receive compensation, while the artisanal fishermen were neglected and excluded. Some fishermen even believe that the indemnities have been misappropriated by these entities.

Small Oil Spills

On another scale, there are the small oil spills that occur daily. Although less visible and spectacular, oil stains are visible in various places across the water’s surface, and artisan fishers can identify the presence of the oil by the smell and color of the water, as well as by the taste of the fish.


However, artisanal fishermen rarely report small-scale oil spills. From their perspective, reporting the presence of oil on the Guanabara Bay can lead to a reduction in the purchase of fish from the region by consumers. Given that it is practically impossible to seek financial compensation in cases of small oil spills, fishermen see only one alternative: to remain silent about this phenomenon. This reluctance to report smaller leaks occurs because the confirmation of such incidents can lead to a decrease in sales and consumption of fish from Guanabara Bay, which in turn directly impacts the income of the fishermen's families.

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Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 27/07/2023. On this day, we accompanied a mission carried out by members of Ahomar (Association of Men and Women of the Sea), whose aim is to document and denounce the environmental crimes committed by oil companies in Guanabara Bay.

Finally, the fishermen told us that the holds of the tankers are routinely washed, and the resulting waste is disposed of in the bay. In addition, they told us that these vessels also release significant amounts of ballast water. These practices, combined with the small oil spills mentioned earlier, contribute to further contamination, impacting water quality and threatening the survival of marine life in the region.

Other liquid waste

The 1960s were a crucial period of change for the Guanabara Bay. While the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro was experiencing rapid urban growth, basic sanitation infrastructure was not keeping pace. At the same time, the installation of petrochemical industries near the bay began, introducing new environmental and socio-economic challenges. Inaugurated in 1961 in the city of Duque de Caxias, the REDUC refinery quickly established itself as the largest in Brazil, with a processing capacity of 220,000 barrels per day. This milestone stimulated industrial expansion in the area, especially in the chemical (including plastics), metallurgical, and mineral sectors. With the vertiginous rise of oil exploration in Brazil, especially after the discoveries of the Pre-Salt in the Santos and Campos basins (2007), the bay became a strategic point for the transportation and refining of oil and gas. Fishermen denounce the fact that many companies dump their waste into the rivers and the surface water.


In 1976, the Jardim Gramacho dump was also opened in the city of Duque de Caxias, next to the REDUC Refinery and on the shores of the bay. Although it closed down in 2012, the site still generates other waste, such as slurry resulting from the decomposition of organic matter, which frequently flows into the water. As an ecological response to this issue, the biogas company Gás Verde was created. However, local fishermen often complain about the illegal disposal of toxic waste by the company, which also reaches the water.


Photo: Camila Pierobon. Date: 27/07/2023. On this day, we accompanied an expedition carried out by Ahomar members, whose aim is to document and denounce the environmental crimes committed by oil companies in Guanabara Bay.

The waste generated in the petrochemical industrial park, together with that from the old Gramacho dumping site and the biogas company, contribute to the overall high concentration of pollutants in the region. The situation worsens when we consider the Sarapuí, Iguaçu, and Pavuna rivers, which cut through a large part of the Baixada Fluminense. This is a region with the lowest levels of basic sanitation in the state, leading to the dumping of large volumes of liquid and solid waste into these rivers, which in turn flow into the bay. The low water exchange with the oceans intensifies the problem. As a result, the interior parts of Guanabara Bay have become some of the most polluted spots in the region.

One strategy implemented by companies and highlighted by artisanal fishermen is related to the irregular dumping of pollutants into the water. According to reports, during heavy rains that result in flooding, some companies take advantage of the situation to dump larger volumes of toxic waste into the water. This, in turn, leads to a significant fish die off after flooding events. However, according to the fishermen, there is a notable lack of oversight regarding these business practices. They also noted  the local media's approach, which often attributes dead fish to the increase in sewage dumped into the bay due to the rains, omitting the crucial role of petrochemical companies.

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Photo: Frederico de Assis. Date: 25/07/2023. Location: Tubiacanga. The photo shows a family of fishermen who live opposite the Petrochemical Industrial Park and the old Gramacho Dump.

Another problem related to rains and floods is the occurrence of landslides on the mountain of tailings formed where the Gramacho dump used to be. When this happens, a large amount of old solid waste, especially plastic that doesn't decompose in a short period of time, reaches the water.

Other waste: Ruins

The presence of the oil industry in a region is significant and long-lasting, extending well beyond the period of its active operations. When an oil company ceases its activities in a location, it often leaves behind the ruins of abandoned buildings. These structures, physical testimonies of this previous presence, can include drilling platforms, refineries, storage tanks, and a variety of support infrastructures.

These ruins are not just a visual reminder of the oil industry, but also represent significant environmental and social challenges in their own right. From an environmental standpoint, the abandoned facilities may contain toxic waste or be sources of ongoing pollution. For instance, poorly sealed storage tanks can leak hazardous chemicals into the soil and water. Moreover, the decaying structures can pose physical hazards to local wildlife and people living nearby.

Finally, these ruins are a petrochemical legacy, associated with the dependence on fossil fuels and the environmental legacy of the oil industry. They symbolize the challenges faced in transitioning to more sustainable energy sources and in mitigating the long-term environmental impacts of industrial activities.

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