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About the research

We present the results of the research "Fishing for Plastics: socio-environmental effects of waste on the lives of artisanal fishermen in Guanabara Bay," conducted in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The project was carried out between February and August 2023, employing different methodologies, including structured interviews, participant observation, and longitudinal monitoring of fishermen's families. Combined, this methodological process offered a rich and multifaceted perspective on the socio-ecological problems we detail here. The aim of the research was to understand the socio-environmental impacts caused by plastic waste on the daily lives of fishermen living in the city of Magé and Ilha do Governador, both located on the Bay. The research reveals how plastic waste affects not only the environment, but also the economy and social well-being of these fishing communities, as well as their connection with plants and animals. 


Although the focus of the work deals with the relationship between plastic and fishing, the results include other problems as well. For example, we also noted the impact of the intensive presence of the petrochemical industry, overfishing via trawling, local control by paramilitary groups, and advanced siltation, as well as the lack of effective enforcement of laws related to environmental crimes. By looking at these problems together, the research contributes to understanding a complex scenario at different scales, in which environmental, social and economic issues are intertwined. In this way, the study provides an overview of the challenges facing fishing communities in Guanabara Bay, going beyond the issue of plastic. Given this reality, it seems essential to us that the problems faced by artisanal fishermen are addressed in an holistic  manner, seeking solutions that consider all relevant aspects in order to improve the lives of local communities and protect the environment.


We would like to highlight the fact that the majority of those that we interviewed and interacted with for this research project are Afro-Brazilian. As such, we seek to underscore the ways in which environmental racism contributes to larger issues we discuss. Environmental racism refers to the way in which ethnic and racial minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental problems due to discriminatory practices and social and economic inequalities. As the research project unfolded, we also worked with women and LGBTQI+ fishermen. In future work, we hope to deepen our understanding of the intersections of gender, race, and environmental issues.


Camila Pierobon

Research Fellow at Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies (SDSU). She holds a Doctorate in Social Sciences from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). She is a member of the research team Casa e ResiduaLab. Her current research focuses on environmental and urban space studies.

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Giovanna Monteiro

PhD candidate at the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). She is a researcher in the CASA group and in BONDE. Her research interests include gender, militarization, infrastructure, and urban mobility.

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Federico de Assis

Undergraduate student in Social Sciences at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), researcher at CORRE: Ethnographic Experimentations in Urban Territories. Photographer. Interested in topics of culture, religion, "race," and urban peripheries.


When approaching the research partners, the team chose to introduce themselves as researchers associated with the universities to which they are officially linked, namely: San Diego State University, the State University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Throughout the project, every effort was made to establish respectful and professional relationships with the interlocutors we met during our fieldwork. For this report, we have chosen to change the names of our main interlocutors and remove sensitive personal data that directly identifies them. We have only identified fishing associations when the data was obtained at public events.


To carry out the research, we developed different methodological tools in order to understand the diversity of socio-environmental problems present in the lives of artisanal fishermen in Guanabara Bay, with particular attention to plastic.

Online interviews

The first methodology used was an interview script drawn up by the researchers, which was used to guide conversations with community leaders, members of social movements, and academics working on issues related to the Guanabara Bay. The interviews were carried out remotely, using the Zoom platform, between February and April. During this period, the research coordinator conducted four structured interviews with artisanal fishing leaders, one interview with an environmental activist and one with a researcher who has dedicated her studies to the phenomenon of artisanal fishing in the region in question. The aim of these interviews was to understand the problems and the extent of the conflicts faced by artisanal fishermen, and in particular, to situate the role of plastic waste in this context.

The strategy of starting the interviews online, before beginning the fieldwork on site, was based on previous research experiences with leaders of social movements in the city of Rio de Janeiro. On these occasions, it was observed that these leaders found it easier to establish a dialog with researchers and were used to speaking in public. The use of online interviews produced very positive results: the information received not only refined the scope of inquiry but also reformulated the guiding questions of the research. This was decisive in preparing the team for an effective and safe immersion in the field.

Accompanying Fishermen's Families

The second methodological step was the monthly monitoring of 6 fishermen's families (3 living on Ilha do Governador and 3 in the city of Magé), in order to understand the daily problems faced by artisanal fishermen. This work was carried out by the research assistants and lasted four months.


The choice to carry out a longitudinal study with a select number of families was intentional and strategic. It aimed to establish trustworthy and reliable relationships, which are essential for guaranteeing the integrity and quality of the data collected. This close bond with the families not only enriched our research, but also made it possible to make connections with other fishermen in the region. The secondary relationships that emerged from these initial contacts were anchored in pre-existing bonds of trust, thus providing a more natural expansion of our network of interlocutors. The relational aspect of the methodology proved to be very productive, since we were able to circulate in various social contexts, both in private and public spheres, which allowed us to understand the socio-environmental dynamics of the Guanabara Bay. 


The accompaniment of the families began in April. In the city of Magé, we followed families of fishermen who live on Piedade beach, crabbers who work on the Suruí River, and fishermen who live on São Lourenço beach. On Ilha do Governador, we accompanied fishing families in three locations: Tubiacanga Beach, Bancários Beach and Colônia Z-10. The research team conducted at least two formal interviews with each of these families and held informal conversations with them over a period of four months.

Participant Observation

The third methodological approach adopted was participant observation at public events organized or attended by artisanal fishermen. By engaging in these events, the research team had the opportunity to directly observe the interactions and discourses prevalent in the community, providing an additional layer of understanding of the problems faced by the fishermen of Guanabara Bay.


In April, the research assistants began their fieldwork, attending two different types of public events. The first type included events organized by the artisanal fishermen themselves in the localities targeted by the study. The second included events with artisanal fishermen as the main target audience. Between May and August, the research coordinator also participated in these events, allowing for direct observation and a more sustained daily involvement with the fishing community.

The agenda of public events in which the team participated was diverse, providing opportunities for learning and engagement. These included a public hearing promoted by Petrobras, a protest on the water called a 'barqueata', led by the Movimento Baía Viva, and a social action initiative promoted jointly by the Port Authority and the Brazilian Navy. The team also took part in the inauguration of a new pier for artisanal fishermen, the result of a collaboration between the Tubiacanga Free Fishermen's Association and CONFREM. Other relevant events included a series of training sessions for fishermen, organized by the Association of Men and Women of the Sea (AHOMAR), as well as social mapping led by the Environmental Education Programs that exist in the area. The team also had the opportunity to take part in the First National Mangrove Congress (ConMangue), an initiative of the NGO Guardians of the Sea, which was attended by a number of artisanal fishermen.

Photos: Frederico de Assis. Date: 09/05/2023. Location: Niterói - Public Hearing held by Petrobras on Stage 4 of oil exploration in the Santos Basin. In the first photo, we note the racial composition of those making the decisions on oil exploration. The fact that all the Petrobrás representatives were white was a topic that was much commented on by the artisanal fishermen behind the scenes at the meeting. In the second photo, we highlight the racial profile of the artisanal fishermen of Guanabara Bay who will be directly impacted by oil exploration in the Santos Basin.

Adopting these three methodological approaches, the work team was able to establish relationships with different actors in the Guanabara Bay artisanal fishing scene, capturing the diversity of problems they face.

Selection of Research Sites: Magé and Ilha do Governador

The city of Magé and Ilha do Governador, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, were selected as the research sites due to the following circumstances. First, we considered the previous experience of the team members, who have a long history of research on the subject of urban violence in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Baixada Fluminense. We understand that places where armed groups - such as militias or drug traffickers - dominate the territory, require a lot of time from the researcher in order to carry out the fieldwork safely and also to establish relationships of trust that allow them to obtain field data that answers the research question. This work also included the production of photographic images, video, and audio recordings, which would be impossible in places dominated by armed groups. Taking this into consideration, the team actively searched for places where there was strong artisanal fishing activity but no overt presence of armed groups.

Second, the information received via online interviews guided us in choosing our research sites. We found that artisanal fishing leaders and environmental activists sought to present Guanabara Bay as a place that, although impacted by serious problems, has a great diversity of marine life, birds, and people. The bay is alive. The fishermen's perception is that the biggest polluting industries in the region use the rhetoric of Guanabara Bay as a "Sacrifice Zone," whose destruction is necessary to achieve local and national development. The activism carried out by these fishermen goes against this narrative by showing the life that resists in the bay and that needs to be preserved. 


Third, we carried out a bibliographic survey of the academic production of artisanal fishing and the research that deals with life in Guanabara Bay. We found that the vast majority of academic research has focused its analysis on the artisanal fishing that takes place between the Rio-Niterói Bridge and the entrance to the bay. There has been little qualitative research on artisanal fishing on the other side of the bay with the rare exception of several master's thesis recently defended at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro and the Federal Fluminense University. It therefore seemed important to us to understand the socio-environmental problems faced by artisanal fishermen located at the bottom of the bay.


With regard to the research that deals with life on the Bay, we can see that much of the research, as well as public policies and the interest of civil society, are focused on the Guapimirim Environmental Protection Area. In fact, this is the most important environmental preservation area in Guanabara Bay, where the largest area of preserved mangroves is concentrated, as well as the three rivers that provide 80% of the clean fresh water that reaches the bay. Without denying the importance of this space, our aim was to get to know and present other places in Guanabara Bay where there is a diversity of life. So we opted to focus more on the Suruí Municipal Environmental Protection Area, in the city of Magé, and the Jequiá Environmental Protection Area, on Ilha do Governador.


The selection of the research sites therefore considered the components presented above, namely: places where there is significant fishing activity, minimal presence of armed groups, a concentration of plastic and other waste, as well as the presence of environmental protection areas that are little known to the wider population.

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