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Serra Grande

Complementarity in artisanal fishing

Map 3 A - Serra Grande territorial boundaries

Serra Grande is a small town located in the Uruçuca municipality with approximately 6,700 inhabitants. It is located in the southeast part of Bahia known as the “Cacau Coast.” Serra Grande has seen its population triple in the last twenty years, due in part to a construction of the BA-001 highway, which passes through the town, connecting it to the lhéus airport and to the tourist destinations of Itacaré and Maraú. Located within the Itacaré-Serra Grande Environmental Protection Area and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Serra do Conduru State Park to the west and the Lagoa Encantada Environmental Protection Area to the south, Serra Grande has also become an conservation stronghold. In 1992, the Atlantic forest native to the area was recognized by the New York Times as being one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Since that time, interest in the region has grown, giving way to increased ecotourism and attracting people from other parts of Brazil, who have moved there to live and work in proximity to the well-preserved and spectacular natural environment. Before the arrival of the highway that brought environmentalists, tourists, and new residents, this was a small fishing village, focused on a subsistence economy. Families lived mainly from fishing and small-scale farming.

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Map 3B - Conservation units

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Church located in the center of the village of Barra Grande - date unknown

The Serra Grande region is similar to other small communities in the interior of Bahia. Collective work and support enables ongoing survival despite economic precarity. Families collaborate in fishing and agriculture. The village, which was originally made up of a few large extended families, logged for materials to build houses, hunted, and built their traditional boats from a local tree called a jangada. Artisanal fishing took place on the open sea. After the establishment of the Serra do Conduru State Park, the harvesting of these raw materials was restricted. Environmental prohibitions on fishing, hunting, and extraction of certain species due to the risk of extinction imposed new limits on local residents, who refer to themselves as nativos, native to the place. With the arrival of tourism and real estate speculation, long time nativo families lost their beachfront homes and land, where they had lived and fished for generations. They now live in other areas of the village - far from the sea. Most do not have access to the same levels of fishing and agriculture as they did before the establishment of the park and before the arrival of new residents and tourists.

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Remains of an abandoned raft

The places where nativo residents lived as children and youth are now fenced off and owned by big businessmen. Some of these new arrivals allow nativos passage through their property in order to fish and harvest fruits such as coconuts and mangoes, but others do not. For example, one of the largest new landowners has an expansive estate, stretching from one of the banks of the Tijuípe river to where it empties into the sea. Within the property, there is a sizeable area of mangroves where many nativo residents grew up and learned to fish. The area is particularly important for women, given that they fish from land and in the mangroves, using rods to catch aratus and collecting crabs. Given their long standing connection to the place, they currently have authorization from the owner to pass through his land to carry out traditional fishing activities. However, in order to do so they must pass through a security checkpoint staffed with private security guards and they are generally not allowed to use cars to move through the property. On the other side of the Tijuípe River, a farm that caters to tourists does not allow access to the mangrove at all. This prohibition has led to numerous conflicts between fisherman and landowners.

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Gate with barrier for access to the mouth of the Tijuípe River

Furthermore, the nearby mangroves located on the Sargi River, new construction of houses without adequate sewage disposal has polluted the area. The privatization of the area means that fisherwoman like Dona Maria, who has always fished for shellfish there, are no longer able to access traditional fishing grounds.

Sargi River Mangrove

Fishermen used to go out in pairs on flat bottomed boats made from the jangada tree, apeiba tibourbou. Such jangada boats were the safest and cheapest means of transport, since they do not use gasoline. The boats and the long oars that power them are made from the light and stable wood of the tree. Jagandas have been traditionally used throughout the northeast coast of the country. As the fisherman told us, between 5am and 8am in the morning, depending on the tide, they left in pairs, dragging the jangadas from the sand, rolling them towards the sea on top of two very firm plastic rollers. There they climbed aboard and with two long poles, pushed the sandy bottom of the shallow water, rocking the boat against the waves. When crossing the “quebra,” where the waves break, they replaced the poles with oars, and rowed up to approximately 23 km from the coast, where they spent the day fishing. There they fed themselves on porridge made with palm flour and some of the fish caught. The boats are open to the air above, and the fishermen were exposed to the sun and wind all day. They then returned around 4 pm, when locals were waiting for them on the coast to buy fresh fish. Up until a few years ago, it was possible to buy fresh fish on the Sargi beach nearly everyday. It was almost a tourist attraction– people would watch the jangadas arrive from the sea laden with fish, and negotiate a purchase with the fisherman.


However, in recent years, jangada fishing has become almost extinct. The harvest of the jangada wood was prohibited by INEMA, (an environmental protection agency) and some local fishermen were even arrested for felling trees in order to mend their boats and maintain their livelihood. In addition, the growth of beachfront condominiums present various challenges for the fishermen, making it harder to park their jangadas on the sand like they once did and also preventing them from passing through the beachfront areas on their motorcycles, on which they carry nets, machetes, water, and which they use to transport their catch off the beach. All of these factors are pushing fishermen further away from the beaches where they once fished along the Pé de Serra. Careca, a fisherman from the village, says that it is no longer worth fishing, as what you catch is not enough to generate the necessary income. Fish are increasingly scarce due to large nets placed in the open sea by industrial fishing boats. In addition, the low price of fish sold by the large fishing industry devalues the income potential for artisanal fishers in the region. Today, several of the younger fishermen are working to reestablish jangada fishing but they have to travel approximately 20km from home to Ponta do Ramo to be able to park their boats.

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The last raft

The tourism and real estate boom in the region has also created more jobs in the construction industry. With residences, hotels, and commercial space expanding to meet the arrival of new populations, and with a new port project, the Porto Sul, being built just a short distance from the village, demand has increased for labor.  

Nativa women have also been drawn to jobs in the service sector as cleaners, cooks and nannies and no longer have time to fish.

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Ponta do Ramo

It is important to emphasize that artisanal fishing is not just an economic activity that contributes to survival. Fishermen emphasize that economic needs can be met through other work if needed. But fishing is also an essential cultural pursuit, related to food and the sociality of sharing food. As such, it is a practice that is about expressing and maintaining identity. Fish nourish the body but fishing and eating the bounty of the sea also represent traditional ways of being and living in community. These are deeply meaningful practices for local people.  Fishing is also an important form of contributing to food security for families in the region. As Careca explained:


“A young person who learns to fish can contribute to bringing food home.”

Fish on the wood stove

For women who work as cooks and cleaners, as well as mothers, grandmothers, and housewives, fishing forms the background to these multiple functions that cross their lives. Taking care of the house, children, and grandchildren restricts the freedom to fish. Women must balance the need to be available for their children and relatives with the need for financial security, often by working a job that allows them a small pension upon retirement. The shellfish and fish they catch in between these competing duties and considerations, complements store-bought food. If they are lucky to catch in large quantities, their fishing also has the potential to generate extra income. With fishing a constant in their lives, many retire as fisherwomen, only then being able to dedicate themselves exclusively to fishing. With children and grandchildren finally grown, they find they have financial security in retirement to live their “original” way of life, a life as it was in their childhood with their mothers and grandmothers. This is the case of Dona Nane, who was president of the Association of Fishermen and Shellfish Gatherers in the village for 12 years. She was only able to become a formal part of the fishing colony when she retired.

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Claudia fishing

In this sense, the status of fisherwomen is subject to a series of other factors and intertwined with family life. The multiple roles that women must occupy mean that their work and identity as fisherwomen ends up becoming largely invisible. This is especially true in Serra Grande, where fishing is seen as a predominantly male activity.  Many of the  fishermen in the village say there are no more women fishers. But little by little we were able to discover that this was not true. We found some, and from those we heard about others. There are also women who fish but do not consider themselves fisherwomen and call themselves fishermen's helpers instead. These women help men with cleaning the fish and selling it. Some fish too, but they don't claim to be fisherwomen, especially the younger ones.

Fish processing

In Serra Grande there are two main types of female fishing: shellfish gathering focused on crabs, guaiamuns, aratus and siris, and rod fishing for small fish such as carapeba or oriocó. Mangrove fishing takes place mainly at the mouth of the Tijuípe River, where despite the constraints of gates and security guards, it is still possible to fish and even to maintain small wooden shacks to camp in while fishing for several days, as Dona Paula does. Although shellfishing in Barra do Rio Sargi is no longer common, there are still families that do it. With the prohibition on fishing for guaiamum, a species denoted as endangered by INEMA, and with the intense real estate occupation on the banks of the river, Dona Maria, who grew up shellfishing around there doesn't go anymore.


Rod fishing is usually done on the rocks which dot the entire coastline between one river, and another that delineates the territory of the village Rio Sargi and Rio Tijuípe, and allow fishing for small fish such as carapeba and cioba, but also bigger fish like pampo, which Claudia says is her specialty. In addition, women play an important role in processing the larger fish caught on the open ocean by the men in their families, as is the case of Risiane and Dona Maria. Neither of these women call themselves fisherwomen, but they play a fundamental role in preparing and selling the fish caught by the men of the family.

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Risi cleaning the fish

Some of the oldest women in the village have resisted the changes and continue to maintain the fishing way of life. But as they age, they lack the health and mobility to fish. The newer generations are largely uninterested in the activity, leaving the older generations with no one to pass their traditional knowledge of fish, rivers, mangroves, and the sea to.  Dona Nane, who is now almost 90 years old, no longer fishes. Her body does not allow her to climb the rocks or navigate the mangroves where she grew up and fished all her life. But even so, her political participation in fishing in the village has been of great importance in the fight for the rights of these populations, in the maintenance of their ways of life, and in the preservation of their traditional knowledge. However, the new generations of women in the village are looking for different job opportunities.They no longer maintain the material and symbolic links with fishing, processing, and the food culture of their mothers and grandmothers.

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Dona Paula
Dona Maria
Dona Nane
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