We had to be subtle as we searched for the location of the fisherfolk in Magé, a town on the northern shore of Guanabara Bay. Our very presence, we had been warned, could possibly lead to retaliatory attacks against the fishing community. We walked along the beach as if we were tourists filming the landscape.
We arrived at a shack which served as a beach-side café, with one plastic, sandy table and a fare of beer or juice. Kids scampered in the sand, and flocks of white birds rose and landed in unison on small wooden fishing craft anchored near the shore.
My companions chatted with the café’s proprietor as I filmed the boats.
“Do you see?” Nanda approached and spoke to me in a low voice. She raised her eyebrows, ever so slightly indicating with her head over her left shoulder. “It’s right behind you.”
I looked, trying to appear as if I were not looking at anything in particular, when I saw it, right next to the café.
It was an abandoned beach shack with a coat of whitewash badly in need of reapplication. The word AHOMAR was painted in blue above padlocked turquoise wooden doors.
I discretely filmed the now-abandoned headquarters of AHOMAR (Associação Homens e Mulheres do Mar – Association of Seamen and Sea-women ), whose leaders have either been murdered, or have had to go underground due to repeated death threats (see Front Line Defenders Urgent Appeals from 2013 and 2012).
Magé is close to energy development projects taking place near Guanabara Bay, led primarily, though not exclusively, by Petrobras, the largest Brazilian energy company. Construction of an enormous petrochemical complex in nearby Caxias was completed in 2005, next to a Petrobras oil refinery.
We had filmed the petrochemical complex and refinery en route to Magé, noting the number of energy companies with installations there, the oil and gas pipelines snaking around the perimeter, and the oil flares and white smoke spewing from deep within the refinery into the bright blue Brazilian sky.
The energy industry has polluted Guanabara Bay so egregiously that the fisherfolks’ ability to continue to fish the bay is severely threatened. And, though a Guanabara Bay cleanup project has been approved ahead of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, many environmentalists agree that if the petroleum industries still operate alongside the bay, any “cleanup” will be a superficial fig leaf.
The energy companies’ plans for expansion include oil pipelines that will travel across the bay, despite past ruptures of pipelines in the bay that killed fish by the droves and devastated sensitive ecosystems. Since 2007, AHOMAR activists have been engaged in acts of creative resistance against the energy companies, including anchoring their boats for over a month at the site of the new pipelines to block construction.
The retaliation against AHOMAR human rights defenders has been deadly. Two of AHOMAR’s leaders were brutally assassinated in June 2012, and the activists who took their place, Alexandre de Souza and Pelé de Carvalho, have also received multiple death threats and are currently in hiding.
I tried to reach Alexandre and Pelé upon arriving in Rio, hoping to be able to meet with them, and, if they thought it could be help protect them, record video interviews. Though we reached out on a near-daily basis to those who have direct connections with the human rights defenders, we were unable to make contact and organize a meeting.
Fabrina Furtado, one of the researchers and authors of a substantive report on the environmental impact and human rights violations emanating from Guanabara Bay’s petroleum industry (available in Portuguese), provided more context as to why it was so difficult to reach Alexandre and Pelé.
The horrific murders of the two AHOMAR leaders, and the death threats facing other AHOMAR activists has had a deep impact on the entire fisherfolk community. The trauma has extended not only to those targeted, but their wives, children, parents, and other community members, creating anxiety-related health problems and all the psychological ripple effects that one can expect in situations of extreme trauma and anxiety.
“It’s complicated,” Fabrina told me. “I think that it’s not that Alexandre doesn’t want to speak—in fact, it’s probably because he is a public figure that he is still alive—but, right now, in this moment….it’s complicated.”
I thought back to our attempts in Magé to locate the precise whereabouts of the fisherfolk. When asked, “Where are the fishermen?” people in the town averted their eyes and pretended not to know. We were only pointed in the correct direction on the beach once we asked for the location of the ramshackle beach café, standing next to the shuttered AHOMAR headquarters.
Complicated, Fabrina had told us.
The reality facing the AHOMAR human rights defenders is complicated indeed, but one thing is eminently simple:
Alexandre, Pelé, their colleagues in AHOMAR and their families deserve to live free of the fear of being injured or murdered due to their nonviolent activism.
Not only must their physical and emotional wellbeing be safeguarded, their way of life and livelihood as fisherfolk also require protection.
Guanabara Bay, on which Alexandre and Pelé lives and livelihoods rest, as well as the lives and livelihoods of so many more, demands urgent protection as well.
Jen Marlowe (Twitter: @donkeysaddleorg), documentary filmmaker and writer, is in Brazil filming interviews about the security situation and risks faced by HRDs for Front Line Defenders for anupcoming video series to launch later in 2013.