Muda da Maré: Environmental Change, Ecological Grief, and the Fishers and Marisqueiras of Pernambuco

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Shelly Annette Biesel, University of Georgia §

Sugarcane plantation in Brazil. Photo by author.

Abstract: Emerging scholarship on climate-related “ecological grief,” or how societies mourn their rapidly changing environments, offers promising new insights into the relationship between well-being and environmental change. However, conceptualizations have thus far neglected engagement with environmental justice movements and scholarship that emphasize the uneven distribution of environmental degradation in racialized and impoverished communities. To better understand the relationship between well-being and environmental change, we must consider how historic social inequalities are inextricably linked to ecological memory, loss, and mourning. Drawing from qualitative interviews from ethnographic fieldwork in Cabo de Santo Agostinho and Ipojuca, Pernambuco, this study highlights the experiences of predominately Afro-Brazilian traditional communities who have been systematically dispossessed from their ancestral territories by the expansion of a port industrial complex. Despite obstacles, fishers and shellfish collectors continue to depend on the ocean for emotional and economic survival, often traveling long, dangerous distances to islands and polluted mangroves for ocean products. Beyond subsistence needs, collecting shellfish and fishing are crucial for well-being in these communities, providing vital moments of respite, joy, and connection to the more-than-human world around them. These relationships are increasingly threatened by diminishing access to the ocean and the pollution-induced decline of ocean species. By being dispossessed and disconnected from the ocean, fishers and marisqueiras (shellfish collectors) experience grief that they recognize as fatal to their communities. However, that grief is inseparable from existing structural inequalities in Brazil, including the legacies of slavery and the history of racialization and marginalization of non-white traditional communities.

The neighboring communities of Cabo and Ipojuca are nestled between the ocean and what is left of the lush coastal forests (Mata Atlântica) and mangroves along Brazil’s Northeastern coast. This region of Pernambuco is infamous for its sugarcane production, which began in the 16th century. Everything from architecture, to street names, to the neighborhoods that are still called “engenhos” (or plantations), illustrates how the region is marked by its long history of sugar production. Over the centuries, the booms and busts of the sugarcane economy created opportunities for Afro-Brazilian descendant communities—whose ancestors endured brutal plantation slavery—to cultivate abandoned plantation lands (terras do engenho) and use them as commons spaces for small-scale agriculture. The abundance of the ocean and mangroves generated rich fishing and shellfish collecting traditions that today are deemed “artisanal fishing” practices. Sewing nets and traps, making fishing poles and rafts, members of these communities have lived dignified lives as artisanal fishers (pescadores) and shellfish collectors (marisqueiras). Some have developed formal quilombo descendant communities (maroon communities originally comprised of individuals who escaped slavery and formed organized settlements) and gained land rights through Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA). Without formal land rights, others live as “posseiros” (or squatters) on undeveloped or abandoned land.

When the Suape Port Industrial Complex (CIPS) arrived on the scene, it began to threaten Afro-Brazilian traditional communities’ livelihood practices. In the 1970s, 13,500 hectares (52 square miles) were expropriated between Cabo and Ipojuca to develop a “mega port” that would fulfill the modernization dreams of the Brazilian military dictatorship. However, the necessary funds to realize the mega port did not occur until the worker’s party (PT) presidency of Lula Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), whose developmentalist agenda was to make Brazil a global leader in the commercial export of cheap agricultural commodities and raw materials (Pereira 2013; Saad-Filho 2020). Lula created alliances with agribusiness to realize this goal and heavily invested in mega-development projects like CIPS through his Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) (Welch 2011). Today CIPS is home to companies like the state oil and gas company PETROBRAS which installed an oil and gas refinery in 2014. The complex also houses more than 100 other national and transnational corporations, including Toyota, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Bunge, Shineray, and other petrochemicals, construction, thermoelectric energy, preform plastic, pharmaceutical, and food and beverage plants, not to mention its naval shipyard and maritime commerce facilities (SUAPE 2020).

CIPS’s industrial expansion over the past two decades has dramatically altered cultural practices, local ecologies, and land tenure arrangements for Afro-Brazilian traditional communities in Pernambuco. Among other injustices, CIPs violently dispossessed thousands of residents from their ancestral territories, destroyed culturally meaningful beaches and mangroves, and devasted diverse more-than-human relationships that these communities depend on for financial and emotional well-being (DHESCA 2018; Santos et al. 2019). These changes have taken a profound toll on residents of these communities. One community leader explained that dislocation generated a widespread psychological toll which caused the “death of elderly people who literally died of grief…depression caused by displacement.” ‘Biu,’ a nickname for Severino Caciano da Silva, was one of many fisherman and marisqueiras who suffered from grief and depression. When CIPS came knocking on his door, they offered Biu payment to relocate to an urbanized community, which he refused. When they could not sway Biu with money, they threatened him with violence. One day in 2016, multiple gangsters armed with machine guns visited Biu at his home. He watched from afar as they destroyed his house, business, everything he had. Devastated, Biu finally left his home in the neighborhood of Ilha de Tatuoca. But dislocated from his ancestral place, he lost his sense of belonging and purpose. He lost his friends, his relationships, his life’s work. Biu began showing signs of deep depression and even sought professional help. Ultimately, things escalated to point where Biu was admitted into a psychiatric facility; he died within a year. Even though his clinical cause of death was a stroke, Biu’s friends knew that he had died of the profound grief from losing his home place.

Marisqueira. Photo by Elaine Salgado Mendonça. Used with permission.

I utilize Biu’s story and the case of Cabo and Ipojuca as a lens for exploring emerging debates about “ecological grief,” or how humans grieve their rapidly changing environments in contexts of climate change (Cunsolo and Landman 2017; Kent and Brondo 2019). The concept provides crucial insights into the relationships between well-being and environmental change (ibid.). However, as of yet, ecological grief scholarship primarily focuses on climate-related environmental change and not ecological grief related to toxic pollutants from predatory development or other “unnatural disasters” (Bullard 2008). Environmental justice movements in the US and worldwide have made clear that environmental degradation disproportionately impacts poor and racialized communities (Bullard 2000; Herculano 2006; Paes e Silva 2012; Perry 2013). In bringing anthropological conceptualizations of ecological grief in conversation with environmental justice scholarship and social movements, this research investigates how racial inequalities contribute to the uneven distribution of environmental degradation and loss onto racialized and poor communities. In Pernambuco, historic social inequalities shape struggles to access to natural resources, dependencies on nature for survival, and vulnerabilities to environmental degradation, where ecological grief articulates with existing race, class, and gender-based discrimination. By being dispossessed and disconnected from the ocean, traditional fishers and marisqueiras experience a kind of ecological grief that they recognize as fatal to their communities. However, that grief is inseparable from existing structural inequalities in Brazil.

Shelly Annette Biesel is a Ph.D. Candidate in environmental anthropology at the University of Georgia. Her current research focuses how largely Afro-Brazilian traditional communities in coastal Pernambuco confront intergenerational inequalities and state-supported environmental injustices. In Pernambuco she collaborates with the Centro das Mulheres do Cabo, and numerous NGOs and interlocutors in Cabo do Santo Agostinho and Ipojuca. Elaine Salgado Mendonça was a field assistant for this project. This research was sponsored by Fulbright-Hays and the University of Georgia. The Society for Economic Anthropology’s Rhoda Halperin Award funded pilot research for this study.

This post is part of our series, 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.