Small-scale fishing community mobilization in Brazil amidst multi-faceted challenges

Oil spill, fishery closure season and Covid-19:
A sequence of big challenges for small-scale fishers in Brazil

End of the fishing day in Pontal do Paraná, Brazil by Mirella Leis, 2014

Community organization is vital for Brazilian small-scale fishers. These dynamic, collective efforts help those who are struggling to survive hardship, while at the same time exposing to the public the precarious conditions small-scale fishers live in, and the lack of government action towards this marginalized portion of society. There is an urgent need for public policies that benefit small-scale fishers in Brazil. After all, they are an essential part of Brazilian society and deserve fairness and justice.

May 15, 2020

Prepared by: Bruna Brito and Vanessa Eyng, Memorial University

When lockdown measures took place in March, fishers were already in a delicate situation due to several months of low income. The country’s small-scale fisheries had already been hit hard by a major oil spill that affected most of the Brazilian coastline. This environmental catastrophe was followed by a period of sustained low income for small-scale fishers, because of the annual closure season for most commercially important species. Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic added another challenge in the ongoing crisis for small-scale fisheries in Brazil. Because small-scale fishers have not found support from measures issued by the government, and in order to overcome these multi-faceted challenges, they have instead organized themselves to ensure their livelihoods and to fight for social justice.

In the second half of 2019, an oil spill happened on the Northeast coast of Brazil. Thousands of workers were affected, especially those working in tourism and small-scale fisheries. During that period, many residents from affected areas volunteered to help clean the shore. The spilling severely affected the tourism industry, and consequently bars, restaurants and hotels — main consumers of small-scale fisheries’ products. While the Federal government released a program of financial support, it was not enough to fully cover the financial loss, and many fishers did not benefit from it.

Adding to this situation, the annual fishery closure season in Brazil for many commercially important species typically takes place from December to March, determined by the species’ behaviour and federal or provincial decisions. During those four months, fishers are only allowed to catch fish for their own consumption and can apply to receive a benefit equivalent to minimum wage from an employment insurance policy developed by the Brazilian Federal Government. Delays are common in these paymentsRosângela Silva, president of a Fisher’s organization in Natal, Northeast Brazil, explains that “they are autonomous people who receive this minimum wage because they cannot fish during this period and who were harmed by the oil that appeared on the beaches last year. Now with the quarantine, they cannot leave the house, so they depend on this help. The delay happened because the Social Security Agency in Brazil stopped processing the cases.”

For those who are still able to fish after a series of challenges mentioned above, the interruption of the tourism flow caused by Covid-19 has resulted in reduced demand for fish and, consequently, very low to no income to fishers. Artisanal fishers and small-scale farmers were not included as potential beneficiaries of the Emergency Minimum Income program until April 22nd. Another factor which complicates the situation in some cases is accessing the system in order to apply for the benefit. Laurineida Santana, a member of Conselho Pastoral dos Pescadores, which is a Brazilian Catholic Council for Fishers, points out, “This digitalization didn’t reach everyone. A large portion of society does not have access to the internet, and this makes access [to the formal system] difficult.”. The lack of State support pushed many communities in Brazil to adapt, invent new strategies, and campaign for those in vulnerable situations.

Difficulties extend along the coastline in Northeastern Brazil

In the coastal city of Cabo de Santo Agostinho in Pernambuco state, Gilberto Carvalho, a fisherman, evaluated the current Covid-19 situation as being worse than what he faced during the oil spill. In November 2019, he and his wife, Adriana, sustained a loss of half of the family’s income. With the lockdown measures to fight Covid-19, they currently have no source of income and have been fishing only for their family consumption. Despite the difficulties, Gilberto understands the need for physical distancing to prevent the transmission of the virus and hopes to receive the aid announced by the Federal Government to guarantee their sustenance. For now, the couple and the entire community around them rely on collaboration and support among community members.

Some help is coming their way. For instance, students at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), located in Pernambuco, launched a campaign called “Everyone for Artisanal Fishery” to support 120 fishers in the Reserva Extrativista Acaju-Goiania, which is a protected area in which sustainable use of its natural resources is promoted (IUCN’s Category VI). They are collecting donations to purchase essential food items and cleaning products in order to support those affected by the oil spill and the Covid-19 crisis. Similar initiatives are also happening in urban areas, in support of artisanal fishers and their families.

Another example of community mobilization addressing the impacts of Covid-19 is Ponta Negra, a neighbourhood in Natal, Brazil. There, a group of fishers donated fish to families who lost their income. The community is also collecting donations — mostly from its own residents — to buy essential food items for those in need and to provide daily meals for homeless

In the rivers of the Amazon

In the Amazon region, the relation between local communities and fish is of an important cultural significance, permeated with specific knowledge and skills. Fisheries contribute to generating income and livelihoods. Fish is also the primary source of protein for those communities. In some special cases, the per capita consumption of fish can reach an impressive level of 180kg per year!

In the main Amazon cities, like Manaus, the demand for freshwater fish is high. To help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in local markets, Manaus’ City Hall launched a project for fish delivery, in partnership with fish farms in the region. The project, however, has two critical problems: it reaches only a limited group, one that can pay for the delivery service, thus excluding the most impoverished part of the population that still needs to gather in public places to buy fish. It also excludes artisanal fishers, who still need to put themselves at risk to sell their products. The aforementioned municipal government’s measure reached only 3% of the region’s fish producers. Secondly, due to unfair competition, many fishers need to sell their product at a cheaper price, which further reduces their incomes in a time of need. Pedro Hamilton, president of the Association of Artisanal Fishermen and Rural Fishermen of Manacapuru, a city in Amazonas state, explains: “the people who use delivery are rich. The poor people can hardly buy, and the category of artisanal fishermen is once again unprotected by this competition. And now, it got worse. Manaus has skyrocketed in the number of cases due to coronavirus and the number of people in isolation, even fishermen need to stay more at home”.

Collaboration and cooperation as a vital strategy

The ability to respond to the current challenges in a united and coordinated way is fundamental in the Brazilian context. In a letter written by the National Movement of Artisanal Fishers and signed by almost 450 fishers’ associations, researchers and institutions, it is clear that governments need to have specific emergency plans for fishers communities. “Artisanal fishing is a relevant socio-economic activity in the country, generating work, income and food for about 1.5 million people and representing over 60% of the fish production nationwide, which arrives at the table of the Brazilian people; and in regions like the North and the Northeast (together), this production reaches more than 75%. It is also the basis for sustaining an important and extensive production chain: small, medium and large fish traders; bars and restaurants; tourism segments; maritime workers; ice vendors; among others”, they argued.

In addition to demanding action from the government, small-scale fishers promptly organized an ‘observatory group’ in March 2020 to fill the information gap related to artisanal fishing groups that public authorities were supposed to provide. The group is formed by fishers from all over the country, together with scientists and supporters of artisanal fishing, to monitor the impacts of Covid-19 and to discuss the fight against it in fishing communities. They are producing daily newsletter with key information about access to benefits and funds, and health tips.

Community organization is vital for Brazilian small-scale fishers. These dynamic, collective efforts help those who are struggling to survive hardship, while at the same time exposing to the public the precarious conditions small-scale fishers live in, and the lack of government action towards this marginalized portion of society. There is an urgent need for public policies that benefit small-scale fishers in Brazil. After all, they are an essential part of Brazilian society and deserve fairness and justice.

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