Mysterious oil spill highlights lack of conservation efforts in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Over the last few months Brazil has been the epicentre of an unusual and highly damaging oil spill. Although the country is not directly responsible, the lack of action by those in power highlights why the country has been so heavily criticised for its conservation policies in recent years.

Beach cleaning
Volunteers have been left to clean up the oil on Brazilian beaches after the government failed to act

You may or may not be aware of the oil spill crisis currently plaguing the shores of northern Brazil. Although it has received significant media coverage around the world. Confusion around the source of the oil has in many ways overshadowed the severity of the situation and the government’s poor handling of it. Several key marine ecosystems are being pushed to the brink by the oil, including mangroves and coral reefs, putting hundreds of species at risk. But local people were left struggling to tackle the problem on their own when their government failed to step in and help. It is just the latest example of how Brazil’s right-wing government, led by controversial president Jair Bolsonaro, has failed miserably to protect the countries extraordinary environment.

Unknown origins

In early September reports started coming in of entire beaches in the north of Brazil turning black as crude oil began washing up on the shore. This was a big surprise as there was no warning of any incoming spillage. Nobody had reported any accidents and at first there was no idea where it had even geographically originated from. Analysis of beach samples then determined that the oil was not produced in Brazil at all, but most likely offshore oil fields in Venezuela. As time went on and the amount of oil reaching Brazil increased, the call to find who was responsible intensified. There were several contrasting ideas of how it could have happened. But the current leading theory is that the oil was released by a Greek-flagged ship, the Bouboulina, carrying crude oil from Venezuela to Malaysia.

The Greek ship Bouboulina is the prime suspect of the oil spill having potentially suffered issues from Venezuela to Malaysia

This is because looking back at satellite images the oil slick was traced back to the same area as the ship as early as late July. Brazilian government officials took this opportunity to blame parent company Delta Tankers Ltd and even raided their offices in Rio de Janeiro. However Delta Tankers told the BBC that the Bouboulina “completed her voyage uneventfully, without having experienced any fuel shortage”. And that there was ‘no evidence’ the ship stopped, changed course, offloaded its fuel or was helped out by other vessels. So it is very hard to say for sure if they were responsible or have just become a scapegoat for an under pressure government. Unfortunately it is this confusion around who is responsible that has largely overshadowed the actually oil spill and how the country has dealt with it.

Effects on marine life

In total the oil has now spread to cover over 2,500km of Brazil’s coastline with the worst affected areas the Bahia and Pernambuco states in the North. Marine species have already been found amongst the oil in their hundreds. A majority of which are seabirds and turtles who are especially susceptible to oil due to strong affinity for the sea surface. But many fish, jellyfish and crustaceans have also washed ashore. In truth almost all marine species in the area face an uphill battle as the oil continues to spread not just on the surface, but also below it. The biggest concern for environmentalists though is the damage to key ecosystems. In particular mangroves and coral reefs, which provide a home to thousands of different species. Researchers are warning it could be the final straw for some reefs that are already struggling with coral bleaching.

Oil covered turtle
This dead turtle covered in oil washed up on a beach in Bahia state

Recently attention has also shifted to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, a haven for some of Brazil’s most endangered marine species. Oil has now been found along the shoreline there and could encroach further into the protected area. This is of particular concern as the area is a crucial breeding ground for humpback whales in the South Atlantic. But the damage from the oil spill may not just be confined to marine life. Guilherme Dutra, director of Conservation International’s marine programme in Brazil, told the Guardian that “the risk of contamination of the food chain is very high, especially in areas directly affected”. Meaning humans could develop some serious health problems as a result. It will take some time for the long-term effects of the oil spill to be fully realised. But is likely it could actually be one of the most environmentally damaging ever.

Lack of action

Whilst the oil spill has been devastating for Brazil’s marine life and coastal communities. The most alarming thing about the whole situation has been the governments lack of action in dealing with it. As soon as the oil began washing up on the beaches the priority of the government was solely focused on who was responsible, rather than how to deal with it. President Bolsonaro was quick to blame Venezuela after it was discovered the oil had originated there. He also warned of potential ‘criminal acts’ speculating that environmental groups could have been behind the spill in an attempt to destabilize Brazilian oil companies, who also did nothing to help deal with the problem. Despite strong calls from researchers, aid groups and people inside his own government Bolsonaro refused to declare a state of emergency, do anything to help remove the oil or even visit effected areas.

EC Bahia shirts
Brazilian football club EC Bahia started playing matches in special ‘oil stained’ shirts in protest of the governments handling of the crisis

It was because of this that the task of dealing with the spill was left to the Brazilian people. To their credit thousands to volunteers took to the coast and did their very best to tackle the problem. They raised money online to buy protective gloves, boots and masks and then got stuck in removing the globules of oil from beaches and mangroves by hand. But because of the lack of funding and expertise it was hard going. Across the country there was outrage against the government and its leader over their failure to act.  Thousands protested including a local football team who even began playing their games with ‘oil stains’ on their shirts. Eventually the government did send in military personnel, ships and aircraft to deal with the issue after fears of food contamination started spreading. But it took a staggering six weeks for them to respond, by which time the damage had already been done.

Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Unfortunately as poor as the government’s response has been it is hardly surprising. Ever since controversial right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro took office at the start of the year, Brazil’s environment and conservation work has very much taken a back seat. Earlier this year there was global outrage as fires began burning in the Amazon rainforest at an alarming rate. Bolsonaro openly admitted to making deals with mining companies to increase deforestation and uproot indigenous tribes there. When criticized by global leaders he told them that ‘the Amazon is ours’ and that they had no right to interfere. He also claimed he was ‘fulfilling God’s will’ and described his own government’s satellite data on deforestation a ‘lie’.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is one of the countries most controversial leaders

His response to the oil spill is therefore not very surprising as all. But what might shock you is learning that despite the spill Bolsonaro has just auctioned off a deep-water Brazilian oil field. The rights to mine the seafloor site were sold at the start of this month for a whopping $17 billion. Undoubtedly a big factor in his decision to not speak out against the spill. As Brazil continues to sell off its biodiversity rich assets in this manner the environmental outlook for the country looks bleak. In less than a year Bolsonaro has already done irreversible damage and many people are worried what state Brazil’s natural world will be in when he is finished.

What can be done?

Many believe the rise of Bolsonaro and his anti-environmental agenda was only made possible by a similar situation in the US with Donald Trump. His withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and dangerous disregard for climate change and the environment has empowered other leaders and countries to follow suit. Bolsonaro even appointed his own son as ambassador to the US because of this connection. Now more than ever environmentally lacking leaderships need to be held accountable for their actions by the international community. But it is also important to note that no matter how careful oil companies are and how well a government responds. As long as we continue to rely on crude oil for fuel and energy, oil spills will always happen and will always be extremely damaging.

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