Brazil: Fisherfolk Fight For Survival


By Mario Osava

His father and other fishermen fought back with sickles, hoes and other work tools against the armed men sent by the purported owner of the land where they lived in order to evict them. But then the military police came and knocked down eight of their houses.

Their outrage reached the boiling point after the eviction of a family with five children suffering from paralysis, “thrown out onto the street,” Vilson Correa told Tierramérica. Luckily, the local mayor ordered a halt to the operation and the reconstruction of their homes, “because he had a relative” in the evicted community.

Correa was nine years old in 1970 when this incident took place, and his own house was among those destroyed. It was his “baptism by fire” in the struggle to preserve the fishing village of Zacarias, in the municipality of Maricá, 60 km from Rio de Janeiro, against successive attempts to displace the community through threats and violence.


Today, as president of the Community Culture and Recreation Association of the Fisherpeople of Zacarias, founded in 1943, he is facing a particularly daunting challenge: the construction of a large tourism, residential and commercial complex that could spell the death of the traditional way of life of his people.

The village of Zacarias, home to some 100 families, exemplifies the pressures endured by small-scale artisanal fisherfolk in Brazil, exacerbated in recent years by economic expansion in the form of large-scale energy, logistics and tourism projects.

Hydroelectric dams that number in the dozens on some rivers and are now invading the Amazon basin displace riverine communities and alter the ecology of rivers, with obvious impacts on traditional fishing practices. Industrial and tourism ports and complexes are constructed in bays and other ecosystems normally propitious for the reproduction of fish and shellfish.

Oil drilling, which is primarily carried out offshore in Brazil, is another enemy of artisanal fishing, not only because of frequent spills, but also the construction of extensive infrastructure such as ports and pipelines.

In response to this growing encroachment on the areas where they earn their livelihood, the Movement of Artisanal Fishermen and Fisherwomen of Brazil, established during the first national conference of fisherfolk in 2009, launched a campaign in June for the creation of traditional fishing community territories.

Their goal is to collect the 1.38 million signatures needed to request the adoption of a law that recognizes and guarantees the right of fisherfolk to territories, including land and water, where they can earn a living from their work and preserve their culture.

The Brazilian Congress is obliged to accept legislative proposals from the public when they are backed by the support of at least one percent of the electorate, in accordance with the 1988 Constitution. Four bills tabled in this way have already been passed into law.

Unlike indigenous peoples and “quilombolas” (communities comprised of the descendants of escaped African slaves), there is currently no legislation that provides for the demarcation of areas for exclusive and collective use by fisherfolk. Their rights are recognized, however, as one of the traditional peoples of this country of more than 192 million inhabitants.

The development promoted by the Brazilian government fosters “the privatization of bodies of water” and large-scale industrial aquaculture, to the detriment of small-scale fishing, said María José Pacheco of the Pastoral Council for Fisherfolk, a Catholic organization that supports the movement from Olinda in northeast Brazil.

According to Pacheco, small-scale fisherfolk provide 70 percent of the fish consumed in the country, which means that defending artisanal fishing is also a question of food security and sovereignty.

The establishment of small-scale fishing territories would guarantee the “physical and cultural survival” of fishing communities and their particular world view, which is not based on the accumulation of wealth, but rather on “living in harmony with nature,” Pacheco told Tierramérica.

The Pastoral Council estimates that there are 1.5 million fisherpeople in Brazil, while there were 853,231 registered with the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture in late 2010. Official statistics are unreliable, even with regard to fish production, and exclude many women who work in the sector, said Pacheco.

“Resistance is a form of victory in itself,” declared Marizelha Lopes, a fisherwoman from the northeastern state of Bahia and one of the coordinators of the campaign to demand artisanal fishing territories. Oil, hydroelectric dams and shrimp farms are the primary threats to small- scale fisherfolk in the northeast.

The expansion of fish farming has led to the destruction of mangrove forests vital for the preservation of marine life, explained Lopes. She is one of 11 brothers and sisters who all earn their livelihood from fishing in Maré Island, where “80 percent of the 8,000 inhabitants” are fisherfolk. The island is near Salvador, the capital of Bahia and a large market for fish.

“We’re not against progress, as long as aquaculture and mega projects do not make artisanal fishing impossible,” she said. And fisherfolk cannot be forced into becoming fish farmers, she told Tierramérica. “I am a fisherwoman, I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to.”

So-called extractive reserves (RESEX), areas in which traditional peoples utilize natural resources in a sustainable and limited way, are a potentially viable alternative for fisherfolk. The reserves were born from the struggle of “seringueiros” or rubber tappers against the deforestation caused by loggers and farmers.

In Arraial do Cabo, in the north of the state of Rio de Janeiro, a Marine RESEX has been created which benefits 300 families, stressed Carlos Minc, the secretary of the environment for the state, in response to criticisms for his authorization of projects that affect small-scale fishing.

But both RESEX and demarcated indigenous and quilombola territories continue to be invaded by large landholders and companies, said José Carlos Feitosa, a fisherman faced with different conflicts in the Amazon region.

Feitosa lives in Aveiro, on the banks of the Tapajós River, a large tributary of the Amazon, where the government plans to construct five large hydroelectric dams in the coming years. “It will be the death of the Tapajós,” warned Feitosa, a member of a community of close to 2,000 fisherfolk, who make their living from “a river that still holds an abundance of fish.”

Maricá was a major supplier of fish for the city of Rio de Janeiro three decades ago, with an output of 60 to 70 tons per week. Today it is the source of barely five tons, commented Roberto Ferraz, general secretary of the Federation of Artisanal Fisherpeople’s Associations in the state.

Nevertheless, Correa is determined to keep up the struggle to defend the fishing village of Zacarias that was begun by his grandparents back in the 1940s, when a landowner arrived with official documents claiming that the land occupied by the fishing community was his, despite the fact that “they had been living there for three centuries.”

The threat facing the village today is the construction of four hotels, a residential complex, shopping centers and golf courses as part of a real estate development known as Fazenda São Bento da Lagoa, which includes the fishing village.

The new owner of the land and the development project, IDB Brasil, a real estate company managed by the Spanish group Cetya, has pledged in its publicity that it will “regularize the land tenure of the fishing community of Zacarias” in addition to undertaking environmental measures such as reforestation of the area with native tree species and the treatment of all wastewater.

But the fisherfolk view the real estate development project as a threat to their very survival. And their environmentalist allies fear that it will destroy the biodiversity of the “restinga”, a distinct coastal ecosystem that separates the large Maricá Lagoon from the ocean.


Tierramérica is a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and The World Bank (WB), with IPS serving as the executive agency.

One thought on “Brazil: Fisherfolk Fight For Survival

  • August 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Arraial do Cabo is not in the north of the state of Rio. It is in the South eastern corner just next to Cabo Frio in the lakes Region of Rio De Janeiro. I should know, I live about 45 minutes drive from there


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