By Mario Osava
The Suape port complex may be eternally absolved of its environmental sins for ushering in unprecedented prosperity in the impoverished northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, and for having been built before stricter requirements were introduced.
But there are dramatic testaments to its original sins, which include the interruption, due to the construction of causeways, of the flow of two of the four rivers that empty into the Bay of Suape, 40 kilometers south of Recife, the capital of Pernambuco.
The construction of the port began in 1977, but progressed slowly because of the difficulty in attracting companies to the industrial complex that forms part of the project.
Sharks began attacking swimmers, and especially surfers on the beaches of Recife, as of 1992, after the port began receiving larger numbers of ships between 1989 and 1991.
Between June 1992 and September 2006, there were 47 shark attacks reported, resulting in 17 deaths, according to a study conducted by Fabio Hazin, director of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco, with two fellow researchers.
The number of shark attacks is alarmingly high for a mere 20-kilometer stretch of coastline, considering that the worldwide average is less than 100 attacks a year, most of them in Australia, the United States and South Africa. The sudden outbreak of attacks is also surprising.
Shark attacks were formerly unheard of in Recife, which rules out such explanations as a larger number of surfers, who have been coming to the local beaches since the 1960s, or an underwater topography conducive to the entry of large fish species, which is also nothing new, argues Hazin, who chairs the State Committee for Monitoring Shark Incidents.
Instead, the evidence uncovered in the study by Hazin and his colleagues points to the Suape port as a factor in this outbreak, since sharks tend to follow ships, increasing the risk of attacks near port areas. The number of cases in Recife rose sharply in months when the terminal received more than 30 vessels, the study observed.
Another possible factor was the filling in of the mouths of the Ipojuca and Merepe Rivers in the Bay of Suape, to prepare for the construction of port facilities and various industries. This blocked access to the rivers for bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), which seek out less saline waters to spawn.
As a consequence, the bull shark population was displaced to the mouth of the Jaboatão River, which is closer to Recife and the beaches most affected by attacks. This migration was also spurred by the decrease in plankton in Suape, another environmental impact of the port, which reduced the influx of fish and crustaceans in search of food, added Hazin.
Added to this is the deepwater channel near the beaches of Boa Viagem and Piedade, where “almost 80 percent” of the incidents studied were concentrated, he said.
Moreover, pollution from the Jaboatão River, which carries animal blood and entrails from slaughterhouses, may have contributed to particularly attracting bull sharks, an especially aggressive species involved in the majority of the attacks.
These last two factors, which are unrelated to the port, are naturally emphasized by the supporters of Suape, which boasts the second best environmental management of all the ports in Brazil, according to the National Aquatic Transportation Agency, the government regulatory authority.
The Suape Port and Industrial Complex covers 13,500 hectares around the bay, but 59 percent of this area is devoted to environmental conservation, a fact that has inspired “admiration among Europeans,” said Roberto de Abreu e Lima of the Economic Development Secretariat (SDEC) of Pernambuco, which is responsible for the port’s management.
The proportion initially planned was 45 percent, “but we expanded the environmental conservation area, as well as creating ecological corridors to better preserve biodiversity,” he told Tierramérica, while acknowledging that there are still challenges to confront, such as the restoration of mangroves and forests along the banks of the rivers.
Suape is a word from the language of the indigenous Caeté people, whose communities on the Pernambuco coast were decimated in the 16th century, forcing them to migrate inland. It means “winding roads,” which is an apt description for the estuary of “rivers and mangroves with many curves,” SDEC consultant Daniel Cabral told Tierramérica.
The Center for Environmental Technology, created in partnership with the state-owned oil company Petrobrás, will monitor the water, air and soil in the entire port complex, noted Abreu e Lima.
Suape is a “natural port” with deep waters along the coast and in the bay, which meant that little intervention was required, except for a 300-meter trench opened in the reefs to protect the wharves, SDEC economic sectors manager Felipe Chaves told Tierramérica.
But human interference – such as the construction of a port combined with an industrial complex – affects marine ecosystems in ways that are difficult to assess, and the shark attacks represent “the small visible part” of these impacts, commented Hazin. If the Suape port had been built in more recent years, it would have confronted serious objections, such as those faced by projects currently in development. Porto Sul, a private port project in the state of Bahia, to the south of Pernambuco, was moved to a different location this year because of protests from environmentalists, who said that it threatened protected forests and mangroves.
The Açú Superport, another private venture conceived as a giant industrial complex 320 kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro, faces ongoing opposition from displaced farmers, environmentalists and local communities.
In 1975, the Suape port project was harshly criticized by Pernambuco intellectuals in a highly publicized manifesto, which declared that it was the result of an “authoritarian” decision and threatened the flourishing tourism in an area of “artistic heritage” created by nature. Environmental issues were not yet a widespread concern at the time.
Today, the huge numbers of workers who have come to the area are affecting tourism through the conversion of hotels and family homes into workers’ accommodations, even on nearby beaches such as those of Porto de Galinhas, an international tourism destination located 20 kilometers south of Suape. The heavy traffic on roads into the area also keeps tourists away.
Most hotel owners have no complaints, since they are making more money now that their establishments are occupied full-time and they continue to charge the same rates they always have, Rubia Melo, the natural resources coordinator in the neighboring municipality of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, told Tierramérica.
But nearby cities are suffering the effects of air pollution, the thousands of buses and trucks clogging up highways and roads, and the sudden extreme rise in demand for transportation, sanitation, health care and housing, she noted.
Nevertheless, said Melo, if these impacts can be mitigated soon, “the future will be better for the local population.”