Justice and Sustainability

How The Quilombola Community Is Reminding Us That A Fight Against Environmental Racism Is A Fight For Climate Justice

Since 2007, the Tatuoca River, vital to the Quilombola community of Ilha de Mercês in Ipojuca, northeast Brazil, has been critically impacted by a dam constructed by the SUAPE Industrial Port Complex.

By FCAM | March 12, 2024

Long Story Short

Since 2007, the Tatuoca River, vital to the Quilombola community of Ilha de Mercês in Ipojuca, northeast Brazil, has been critically impacted by a dam constructed by the SUAPE Industrial Port Complex. This dam, intended as temporary for shipyard access, drastically disrupted the river’s ecosystem, devastating the mangroves and the community’s livelihood. Predominantly affecting women who rely on these mangroves for subsistence fishing, this situation epitomizes environmental racism — a marginalized, historically oppressed community bearing the brunt of ecological harm. The community’s resilient response involved mobilization, public outcry, and legal action, leading to partial reopening of the river, in August, 2021. However, their fight continues, demanding full restoration and accountability, highlighting a broader struggle for environmental, racial, and gender justice.

False Climate Solution Affecting the Quilombola Community

In 2007, the SUAPE Industrial Port Complex in Pernambuco, Brazil, initiated a project with severe consequences: constructing a rock-fill dam over the Tatuoca River. This river, forming an essential part of an estuarine complex between Cabo de Santo Agostinho and Ipojuca, is not just a waterway; it is the lifeblood of various fishing communities, most notably the quilombola community of Ilha de Mercês – direct descendants of enslaved and historically oppressed people. Here, the Tatuoca River is more than a natural resource; it’s an integral part of their cultural identity, a crucial source of sustenance, and a means of livelihood.

The construction of the dam, particularly near the river’s mouth, radically disrupted the delicate balance of the ecosystem. The ebb and flow of tides, once a rhythm of life for the mangrove vegetation and the fauna it supported, were altered beyond recognition. This ecological upheaval led to the gradual death of the mangroves, stripping the Ilha de Mercês quilombola community and other local fishermen of their primary food source and income.

This environmental crisis was exacerbated by the prolonged existence of the dam. What was meant to be a temporary structure morphed into a 17-year blockade, suffocating the river, its mangrove forests, and the fauna, as well as the communities dependent on them. This act by SUAPE, driven by commercial interests in the quilombola territory for new projects like oil refineries, mineral terminals and shipyards, coupled with the negligence or even complicity of environmental inspection bodies, highlights a disturbing trend of environmental racism.

The expression “Environmental racism” is a term used to describe situations of social injustice in the environment in a racialized context, that is, in which communities belong to ethnic minorities, such as Indigenous, black and Asian populations, who are particularly affected. The term  denounces that the distribution of environmental impacts does not occur equally among the population, with the marginalized and historically invisible portion being the most affected by pollution and environmental degradation. The concept was created to describe the way in which the poorest and most marginalized populations are disproportionately affected by negative environmental impacts, such as air pollution, water contamination, flooding and deforestation. This happens because these populations often have less political and economic power to avoid or remedy these impacts. 

The plight of the Ilha de Mercês quilombola community in the face of the construction of the dam over the Tatuoca River by SUAPE shows a clear case of this. The construction and extended presence of the dam not only physically altered the landscape but also inflicted severe ecological damage that directly impacted the lives and livelihoods of the quilombola community.This is not an isolated incident but a part of a broader pattern where Afro-descendants, Indigenous peoples, and economically disadvantaged groups are frequently subjected to higher levels of environmental risk than their wealthier, often whiter, counterparts. In this case, the decision to build and maintain the dam near the Tatuoca River, despite its detrimental effects, reflects a systemic disregard for the environmental and health concerns of the quilombola community.

The adverse effects of this environmental neglect are felt most acutely by the women of the community. While the men often fish in the open sea, it is predominantly the women who engage in artisanal fishing within the estuarine mangrove areas. The destruction of these mangroves directly impacts their diet, income, and overall health. This gendered impact of environmental damage not only underscores the intersectionality of environmental racism but also highlights how environmental changes can exacerbate existing gender inequalities. For the women of Ilha de Mercês, the degradation of the Tatuoca River is not just an ecological disaster; it’s an existential threat to their way of life, their health, and their cultural heritage.

Gender-just climate solution

The community embarked on a multifaceted campaign to address the grave environmental injustice posed by the construction of the dam on the Tatuoca River. Their strategy encompassed a blend of advocacy, public awareness, and legal action. Through a series of meetings and public hearings, they intensified efforts to influence inspection bodies. Concurrently, they launched the “Free Rivers, Living Mangroves” communication campaign, which played a pivotal role in raising public consciousness about the issue. The cornerstone of their approach was strategic litigation, taking their case to the courts to seek justice.

This concerted effort yielded significant results. Firstly, it heightened public awareness and engagement, drawing widespread attention to the environmental injustices faced by the community. Secondly, it spurred more proactive responses from public agencies, notably the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Public Defender’s Office. These developments led to tangible changes on the ground. In August 2021, the public company SUAPE initiated the partial reopening of the dam, creating a 34-meter opening in the over 170-meter structure. This action provided immediate, albeit partial, respite to the river and initiated the restoration of the mangrove ecosystem.

Despite this progress, the community recognized that the battle was far from over. They continue to advocate for the total reopening of the river, insisting on the complete removal of the dam. Their persistence bore fruit in a conciliation hearing, where they secured a commitment for the full reopening of the Tatuoca River in the ensuing months. This commitment marked a significant milestone in their over 15-year struggle to restore the Tatuoca River, bringing them on the brink of a major victory: the river’s full recovery and compensation for the extensive material and moral damages endured over the years.

While the partial reopening of the river is a commendable step, the community remains steadfast in their demand for the complete and immediate reopening of the Tatuoca River. They also seek to hold the SUAPE Industrial Port Complex accountable for the irreversible damage caused by more than 15 years of obstruction.

Call To Action

Our fight against the dam is more than a local issue; it’s a microcosm of the global fight for environmental justice and equity. It underscores the urgent need for climate finance that recognizes and supports gender-just climate solutions addressing racial justice at the local level. The case of Quilombo Ilha de Mercês is not isolated. It is part of the global fight for environmental, racial and gender justice. We call for support and investment in real solutions that promote inclusion and address the systemic inequalities that perpetuate environmental racism.

– Fórum Suape – Espaço Socioambiental

The story of the Tatuoca River and the Ilha de Mercês community highlights the urgent need for climate finance that is rooted in gender and racial justice. Financial support could play a vital role in restoring and preserving vital ecosystems like the Tatuoca River mangroves, which are crucial for the livelihoods of local communities, especially women. Such finance is necessary not only for environmental restoration projects but also for supporting community-led advocacy and legal actions against environmental injustices. By ensuring that climate finance is gender just, acknowledging the unique challenges and contributions of women in these communities, leading the work at the frontline, efforts can be made more effective in addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental racism and degradation on women and promoting their active participation in environmental decision-making and restoration initiatives.

Who’s supporting this gender-just climate solution?

Fórum Suape | Espaço Socioambiental is an organization that works together with communities affected by the Suape Port Industrial Complex (CIPS), on the south coast of Pernambuco, supporting them through pedagogical, legal and visibility actions, thus seeking to strengthen their capacity for organization and political influence. 

This is one story out of many from the The Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) network where women, girls, trans, intersex, and non-binary people from local and Indigenous communities are at the forefront of fighting for climate and environmental justice against false climate solutions. The time is now to resource the transformative climate solutions led by women, girls, inter, non-binary and trans people and stop investment in false climate solutions. Commit your support to uphold human rights and invest in women’s leadership in gender-just climate solutions!

GAGGA will be present at CSW68 between March 11 to March 22, 2024. For collaboration opportunities and to learn more, please contact Noemi Grütter, GAGGA Co-Coordinator, Responsible for Advocacy and Collaborations: n.grutter@fondocentroamericano.org. For additional insights around this article and Fórum Suape Espaço Socioambientali’s work and to connect directly, reach out to https://forumsuape.org.br/,  @Forumsuape on Twitter or Forumsuape@forumsuape.com.br

This story and GAGGA’s CSW68 actions are supported by Global Affairs Canada and The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their contribution has been instrumental in GAGGA’s efforts to highlight critical issues and voices at CSW68.