Professor Helps Brazilian Community Monitor and Communicate Concerns about Impacts on Subsistence Fishing

One of the poorest states in Brazil is known as Bahia, and its high population of dark-skinned residents tend to be disproportionately impacted by health issues. For the past two years, Amanda Northcross, PhD, of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, has been traveling there to help residents of an area known as Leandrinho to investigate and document the effects of pollution and chemical leaks. Through this work, she has learned of the destabilizing impacts that industrial development is having on subsistence fisherman and fisherwomen, impacts that some refer to as a genocide.

Northcross recently returned from a trip to Leandrinho, which is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the southern hemisphere. She was recruited to measure air pollution in an area near Leandrinho known as Camaçari by a fellow researcher, Courtney Woods of the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. The multinational companies operating manufacturing plants in the area include Monsanto, Ford, BASF, and Bridgestone, and it is also home to copper processors and paper mills. As Northcross explained in a seminar last year, her work involves documenting environmental injustice in addition to collecting data about the chemicals to which the community’s residents are being exposed.

One of the places where Northcross has been measuring pollution and installing monitors is an island called Ilha de Mare. It is home to a population of 2000 residents who mainly support themselves by subsistence fishing. A Dutch film crew recently made a documentary called “No Rio e No Mar!” (which translates as “On the River and Sea!”) that shows the challenges faced by residents living and working near the island.  

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Northcross interviewing fisherwomen from Ilha de Mare

Through Woods, Northcross has connected with members of a Brazilian nonprofit group known as the Comissão Pastoral da Pesca (Council of Pastoral Fishermen and Fisherwomen) and the Movimento dos Pescadores and Pescadoras Artesanais, a labor group. Both have been working to raise awareness about how the livelihoods of Ilha de Mare’s residents and artisanal fishermen and women through the country are being harmed by industrial development.

A recent visit to DC
The Council of Pastoral Fishers’ executive national secretary, Ormezita Barbosa, and Marcos Brandaõ, a lawyer for one of the organization’s regions, recently came to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of the plight of Brazil’s subsistence fishermen and women. Barbosa and Brandaõ met with experts at the Organization of American States, where they expressed their belief that, when considered in aggregate, the impacts of industrial development in Brazil on subsidence fishing constitute nothing less than genocide on peoples who have been supporting themselves by fishing for generations. Northcross arranged for a well-attended gathering at the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health where Barbosa and Brandaõ presented their concerns.

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Ormezita Barbosa and Marcos Brandaõ (at head of table) speaking at GW

“The impacts of industrial development on subsistence fishing in Brazil merit much more attention,” Northcross says. “Many questions exist about the public health impacts of industrial development on traditional communities, which makes the data that we are collecting very important. I have come to know and care about many members of the communities I’m working with in Bahia. When I learned about the larger impacts on fishing communities, I knew I had to do my part to get the word out.”

Every site matters
In her most recent trip to Bahia, Northcross was able to confirm that the monitors already in place in the Ilha de Mare are collecting data on emissions linked to the latest leak that she learned about in July from the community and the Brazilian research team that she is working with in Bahia. Led by Rita de Cássia Franco Rêgo, director of the Postgraduate Program in Health, Environment and Labor at the Medical School at the Universidade Federal da Bahia, the team empowers community members to collect data on air pollutants on their land. The data is helping Northcross and de Cássia Franco Rêgo to evaluate the impacts of the exposures on the community’s health.

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These Ilha de Mare community members are trained to use and troubleshoot the monitors that Northcross and her colleagues have placed there to collect data

“Now that the network is in place, it is helping us to learn about leaks as soon as possible,” Northcross says. “Getting this information helps us put changes in place that help the residents stay healthy.  Every site that is impacted by industrial pollution matters.” 

A pleasant surprise
Just before Northcross set out to travel to Bahia this past summer, she got a pleasant surprise. uRAD, a Romanian company that makes air quality monitors that was familiar with the environmental justice monitoring projects that Northcross is leading in Washington, DC and Imperial County, California, reached out to her to ask if she knew of sites in low and middle income countries where air monitors are needed. uRAD raised enough money via a recent Indigogo campaign to site 100 monitors to detect pollution in low and middle income countries, including four to that Northcross is bringing to Bahia.

“The new monitors we’re receiving is one of the reasons I am optimistic that we can make real progress in Leandrinho and Ilha de Mare, as well as at other sites where poor people are being exposed unknowingly to industrial pollution,” Northcross says. “Knowledge and data provide researchers and communities with the support they need to demand change.”