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Oil spill in 2019 in the sea and on the beaches of Northeast, Brazil


The 2019 oil spills off the northeast coast of Brazil are considered the largest environmental disaster on the country's coast. Started in August 2019, the oil has been spreading across the contaminated area. As of January 8, 2020, 998 locations in 120 municipalities and nine states in Northeast Brazil were accounted for, according to the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA). It is estimated that around 2,000 tons of oil have been collected from the beaches.

The investigation started when there was a significant amount of oil reaching the Brazilian beaches. Since then, several hypotheses have been created about the origin of the oil and its constitution. No country or company was blamed for contamination of the northeastern coast. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government, after 1 month of the first appearance of oil on beaches, took measures such as visits to affected sites and issued contradictory information regarding the risk of poisoning associated with contact with the oil, contradicting researchers and other sources regarding potential for environmental contamination of this disaster.

While government measures were unsuccessful in containing oil, people from affected locations and volunteers from various parts of the country were responsible for manually removing oil from sand and seawater. However, a large proportion of these volunteers do not use PPE and tools that could reduce the risk of contamination. In this regard, several research institutions have been alerting to these risks and mapping the locations affected, as well as organizing volunteer work and donating PPE to those who were removing the oil.

   Among the repercussions of this disaster is the economic factor, because in the Northeast region of Brazil fishing and tourism are some of the main income generators for the coastal population. This disturbance to the economy of the affected places is due to the high probability of contamination of the waters and of all beings that live in them. Through the mechanism of trophic magnification toxicity is increasing according to the food chain and consumers are at the top of it. These risks culminate in fewer people enjoying the beaches and lower profitability of the traditional activities of these locations. The economic factor is also within the health factor due to the oil spill on the Brazilian coast. Thus, people who come into contact with the oil in these waters are at risk for signs and symptoms of intoxication. If there is chronicity in this contamination there is a risk of developing dysfunctions such as anemia, cancer and several other serious disorders. In this sense, the costs to the country's health system are incalculable given that there is no dimension of the degree of contamination that this population is immersed.

   Uncertainty of origin coupled with not sufficiently effective combat are the main factors supporting a growing advance in the contamination of waters, animals, and other beings that inhabit the northeastern coast of Brazil contributing to great environmental damage. After some months, the origin of the oil spill was seemingly identified  [1] [2] [3].

By February 2020, Bird Life reported [4] that in in August 2019 strange blobs of oil started to wash up along Brazil’s northeast coast, sparking fear among local people and conservationists. Despite many theories, the source of the oil remains mysterious. What we do know is that to date, more than 5,000 tonnes of oil have been cleared up from about 1,000 locations. The oil has contaminated estuaries, beaches, mangroves and reefs along 4,000 km of Brazil’s shoreline, and is still being washed up as we speak. At the time the oil started to hit, shorebirds were using this stretch of coast as a rest stop on migration to their southern wintering grounds, or settling down to spend the winter there outright. A particular concern is the Red Knot Calidris canutus – a large sandpiper known for gorging itself and doubling in weight before setting off on migration. The species is globally listed as Near Threatened, but the American subspecies, the rufa Red Knot, may be in more trouble still: large numbers overwinter in the areas affected by the oil spill...Even more worryingly, oil has reached 30 of Brazil’s federal protected areas in the region. When the government was slow to respond to the crisis, hundreds of local community members hurried to clean up the beaches with their own hands. The oil spill, dubbed the largest environmental crisis in the history of Brazil, is expected to jeopardise the livelihoods of up to 144,000 fishermen and shellfish farmers along the coast. Artisanal fishing was already being undermined by pollution and depleted fish stocks. Now, the oil spill has caused a 70% decrease in sales of fish and other seafood.

Basic Data

Name of conflict: Oil spill in 2019 in the sea and on the beaches of Northeast, Brazil
State or province:Nordeste (Pernambuco, Bahia, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Alagoas, Sergipe, Maranhão, Paraíba)
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Specific commodities:Crude oil

Project Details and Actors

Project details

In November 2019 it was reported [1] that a Greek-flagged ship carrying Venezuelan crude was the source of an oil spill which has tarred thousands of kilometers of coastline over the past two months, Brazilian investigators announced. Police said the tanker appeared to have spilled the crude about 700km (420 miles) off Brazil’s coast between 28 and 29 July, bound for Singapore with oil loaded at Venezuela’s San José terminal. Brazil’s solicitor general said the country would seek damages in the case, which has stained tropical beaches along 2,500km of coastline with a thick sludge, hurting tourism and fishing communities in the poorer north-east region.

The affected population were coastal populations, fishermen in general, artisanal fishermen, shellfish gatherers, beach workers, bathers, tourists, fish and seafood sellers and consumers, volunteers who worked in the removal of oil from the sea, workers called to help.

As of 23 October2019, contamination had reached more than 200 localities from the nine states of Northeast Brazil. More than 1,000 tonnes of oil had been collected from beaches along the 2,250 km of coastline affected. Another source [2] stated that more than 4000 tons of crude oil residue from an unknown source landed on the country’s northeast seaboard since late August, contaminating hundreds of beaches, estuaries, reefs, and mangroves along a 2500-kilometer stretch of shoreline. It seemed that the culprit was the Bouboulina, a Greek tanker that passed the Brazilian northeast coast in late July 2019. However, as reported in Hellenic Shipping News 02/12/2019 in a statement sent to Reuters, Delta Tankers Ltd, who manages the Greek-flagged Bouboulina ship, said a full search of the material from the cameras and sensors that all their vessels carry revealed no evidence of the tanker “having stopped, conducted any kind of ship-to-ship operation, leaked, slowed down or veered off course, on its passage from Venezuela to Melaka, Malaysia.”

Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:30/08/2019
Relevant government actors:State Governments and City Halls, Environment Departments (municipal and state), Health Departments (municipal and state), Federal Universities, Institutes and Research Centers from different areas, Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Health, Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), Public Ministry, Public Ministry of Labor.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Conselho Pastoral da Pesca (CPP)
Articulação Nacional de Pescadoras (ANP) -
Movimento de Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais (MPP)
Salve Maracaipe, WWF Brazil, Greenpeace Brazil, Moviment Porto 2039, Institute BiomaBrasil, #VazaOleo
Rede Manguemar
Núcleo de Estudos Humanidades, Comissão Nacional para o Fortalecimento das Reservas Extrativistas e dos Povos Extrativistas Costeiros Marinhos (Confrem)
Coletivo de Comunicação Intervozes

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Social movements
Trade unions
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Religious groups
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Recreational users
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Air pollution, Genetic contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Other Environmental impacts
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths, Other Health impacts, Malnutrition, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Other Health impactsAcute and chronic intoxications can cause symptoms related to damage to the nervous system, such as nausea, headache, vision disorders, mental confusion, sleep disorders; respiratory problems, cardiac arrhythmias, abortion, cancer, anemia, bone marrow aplasia, among other conditions. If the exposure is too intense it can produce coma and death.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Other socio-economic impacts


Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Under negotiation
No liability, no reparations so far ( Sept. 2020)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Government measures taken so far have not been decisive as to the severity of the oil spill. This is justified by the recurrence of the appearance of large quantities of the product on many beaches, the lack of information on the origin and size of the disaster, the dangers and risks related to contact with the product, the destination of the material removed. The costs of the spillage will never be repaid. The tanker responsible and liable for the spill appears not to have been identified with certainty.

Sources & Materials

[1] The Guardian. Brazil blames devastating oil spill on Greek-flagged tanker. 1 Nov. 2019.

[2] Science. Mysterious oil spill threatens marine biodiversity haven in Brazil. By Herton EscobarNov. 4, 2019

[3]Spill and run: Brazil struggles to identify tanker behind major oil leak. Mystery ship responsible for contaminating half Brazil’s coast highlights gaps in global shipping industry regulations.

Manuela Andreoni, Letícia Casado December 23, 2019.

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[4] Bird Life International, 20 Febr. 2020

Meta information

Contributor:Caroline Pontes, Cremilda Ferreira e Mariana Olívia - Laboratório de Saúde Ambiente e Trabalho/Instituto Aggeu Magalhães/Fiocruz Pernambuco) [email protected]
Last update22/10/2020
Conflict ID:4888



Registro do fotógrafo do jornal Folha de Pernambuco, Léo Malafaia, a imagem, que mostra o menino vestido com plástico de lixo retirando do mar sacos com petróleo, teve repercussão internacional, sendo publicada em periódicos como The New York Times (EUA) e Clarín (Argentina), além da agência de notícias francesa France-Press (AFP) e do inglês The Gardian.





Source: Spill and run. Dialogochino (3)