While watching the sea, indigenous Yves Tiouka tells us about how life of fishing and nature have radically changed in the region in the last ten years. He lives in the commune of Awala-Yalimapo in French Guiana, 196 km from the capital, Cayenne. Like most of the inhabitants of the country, the slightly over one thousand inhabitants of the place have fishing as main economic and subsistence activity. Agência Pública traveled to the region to understand how our neighbors see the plans of the Brazilian government for oil exploration just a few hundred kilometers from the coast.
The project of Petrobras for the Equatorial Margin, in Foz do Amazonas, comprises an extension of 2,200 km along the Brazilian coast. It goes from the northern end of Amapá, on the border with French Guiana, to the coast of Rio Grande do Norte, and provides for the drilling of 16 exploratory oil wells. “If an oil accident happens and it gets here, we won’t have anything to eat. No one freezes food here, we go fishing every day, and that is what we eat”, says Tiouka, who complains about the lack of information.
In the event of an oil spill accident, impacts on French Guiana would be felt in less than 48 hours. The country has much of its coastline covered by mangroves, which makes any protective action impossible. French Guiana does not explore oil in its waters either, and does not have any concrete plan for large-scale containment in the event of black tides, as oil spills at sea are known. The regional operational surveillance and rescue center, responsible for monitoring pollution and triggering containment plans, for example, is based on the island of Martinique.
The northern current of Brazil flows through the Atlantic Ocean towards the northern coast of the country, where it meets the Amazon River, which directly influences the coastal region in what constitutes the largest continental waters flow into the marine environment in the world. Part of this current goes north and becomes the Guiana Current, mixing with the Orinoco River in Venezuela, resulting in unique environmental conditions.
It is precisely where these strong currents circulate that Petrobras intends to drill.
According to the budget forecasting, the so-called “new exploratory frontier” will receive investments of approximately US$ 3 billion. To continue with the project and drill in the so-called Block FZA-M-59 on the coast of Amapá, Petrobras is awaiting authorization from Ibama, which has been denying it since the first request, in early 2014.
In an order published on May 17 denying once again the licensing, the president of Ibama, Rodrigo Agostinho, states that the project presents “worrying inconsistencies for safe operation in a new exploratory frontier of high socio-environmental vulnerability.”
For researcher Marcelo Soares, who specializes in geoscience, oil exploration in the region would endanger unique and little-studied ecosystems. “We have reef environments in these deep waters that are part of a unique system that spread throughout the coast of Brazil and French Guiana, also connected with the Caribbean region”, he explains.
It is in Awala-Yalimapo, for example, that the Amana Nature Reserve is located, since 1993 recognized as wetland of international interest. With about 14,800 hectares, the reserve consists of mangroves, swampy forests and lagoons and is always evolving due to the progression from east to west, along the coast, of the mud banks coming from the Amazon. This coastal dynamic is so impressive that the environments of the reserve change noticeably from one year to the next.
Soares also draws attention to the area delimited for exploration, on the border with French Guiana. “In the event of an accident, the problem would become international and enter the European area, which has very specific laws. From a geopolitical and conservation point of view, this may be negative for Brazil, which has been working to recover an environmental positive performance”.
Oil exploration itself greatly increases carbon emissions at global levels. The researcher recalls that Northern Brazil and French Guiana already face consequences, such as increased temperatures, droughts and sea level rise, already felt by Tiouka and his neighbors in Awala-Yalimapo.
“Ten years ago, the sea did not reach this coast. It must have advanced about 300 meters. Now we see erosion all along the community coast”, says Tiouka, who fears that the village will no longer exist in ten years.
A few kilometers from the Plage des Hattes, in Awala-Yalimapo, is Kudawayada, an inn and restaurant with indigenous architecture and rustic look by the roadside. The owner is concerned. Indigenous Sylvain Kilinian says business is increasing, but he is afraid of losing everything due to the climate change and degradation of species on the coast.
“My whole life depends on this place, and we have to fight hard to preserve nature and not let our history disappear. What about me? And all the life around here, the endangered turtles? If there is an oil accident in Brazil and a black tide comes here, it’ll all be over”, he laments.
Fishermen complain about lack of information
An overseas department belonging to France, French Guiana has experienced several waves of oil prospecting since the 1970s. In 2017, France passed Law 2017-1839, which mandated the end of hydrocarbon research and exploration, prohibiting new gas and oil exploration contracts, and the termination of any and all sector activity in the country and its territories by 2040.
Protected by the oil spill legislation in their country, fishermen of French Guiana – who represent the third local economy sector – complain about the little information about the project in Foz do Amazonas.
“We already have pollution with mercury from the mines, and now we risk having a black tide. That brings concern. There is not enough information to safely drill exploration wells on the Brazilian coast, and this is sure to affect our indigenous populations on both sides. Many people depend on fishing to survive”, says engineer Steafne Icho, resident of Saint Laurent du Maroni, son and grandson of fishermen.
70 km from Oiapoque, in French Guiana, is the village of Kaw, an old village located in the city of Regina. The main activity of its inhabitants is fishing and hunting. There is the Kaw Roura nature reserve, the third largest in area (94,700 hectares) and the largest wetland in France. Cristian Lewest, a fisherman from the region, says that he and his wife fish for subsistence and trade. He explains that the fishing practice is passed on from generation to generation. “I learned from my parents and I’m already teaching my children, so an oil spill would be catastrophic for us”, the fisherman laments.
In an interview to Pública, the secretary of state in charge of the sea in France, Hervé Berville, who visited Awala-Yalimapo in April, corroborated the fishermen’s vision. On the French side, he says, there is not much information about possible oil exploration on the neighboring coast. According to him, the dialogue with the Bolsonaro government on environmental issues was always quite complicated, but now the Brazil-France relationship has been resumed with President Lula.
Petrobras has booked entire hotels in Oiapoque until the end of 2023
The search for oil in the FZA-M-59 has been questioned for years by environmentalists and environmental defense agencies. The decision of Petrobras to try to explore the region led to a political clash, resulting in Mines and Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira opposing Minister Marina Silva. Representatives, senators and authorities of Amapá demand the exploration authorization.
While awaiting Ibama’s opinion, Petrobras has already booked entire hotel units until at least the end of 2023 in the municipality of Oiapoque, on the border between Amapá and French Guiana. The company also works on the adaptation of the city aerodrome, through an agreement with the city hall, in order to assist in oil exploration operations on the coast of the state. Contacted by Pública, Mayor Bruno Almeida did not comment on the agreement.
In 2022, the year in which the state-owned company announced adaptations to the municipality aerodrome, the Federal Public Prosecutor (MPF) in Amapá and Pará warned that the Karipuna, Palikur-Arukwayene, Galibi Marworno and Galibi Kali’na peoples would be directly affected with a possible increase of up to 3,000% in air traffic in the region. At the time, the MPF recommendation expressed concern about the potential for environmental damage on the Atlantic Amazon coast that could also reach the French Guiana Sea.
Valdenira Ferreira, a researcher at the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research of Amapá (Iepa), spearheaded the “Maps of Environmental Sensitivity to Oil Spills” (SAO maps) project. This initiative, funded by the Ministry of the Environment from 2011 to 2015, facilitated the mapping of environmental vulnerability to oil spills along the Brazilian coast. Leveraging cartography and comprehensive database utilization, the project successfully identified areas at risk, providing valuable insights for environmental protection and disaster preparedness.
“Whenever we think of an oil disaster, we think of a platform, but there is a real and immediate danger regarding the entrance to the Amazon basin, where the Solimões and Amazonas waterway is located, which connects with the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Amazon River”, he explains.
On May 24, Petrobras confirmed its intention to file a new request so that Ibama reverses the decision that has barred oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River. On May 20, the president of the state-owned company, Jean Paul Prates, stated that there is a possibility of “testing something” in Guyana or Suriname. Petrobras did not respond to the several contact attempts by Pública.