Mangroves suffocate in
collection campaigns and disposal
by Charlotte Eichhorn from
The "Quilombola" women, descendants of former slaves from Africa, live in the land and marine reserve in the municipality of Campinhos in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
They practice the occupation of
"Marisqueira" (fisherwoman). Most are the main breadwinners of their families. They catch various crustaceans, natural oysters and carangejou, which they sell in town. They are passionate conservationists, dependent on the health of the mangrove forests.
Nowadays, however, they not only collect seafood in the mangrove forests of the Rio Pardo estuary, but also non-disposed plastic waste washed ashore!
Cleaning mangroves of plastic waste is a tedious, physically demanding job. The women wade for hours in the mangroves, wearing rubber boots to protect their feet from the narrow network of roots, oftentimes covered with sharp-edged oysters.
Unfortunately, waste separation has not yet found its way into all households in the hinterland of Brazil. At the beginning of 2022, the Rio Pardo flooded extensively, bringing tons of plastic and other rubbish into the mangroves International waste also washes into the mangroves from the sea at high tides, bringing PET bottles from as far away as Asia and Europe.
When asked how long it takes to fill a 35 litre rubbish bag with plastic from the mangroves, the women answered in unison;
10 seconds.... - perhaps slightly exaggerated, but not by much -….
Mangroves are the
largest CO2 reservoirs in Brazil
The mangrove forests along the Brazilian coast store more than four times as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest. Mangroves are one of the most diverse ecosystems. Above all, they are the spawning grounds for freshwater and saltwater fish, crabs and oysters.
Even when mangrove roots are deep in silt and water, they manage to supply themselves with oxygen. They tolerate a normal fresh-salt water change caused by high and low tides, but floods can greatly upset the balance.
Although thousands of fishermen and fisherwomen and their families live in and around mangrove forests, earning their living by collecting seafood, mangroves are, with few exceptions, not protected by law. This is despite the fact that Brazil is a signatory to the Paris Agreement. Its decree stipulates that mangroves are priority areas for conservation worldwide.
Regardless of the anti-environmental image that Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has internationally, at the local level there are very active, well-organized and networked citizens' initiatives and organizations. They care about the mangroves. Like this women's group, they mostly operate in their local areas.
After the collection -
is the initiator of the plastic waste project in the local mangrove forests. She is on the board of the RESEX fishing cooperative AMEX, in the women's community and among the marisqueiras in her community "Campinhos".
dos Santos Oliveira
Small business owner,
takes over the plastic waste that Lilian delivers, collects it also in the town of Canavieiras, stores and sorts it, tries to sell it, but is hindered by the many middlemen. This not only makes recycling more expensive, it also brings into play the so-called "waste tourism", where rubbish is driven around the country before it ends up in the recycling factory.
Juliana Fullmann- Ishibachi
works with "Ecosurf"-Brazil", an NGO founded by surfers, which cleans beaches of rubbish and plastic through volunteer work.
Juliana is a mediator between collectors and the Brazilian plastic processing industry.
Collecting the plastic waste is one thing, but what to do with it all?
Lilian organized two collection sites near her community. Accessible only by boat, the sites are in the middle of huge mangrove forests on the Rio Pardo. The plastic waste is stored there in large transport sacks. In a radius of about 2 km, 400 – 500 kg of waste are easily collected on each clean-up operation. Lilian has teamed up with Geisa, a small business owner, to transport the waste in small motor boats from the storage sites to the port of the nearest town, Canavieiras.
Lilian does not want to be paid for the collection work. Her argument: it can lead to quarrels among young people if money is distributed among them. An incentive for them is a picnic together and a printed T-shirt, with a theme-related slogan, which they then proudly display. For this, Lilian has to collect donations and is hoping to receive support from Geisa.
She and her women's group encourage the local youth to join in the protection of the mangroves, at the same time offering them a meaningful leisure activity in their remote community. In this way, she hopes to stop the exodus of the youth and to involve them in the struggle for the preservation of their land and sea reserve, called RESEX. Lilian is a vehement advocate for the reserve.
This is also necessary because under the current agro-friendly government, the RESEX - like all indigenous territories - is in danger of being dissolved, or at least no longer have state protection.
At the e end of a two-lane highway lies the town of Canavieiras, whose remote beaches border the RESEX. It is a small tranquil town with about 35,000 inhabitants and a relaxed, safe ambience. Fishermen and local entrepreneurs make a living from tourism.
Local small guesthouses in colourfully renovated old town houses at the port of the Rio Pardo originate mostly from the time of the cocoa boom. The houses, built at the beginning of the 19th century and laden with history, could have come straight out of a novel by the old Bahian master Jorge Amado.
That is why international tourism companies want to gain a foothold here. But the agro-industry is also putting pressure on the RESEX and causing discord among the inhabitants. The entrepreneurs want to deforest the protected mangroves in order to build more shrimp farms or to develop the cleared area for pasture land by drying it out.
Plastic waste tourism in Canavierias
The entrepreneurs want to deforest the protected mangroves in order to build more shrimp farms or to develop the cleared area for pasture land by drying it out.
Geisa actually planned, with Juliana's help, to improve the infrastructure of her local plastic sorting point to a more professional and lucrative level, so that she could hire more next-door helpers.
Only, in the meantime, Geisa has become quite ill and on top of that her husband died suddenly, so she had to put her plans to improve the infrastructure on hold. She still plans to carry on somehow, but first must deal with her health and grief.
Juliana works with the international NGO "Ecosurf", whose waste she then forwards to the industry.
Ecosurf has 5 million enrolled members in Brazil alone. Surfers know that a clean sea, beach and dunes are important for their nature-based sport. Especially in the south of Brazil, they have been regularly collecting beach debris in their free time for decades, organising environmental courses at schools and now want to expand further into the northeast, to extend the search for plastic waste in the mangroves.
According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), only 9% of plastic waste is recycled worldwide. There is also a lack of a internationally well thought-out strategy that brings all stakeholders - from NGOs to industry and governments - to the table.
Another problem is that plastic waste varies widely and there are hundreds of different components and formulas, each of which determines whether and how it can be recycled.
Brazil ranks fourth in the world in the plastic recycling industry. Juliana has found a company in São Paulo that uses special cleaning processes to turn 90% of the collected material into plastic resin (pellets) that can be used for plastic moulding, plastic tarpaulins, waterproof polyester clothing and much more.
Juliana is now trying to find enough local plastic waste to get the industry not only to pay for the waste, but also to participate financially in small collection projects.
This is not so easy, as it takes large quantities and a willingness to make a medium-term commitment from the industry, which so far simply and conveniently buys from the cheapest and fastest supplier.