Battle in Bahia: A New Port Faces Growing Resistance

September 1, 2009

People on the streets of Ilhéus, one of Brazil’s oldest colonial cities, are furious. Wearing shirts adorned with a drawing of a skeletal fish and the words “Porto Sul No,” members of social and environmental movements are uniting in public demonstrations against an infrastructure project that gravely threatens their vision of sustainable development and environmental conservation in the interior and coast of southern Bahia state.1 Meanwhile, mining, transportation, and transnational commerce executives and politicians from Brazil, as well as from around the world, are fervently planning for the development endeavor known as Projeto Porto Sul, or the South Port Project, slated to begin in 2010.

In general, the urban areas in the South of Bahia region still have relatively clean water and air amid a smattering of historic Jesuit churches, cobblestoned streets, and deteriorating mansions from the region’s cacao-baron era. The rural areas are dotted with family farming areas, a smattering of ecotourism inns, and quiet coastal fishing communities, some of which are famous for practicing the dying art of fishing with jangadas, or sailed rafts. Although the region is threatened by clandestine logging, hunting, and unchecked urban development, it has never faced the complex environmental and cultural issues that accompany a project like Porto Sul.

State officials claim the project is “not just a port . . . but a port in the broader sense—a port of hope and development.” Funded in part with capital from India, the project would facilitate the worldwide export of natural resources extracted from the interior of Bahia, principally iron bound for China, as well as uranium, nickel, coal, cement, fertilizers, oil derivatives, grains, and biofuels. These would be transported from the interior by a cross-state railway and roadways to an international airport and deepwater port on the coast. While the mining would occur inland about 300 miles, the airport and port component would be constructed in a small fishing and tourist community called Ponto da Tulha, just north of Ilhéus.

Regional social and environmental movements oppose the project for a number of reasons—most prominently because they believe it will upset the local forest ecology, pose health risks, and undermine locally defined development plans centered on sustainable ecotourism, organic agriculture, and industries compatible with the cultural and environmental character of the region. Many Porto Sul opponents are terribly disappointed by their governor, Jacques Wagner, a co-founder of the Workers Party, elected in 2006, whose support of the project is provoking an unprecedented show of cross-movement solidarity from diverse communities and social-environmental movements in the region. (NGOs like Conservation International and international activist organizations like Greenpeace have also voiced their opposition).

The imminent threat of Porto Sul appears to be breaking down long-standing ideological, class, and cultural divisions across these diverse movements, motivating people to more fully define, and stand behind, a locally based vision of sustainable development that often flies in the face of foreign development interests. As Rui Rocha, a leading environmental activist in the region and founder of the social-environmental NGO Floresta Viva, put it in an anti–Port Sul video:

“The South of Bahia is being exposed . . . to the interests of China, India, of businesses . . . that involve sectors that we have nothing to do with . . . which aren’t the economic vocation of this region. . . . We have an economy linked to culture, services, and clean industry. . . . So this local question has to impose itself on global interests that aren’t ours.”2

As is typical of most development projects, South of Bahia residents have been assured that the two elements of the project that will most affect their lives—employment and environmental impact—will be central to Porto Sul’s planning and implementation. While proponents estimate that Porto Sul will create between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs during construction and implementation, opponents claim a mere 400 jobs will result at best.3 The decline of southern Bahia’s once powerful cacao industry in the 1990s has undeniably created a void in labor opportunities in the region that has boosted support for Port Sul; however, many locals also fear that long-term employment for the region is unlikely. According to a manifesto produced by Ilhéus Action, an activist organization founded to oppose Porto Sul, the promised jobs will appear only during the construction phase of the project and will later consist of only a small number of specialized jobs.4

To date, the management of the project has also fallen short on many other fronts, including providing adequate public input on the planning process, assessing alternative locations, and planning for how to mitigate the project’s environmental impact. Moreover, social and environmental leaders complain that critical elements of the project remain “completely obscure” because of the government’s sparsely communicated and shifting information about it. Rocha laments, “Since January 2008, [Porto Sul] has been communicated without the essential information. What is the size of the project? Whose interests does it serve? . . . Where are the legally required studies of alternative locales? . . . These are simple questions that demand a response.”5

For conservationists, these issues are crucial since this region of Bahia is one of the most important areas of Brazil’s endangered Atlantic forest ecosystem. While less than 8% of the forest remains along the coastline and in small interior pockets of the country, it still boasts large numbers of endemic flora and fauna, species found nowhere else on earth.6 No wonder the Atlantic forest tops Conservation International’s list of global ecological “hot spots”—gravely threatened natural areas that require significant and focused attention to make good on international conservation goals. What’s more, the portion of the forest in the South of Bahia is considered a “hot-point within a hot-spot,” where scientists from the New York Botanical Garden found more tree species in a single hectare than anywhere else in the world.7

In 1993, the Atlantic forest region became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, casting international attention on its ecological significance. Then, in 1998, the Brazilian state government formally designated two formal Environmental Protection Areas (APAs) in the South of Bahia. The proposed location of the international airport, port, and industrial back-port zone of Porto Sul are adjacent to one APA, Lagoa Encantada; another APA and the largest state park in Bahia are just a few miles away. Thus, the outcome of the Porto Sul project will indicate whether long-standing federally mandated environmental designations, as well as the environmental interest of the United Nations, can prevail against powerful neoliberal development interests.


A Brazilian who calls himself the king of iron, João Cavalcanti, is at the core of these development interests. A Bahian by birth, Cavalcanti cares most about what he calls “the true treasure” of the state, an iron ore deposit in the interior city of Caetité. Cavalcanti wants iron to put Bahia center stage on today’s global extraction market.

“We plan to be one of the largest mineral companies in the world,” he says of the company he created, Bahia Mineracão, or BAMIN. “We want to be a Vale do Rio Doce, a BHP, a Rio Tinto [the three world leaders in the mining sector]. We have the resources and support for this.”8 BAMIN is the extractive force that lies at the heart of the broader transportation and export element of Porto Sul.

Despite the nationalist roots of Cavalcanti’s dream, the Porto Sul project is tightly tethered to foreign funding. BAMIN initially secured its investment from the ArcelorMittal group, an Indian company based in London run by a Lakshmi Mittal, no. 8 on the Forbes list of billionaires released in March. According to the BAMIN website, the control of the company recently became equally divided between another Indian, Pramad Agarwal, of Zamin Ferros and Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a Kazakhstan-based mining company. Indian businessmen visit Caetité monthly to oversee the development of the mineral-extraction process.

With a projected investment of more than $27 billion, the Porto Sul project is soliciting multinational lending from sources like the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, as well as domestically based financing from the National Bank of Economic and Social Development. Given these myriad funding opportunities, Governor Wagner’s assurances that “President Lula is personally accompanying this project” are understandable.9

But the complexities of international investment in Brazil’s natural-resource exploitation and exportation don’t end here. The iron ore and other minerals extracted from western Bahia are destined for China, the leading world producer of steel. True to the logic of transnational economics, today China is diverting its gaze from the minerals of Australia and looking to Bahia.10 Ricardo Saback, of Promo, the International Center for Business of Bahia, claims that “China is Bahia’s principal business partner.”11 Supporting this, ENRC’s website claims it is “ideally placed to serve the fast growing markets of China, Russia and Central Asia.”

The construction of the Porto Sul transportation network also holds promise beyond mining, since the railroad will also benefit agriculture and thereby extend the interests in Porto Sul to other Brazilian states. In fact, Ilhéus may well turn into one of Brazil’s new soy capitals as a result of the cacao crisis. Today, the region exports 150,000 tons of cotton through a port in Santos, São Paulo, while 2 million tons of soy is turned into bran and exported by multinational companies in Ilhéus like Bunge and Cargill.12 With Porto Sul, however, this is all projected to change. Walter Horita, president of the Agricultural and Irrigation Association of Bahia, may be predicting the future when he says, “Ilhéus depends on soy.”13 While this not only connects the coast of Brazil to the expansion of soy production in Amazonian states like Mato Grosso, it also marks how Ilhéus may well become further entangled in the asymmetrical power relations that surround the multinational processing giants already established there.

As if the national-transnational power dynamics surrounding BAMIN and Porto Sul weren’t complex enough, the project is also affected by the intermarriage of private companies with state and federal funding for public works. BAMIN is a privately held company, and while the port and airport will be open to public use, they are projected to be privately managed. Though proponents of the project argue that a new, deepwater port is essential to serve giant export ships, Ilhéus, just south of the proposed Porto Sul location, already has a public port that is in desperate need of modernization. Given these murky public-private partnerships, the direction that the exploration, extraction, and export of Brazil’s natural—and national—resources will take in the future remains to be seen.


One of the South of Bahia’s most significant economic visions is to create a culture of carefully managed tourism consisting of small-scale hotels and modest inns, capitalizing on the unique combination of Atlantic forest and the undeveloped Bahian coastline. Another goal is to promote organic agricultural production that complements this steadily growing tourism sector, particularly organic cacao. As international celebrities like the Brazilian model Giselle Bündchen, the U.S. actor Sean Penn, and the first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, vacation in the South of Bahia, organic fairs and community agriculture programs are sprouting up in response to visitor demand.

Farmers, tourism operators, and hoteliers generally approve of ecotourism as a means of development since it safeguards and builds upon their home’s natural beauty.

“The only people who appreciate the natural beauty of Bahia more than the tourists are the locals, the nativos,” says Maria Guiomar Carvalho Silva, a resident for nearly two decades of Itacaré, the best-known tourist town in the region. Because the year’s success often depends on how much tourism thrives during the summer months from November to March, she adds:

“In the high tourist season, we’re all scrambling to work.” Yet the proposed location of the Porto Sul airport, industrial back-port, and deepwater port are all smack in the middle of the area where tourism is steadily developing. According to one report, 87% of residents surveyed disagree with Porto Sul’s projected location.14

But concerns about the environmental impacts of Porto Sul also reach beyond the Bahian coast. As the Catholic parish priest from Caetité, the inland mining source for Porto Sul, asserts, “Mining and preservation of the environment don’t go together.”15 According to one projection from the state of Bahia, the mining will require 130 gallons of water per hour to be diverted from the São Francisco River, a major watershed in Brazil’s Northeast that has already diminished by 35% in the past 50 years, causing significant social and environmental conflicts, according to River Basin Committee of São Francisco.16

Caetité residents know very well that mining requires a great deal of water, and they are concerned that any water brought to their town will benefit mining more than people. Further, those in the mining watershed fear that their water supply could become contaminated and sicken people. Marcos Penha, an activist reporting on a local meeting about Porto Sul, sarcastically notes of funding promised by the mining company to the local hospital in Caetité: “Helping the hospital is a small thing when we know that it had better be a hospital specializing in the treatment of cancer patients.”17 Furthermore, environmentalists, citizens of Caetité, and those in communities along the proposed railroad route are all concerned about air pollution from the transport of minerals in open-air cars across the state.


The historical irony of Porto Sul’s proposed location along the coast of the South of Bahia is not lost on its residents. Since the colonial era the region has seen boom-and-bust cycles of extraction and export centered on commodities ranging from brazilwood and other valuable hardwoods to cacao. The coastal area just to the north of the proposed Porto Sul port, once known as Cacao Coast, fed the chocolate habit in Europe and dominated the economy in Bahia for more than 200 years. Thus, Porto Sul would exemplify Brazil’s coastal history of exploration and exploitation, replicating itself in a new area.18 As Maria do Socorro Mendonça, president of Ilhéus Action, deftly observed in an online essay posted in March: “History repeats itself. It only changes locations.”19

But what is perhaps unique this time around is the increasingly visible and vocal social mobilization against Porto Sul. In December 2008, religious social justice organizations like the Pastoral Land Commission, the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Caetité, the Childrens’ Pastoral Commission, and the Parish Church Commission on the Environment signed a declaration against the impacts of the mineral industry in Caetité. It was also endorsed by the State University of Bahia. Given that an established land reform settlement lies within the proposed the project footprint, the Rural Workers Syndicate and Movement of Rural Women have also become opponents.

In a show of cross-movement mobilization, additional groups are surfacing in opposition, including surfing associations, fishing communities, and quilombos (villages of people descended from escaped slaves). In July, the Coalition Network for a Just and Sustainable South of Bahia was formed to unite regional, national, and international groups around a development vision that departs drastically from that of Porto Sul. Actors from the Casa das Artistas in Ilhéus have even developed an operetta that is being presented in public venues throughout the region called Porto Sul, the Cunning of Evil.

In the past few months, four public meetings have been held between the state Institute of the Environment and the communities in the region that will be affected by Porto Sul. In one, family farmers placed pumpkins, beans, garlic, and cachaça on the head table to demonstrate their vision of bounty for the future. As an Ilhéus Action article put it: “Mining will not bring benefits to the people; on the contrary, it will be at the expense of the theft of natural resources, causing hunger and misery.”20

Meanwhile, the propaganda in favor of Porto Sul persists. A YouTube video produced by the state of Bahia, for example, cites other ports around the world that have been compatible with tourism—in Barcelona, London, Boston, and Buenos Aires, as well as in domestic port cities in Pernambuco and Santa Catarina states. These are problematic comparisons, however; Ilhéus is a small city of 220,000. The state is also staking its presence in political and economic venues, reaching out to mayors around Bahia and at national and transnational business conferences in São Paulo. But social and environmental movements are fighting back with their own compelling video arguments; Rui Rocha, for example, filmed his video high above the Bahia coastline while migratory whales swam by below.

The communications strategies and alliances that are emerging around this project illustrate not only a contemporary developmentalist culture in a neoliberal era, but the possibilities for response—and resistance—to these powerful forces. Attention to the message, the medium, and the movements mobilizing around projects like Porto Sul illuminates not only complex relations of power but also critical debates on the cultural, political, and ecological future of particular landscapes. As the anthropologist Tania Murray Li observes, struggles over resources are simultaneously struggles over meaning, articulation, and positioning.21

The outcome of Porto Sul will certainly have currency beyond Bahia and even beyond Brazil. The questions surrounding Porto Sul—on public accountability, on the ability of formal environmental designations to withstand current assaults from neoliberal development projects, on national and transnational mobilization around control of natural resources, and on the growing potential for social-environmental movements to effectively coalesce around all of these issues—are critical to contemporary debates on the rewriting of a region’s political ecology.

Colleen Scanlan Lyons is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her recent research focuses on the growing intersections across social movements and groups in the South of Bahia—including environmentalists, family farmers, quilombolas, and nativos.

1. “Manifestantes vão às ruas contra o Porto Sul em Ilhéus,” May 15, 2009, available at

2. This video is available at

3. “Complexo portuário vai criar 10 mil empregos no sul da Bahia,” March 19, 2008, available at; “O Projeto Porto Sul,” Ilhéus Action, May 28, 2008, available at

4. “Manifesto on the Impacts of the Mining Industry in Caetité and the Region,” Ilhéus Action, Caetité, December 16, 2008, available at www.acaoIlhé

5. Maurício Maron, “Entrevista Rui Rocha para Jornal Bahia Online: Existem irregularidades,” April 7, 2009, available at www.acaoilhé

6. Kenneth M. Chomitz, Keith Alger, Timothy S. Thomas, Heloisa Orlando, and Paulo Vila Nova, “Opportunity Costs of Conservation in a Biodiversity Hotspot: The Case of Southern Bahia,” Environment and Development Economics 10, no. 3 (2005): 293–312.

7. Adriana Maria Zanforlin Martini, Pedro Fiaschi, André M. Amorim, José Lima da Paixão, “A Hot-Point Within a Hot-Spot: A High Diversity Dite in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest,” Biodiversity Conservation 16, no. 11 (October 2007): 3111–28; Saatchi S., D. Agosti, K. Alger, J. Delabie, and J. Musinsky, “Examining Fragmentation and Loss of Primary Forest in the Southern Bahian Atlantic Forest of Brazil With Radar Imagery,” Conservation Biology 15, no. 4 (August 2001): 867–75.

8. Flavia Tavarres and Lilian Cunha, “Os mistérios do homem de ferro,” September 14, 2005, available at

9. “BA diz que obra da Leste-Oeste começa em 2010,” June 3, 2009, Agência Estado, available at

10. “China compra minério e aquece o transporte,” Gazeta Mercantil, April 27, 2009.

11. “Chineses vão à Bahia interessados em investir,” >Jornal da Mídia, July 1, 2009.

12. “Construção de ferrovia anima agricultor baiano,” Gazeta Mercantil, May 21, 2009.

13. Ibid

14. Reported on the TV Santa Cruz site,

15. Ana Patrícia Bastos Pacheco, “Moradores do sudoeste baiano se posicionam contra a instalação da BAMIN,” August 3, 2009,

16. “Volume do rio São Francisco caiu 35% em 50 anos, diz estudo,” April 23, 2009, BBC Brasil.

17. Marcos Pennha, “O ‘Complexo’ da BAMIN,” August 3, 2009, available at

18. Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

19. Maria do Socorro Mendonça, “ ‘A história se repete, só muda a Região . . . , ,’ ” March 16, 2009, available at www.acaoIlhé

20. “O Povo Diz Nao ao Projeto Pedra de Ferro” August 2, 2009, available at

21. Tania Murray Li, “Articulating Indigenous Identity in Indonesia: Resource Politics and the Tribal Slot,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, no. 1 (2000): 149–79.


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