“Oil for the Few” at Brazil's Export Ports

For a small farmer in Rio de Janeiro state, a private port catering to the fossil fuel industry has brought a decade-long struggle to remain on the land.

February 13, 2024

Port of Açu, Rio de Janeiro. (Prumo Logística / Ministério da Indústria, Comércio Exterior e Serviços / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Leia este artigo em português. Translated by NACLA. 

This interview is part of a series in partnership with Earthworks on oil and gas impacts in Latin America.

For several years, residents and small farmers in the Port of Açu region in northern Rio de Janeiro have been resisting the forced expropriation of their land. The small farmers note that only 10 percent of the land taken for the construction of the Port of Açu Industrial Complex is currently in use. They are also fighting for the company behind the port, Prumo Logística, to allow artisanal fishers to regain access to the Caruaru Reserve, which, due to the port’s expansion, ended up inside the Industrial Complex.

The Port of Açu was conceived in 2007 by EBX Group, an infrastructure conglomerate owned by businessman Eike Batista. During the company's financial crisis in 2013, EBX sold the project to the U.S.-based investment firm EIG Global Energy Partners. EIG controls the Brazilian holding company Prumo Logística, which now manages the Port of Açu. The port is strategically located for the oil and gas industry, as it is close to the Campos and Espírito Santo basins, both of which are sites of extensive offshore production.

According to the Port of Açu’s website, 30 percent of the country's oil exports pass through the port, which is also hosts the world's largest offshore support hub—with companies such as BP Marine, Vibra Energia, and Vast Infraestrutura operating servicing contracts with Shell, Total Energies, Petrobras, Equinor, and other companies. The port is also home to two combined-cycle thermoelectric power plants, GNA I and II, owned by Gas Natural Açu, and the private iron-ore mining terminal that serves the multinational company Anglo-American, the world’s largest producer of platinum.

Dona Noêmia Magalhães is a rural producer and representative of small farmers in the fifth district of São João da Barra in Rio de Janeiro and an active participant in the resistance against the port. She has recently received the Tiradentes Medal award, the highest honor given out by the state Legislative Assembly to those who serve the common good. In this interview, she discusses the port’s impacts on the community and her struggle to remain on the land and produce food, despite having suffered threats against her life as a result of her organizing.

I spoke with Magalhães over Zoom on October 6, 2023. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Patricia Rodriguez: Tell us about your struggle and that of many other family farmers who are also affected by various projects in the north of Rio de Janeiro, especially by the presence of the Port of Açu. How did you get involved in this struggle? Before the port was built, did you ever think you would have to face such a monster?

Noȇmia Magalhães: We had no idea because the site is almost 30 years old, and the Port of Açu is 13 years old. [The farm] was a dream of mine and Valmir Batista, my husband. The farm is named after him, Sítio do Birica. It was a dream of ours in our old age to have a peaceful place where we could walk barefoot, step in the mud, step in the clay, and grow our food without poison. All organic.

Noêmia Magalhães (Courtesy of Noêmia Magalhães)

I fell in love with the place and started producing. It got to the point where agronomists would come to visit me and say: "This is where the real miracle happens, because the production on Birica's farm is astounding."

We lived like that for about 16 years, until the idea of the Port of Açu came along, which we didn't believe in very much. We thought it wouldn't fit in with our ideal, it wouldn't fit in with anything of ours—it wasn't ours.

Farmers came to me to talk about it and when the first foundation stone was laid, we saw that it would be a reality. We still imagined that it could be a good thing for all of us. It would be a port, which at first was just a port. There was no talk of an industrial district. But then the industrial district was incorporated, and when we saw the reality that it wouldn't be good for us at all, the farmers were very frightened. The project was signed on New Year's Eve, December 30, 2008, at eight o'clock in the evening, by half a dozen city councilors.

It was a real monster. They're Machiavellian, aren't they? They first try to seduce people with promises that will never be kept and with dreams that will never come true. I thought it would be a good partnership, but when it came to the industrial district, our rural land was turned into industrial land. It was a huge shock. It was done in secret. There was no preparation for the farmers. At the time, we saw the mayor [of São João da Barra] Carla Machado, the governor [of Rio de Janeiro] Sérgio Cabral, and the famous [businessman] Eike Batista negotiating a lot of projects, and we realized that we weren't involved in anything.

They were drawing up this story that our land would be handed over to them; we no longer owned the land and it would be handed over to them to do with as they pleased. This left us very frightened and also feeling that we weren't prepared for this huge struggle.

We were aware of how small we were in the face of this struggle, but it didn't shake us. It didn't discourage us. We're going to fight because I've always believed that when you have the truth you already have a 50 percent guarantee of victory. And we had the truth while they only used lies and deceit, so we saw the need to seek support from those who could help us.

There were more or less 3,000 families involved and it was then that we began to seek support from universities, especially the Federal University of Northern Rio de Janeiro, which backed our fight. We have a document that was signed by 160 different organizations that were on our side. We also had the support of people from the MST (Landless Rural Workers' Movement), who are very brave and very prepared for the struggle, so we joined them.

PR: So the fight against the expropriation of the sites was a legal one. Can you tell us a bit about the legal battle and your resistance?

NM: Yes, because the state is sovereign and the company couldn't expropriate. Mayor Carla Machado, Eike Batista, and Sérgio Cabral made an unbeatable trio. Eike Batista told everything he wanted to the governor, who handed it over on a platter. It went from being our rural lands to industrial lands—a full plate. The state came in and expropriated the land. It was a very strange thing, because they would usually come at five o'clock in the morning with 20 vehicles, 80 police officers, and they would come with all their might, to really knock it down.

They said: “Either you leave, and you have 10 minutes to vacate the house, or we'll come in and knock down the house. Take what you want, or we'll knock it down with you inside.” Some of the farmers were 66, 70 years old. It was unbelievable. It was like watching a horror movie. The farmers resisted to the end, they were handcuffed and put in police vehicles. Many were sick.

They used a powerful machine that rotated around its axis, and it knocked down the house and then it knocked down the crops. And the farmers in handcuffs watched. A farmer would ask, "Give me two months, one month to harvest, it's harvest time." And the machine would just destroy. It seemed like it was taking pleasure in destroying and crushing everything.

Along with the destruction of the crops and the homes, they also destroyed our ideals, our dreams. They were destroying us from the inside; we really felt crushed by those tractors.

So we had to look for lawyers. The people have several different lawyers. It wasn't a collective cause since our places, causes, and histories are different. It's very complicated. The cases aren't moving forward, they're at a standstill. The farmers are without their land, renting land elsewhere, since the Port of Açu Industrial Complex covers 90 square kilometers, about a third of the municipality.

We understood before that it was really just a port, but then they saw the land as a place to make a lot of profit. They asked for the land to be expropriated, for it to be transformed from rural to industrial, and since renting land [for industry] works, they didn't sell it. They made a channel for the ships and took the sand that came out soaked in salt water and deposited it about six kilometers down the coast, forming a huge mountain seven meters high.

You don’t need to study to know that this sand seeping into the ground was going to cover the agricultural region. Over time it simply salinized the land and killed the crops. This has already been proven, and to this day, three years later, no one has been compensated. There is also erosion on the coast, and the sea is invading the area where there are a large number of inhabitants.

The company [Prumo Logística] denies that they are responsible, and they talk a lot about how the port has brought a lot of benefits. As farmers and residents of the region, we can't see anything positive.

Port of Açu, Rio de Janeiro. (Prumo Logística / Ministério da Indústria, Comércio Exterior e Serviços / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

PR: If there could be a change in this situation—some government action, reparation, a fair solution—what would it be?

NM: Before the pandemic, with geographers and supporters, together with the farmers and fishers, we did a reassessment of the amount of land they were holding. And we had already spoken to the majority of lawmakers who could imagine a new assessment or study giving us back the land they had taken. A third would be enough for us—we could live together, because from the beginning we said we could live together if it was just the port and agriculture in the same place. There would be no problem, but they don't want it that way.

We had a meeting with a lawmaker who had studied our proposal and thought it was feasible, but he was arrested along with three other representatives. And then the pandemic hit. We were no longer in a position to go ahead. But there is a map, the new design of what it would be like, and it would not harm the port.

To date, they haven't used even 10 percent of the area. The land is surrounded by barbed wire, where the people who lost the land put their cattle without even knowing it. There are a lot of cattle, and since it's a lot of land, even people from very distant towns have started taking their cattle there because the pasture is very good. From time to time there are accidents with these cattle, and we have to live with it. Today, there are 5,000 cars, trucks, and buses a day passing in front of my farm, which is five kilometers from the main entrance to the village. All the port's logistics pass through and we live with it.

PR: There's also the issue of the pipeline owned by the multinational Anglo American—which transports 26 million tons of iron ore a year from Minas Gerais, 529 kilometers away. That pipeline affects the population of the region, doesn't it?

NM: Yes. It is a pipeline that comes from Conceição do Mato Dentro, Minas Gerais. It passes through 32 municipalities. When it was being built, it affected everywhere it went, because trees had to be cut down, the digging was deep, and most people haven't yet received compensation for the impacts. The ore comes with water and gel, and in the port yard they form a mountain out of it, which should be covered and wet all day, but they don't comply. The wind that hits that mountain of ore surely carries all this contaminated dust with it, and we feel very ill. It's very easy to find people with respiratory problems in the region.

Several things have contributed to weakening collective action over time. One is the power of money, because they can buy almost anything with money. It seems that the law was made for them, and the policing in the region only serves to protect the port, not to protect and look after us. On the contrary, we have to be very careful not to get home too late; we don't know what might happen.

There's a reserve that they say is private, the Caruara Reserve, which has always been used by farmers and fishers, because it has a wonderful 18 kilometer lagoon that produces a lot of fish. It was one of their sources of income because it's common for farmers to also be fishers. We had five entrances on our side. Then they closed our entrances, and now we have to go 120 kilometers to get there, and you have to show a document. It's very difficult—it's not worth it. We believe that this closure was to take away our view of the impacts that have been caused in the region.

We're trying to get them to reopen at least one gate on our side so that fishers and farmers can continue to go there. They know everything: the vegetation, the plants, the animals, they've been going there since they were children. It was like taking away a very important part of their history and ability to supplement their family economy.

This port operates with a logic of export and simply encouraging oil for a select few. How could the economy in the region be different, and how could our right to continue farming be respected?

PR: How could people who read or see this interview—whether in the United States or in Latin America, in Brazil—support you or bring visibility to this situation?

NM: We have many documents, there are books telling the story, there are also many videos. You can become a supporter of ours, in any way, and give us guidance too. Today our story is known around the world.

You know, I have been attacked four times, including once with a gun to the head. A lot of people stay away because they don't think it's safe to be on our side. But all this adds value to the struggle. Many people still don't know the story. I have a phrase that I really like, which says that in life there are two different things: there is price, and there is value, love. For me, a farm is one thing, land is another; land is an asset that cannot be sold. It is priceless.

Patricia Rodríguez works as International OGI (Optical Gas Imaging) Analyst and Advocate at Earthworks. OGI is an infrared technology that detects fugitive and poorly combusted emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from the gas and oil industry.

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