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It seems like a repeating story: indigenous lives threatened by a major undertaking in the Amazon. It is not. Petrobras wants to explore for oil in more than 2,000 kilometers of the Brazilian equatorial coast. The ambitious project radically changes the economic profile of the mouth of the Amazon River, where a fragile socio-environmental balance guarantees life for communities.

The optimism of the state-owned company puts Brazil in the opposite direction of the internationally celebrated environmental commitments, but it is justified in monetary terms. It is estimated that the oil reserve reaches 30 billion barrels, taking Brazil from the eighth to the fourth largest producer in the world, behind the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The first exploration block of the “new pre-salt layer” – as it is called by enthusiasts – is awaiting licensing from Ibama (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). Meanwhile, Petrobras is trying to convince indigenous organizations – and society – that the negative impacts are minimal or non-existent compared to the benefits.

The promise does not sit well with traditional leaders, activists, specialists and scientists heard by Brasil de Fato. They claim that exploring for oil along the entire Brazilian equatorial margin is unfeasible from a social, environmental, economic and climatic point of view. The risk of environmental catastrophe is considered real. So much so that two international oil companies have already given up on the idea.

The sources heard by the report point out some dangers: oil spills, populational swelling, more expensive energy, increased carbon emissions. The list is long and includes risk to the fishing sector and to an understudied coral reef system. The mere economic expectation of drilling already results in an increase in invasions of indigenous lands.

The warning is that the project could permanently harm entire communities. Petrobras is required to follow the international rules for listening to indigenous people while awaiting a more comprehensive impact study, in addition to environmental licensing from Ibama.

The president of Petrobras said that the company complies with all the requirements and is waiting for the government’s decision. “We are technically ready, waiting for the official position on our drilling campaign in the region”, declared Jean Paul Prates. The full position of the state-owned company is at the end of this report.

Population “boom” in progress

“We don’t have the knowledge that Petrobras technicians and biologists have. But we have the traditional knowledge, which made us get here and kept our territory alive”, says Kassia Galibi, president of the Nana Kali’nã Association, of the Galibi-Kali’nã people.

Born in the Galibi Indigenous Land, Kassia reports that the “new pre-salt layer” is showing signs that it will cause a population explosion in the municipality of Oiapoque (state of Amapá). The flow of people coming from abroad in search of jobs has increased and the prices of services in the city, such as hotels and restaurants, have already risen.

“We know that Petrobras will not hire most of these people and many will enter the indigenous land illegally. We are worried that something similar to the [massive invasion of prospectors in] Yanomami Indigenous Land could happen,” says Kassia.

Indigenous peoples of Oiapoque, in the extreme north of Brazil / Reproduction / TV Brasil

Another concern of Kassia is about the communities that explore the coast in search of fish and also as means of locomotion. Traditional knowledge accumulated over centuries contests Petrobras’ assertion that there is no risk of an oil spill reaching the region.

Those who fish on the border with French Guiana guarantee that the leaked oil can be carried away by currents and contaminate the Juminá, Galibi and Uaçá Indigenous Lands. “Petrobras claims that there are no such impacts. In fact, I say that they don’t want to see it”, says Kassia Galibi.

“The four peoples here already have a consolidated thought: we are against oil exploration. But we know that this ends up being the national interest. So many times we don’t have that power to say no”, comments the leader, in a resigning tone.

Food starts to run out

The coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Amapá and northern Pará (Apoianp), Priscila Karipuna, says that Ibama and Funai (National Indigenous People Foundation) have shown willingness to dialogue with the peoples of the region. She bets that a working group created with Petrobras and partner organizations can result in measures that mitigate socio-environmental impacts.

“Unfortunately, we have little contact with Petrobras. When it comes to the affected regions, it would be necessary to follow the consultation protocol with indigenous peoples. The consultation must come before the [environmental impact] study. And Petrobras doesn’t do that”, reports Priscila, who, after speaking with Brasil de Fato, was appointed Funai’s regional coordinator in the state of Amapá and northern Pará state.

In the Juminá Indigenous Land, where Priscila was born, the Petrobras project is already beginning to cause changes in traditional ways of life. Every day, helicopters fly over the villages, and the noise scares away the birds. Families that feed on bushmeat began to live with food insecurity.

“This is all sacred to us: the land, the rivers, the forest… And there is no compensatory measure that can pay for the impacts. We have been here for 523 years suffering from colonization, from these undertakings and from the ‘civilizing’ process”, emphasizes the leadership of Oiapoque.

Former president of Ibama denied license: “there are no minimum conditions”

The strategy of socio-environmental organizations is to put pressure on Ibama against granting the license for the first exploration block to be analyzed, the block number 59. The technical area of the environmental agency issued an opinion in which it recommends denying authorization, based on the same reasons presented by indigenous people and specialists. The final decision is in the hands of the president of Ibama, Rodrigo Agostinho.

Block 59 is located approximately 160 km from the coast of Oiapoque (Amapá) and 500 km from the mouth of the Amazon River. More than 80 civil society organizations gathered at the Climate Observatory sent a letter to the federal government asking for a broader analysis, which does not consider just one block at a time, but the general impact of drilling along the entire equatorial margin.

From Amapá to Rio Grande do Norte: oil exploration project on the Brazilian equatorial margin / Reproduction/Petrobras

“The opening of this new exploratory frontier is a threat to these ecosystems and is also inconsistent with the commitments assumed by the Brazilian government to the Brazilian population and the global community”, says the document signed by the organizations.

Suely Araújo, a senior specialist in public policy at the Climate Observatory, was president of Ibama until 2019. Under her management, the environmental agency denied a license for oil exploration near block 59. At the time, the author of the request was TotalEnergies, one of the world’s giants in the sector, originated in France.

“The main reason for the refusal was because the company was unable to prove minimum conditions for managing accidents in the region. In a few hours, if there is a leak, the oil goes to French Guiana and other countries in the Caribbean, which could, above all, generate a diplomatic problem”, explained Araújo.

The member of the Climate Observatory corroborates, to a certain extent, the Petrobras’ claim that sea currents would carry the leaked oil away from the Brazilian coast. “But there are deeper secondary currents that go to our coast in mangrove areas where the indigenous people make their living”, she adds.

Economic sustainability and risks to fishing

Juliano Bueno, director of the Arayara Institute, says that exploration also takes time before the first barrels are extracted. “If they drill the wells now, the first barrel will be available in 8 or 10 years. At that time there will be a gradual process of abandoning the use of fossil fuels. To recover all the financial resources invested in this new exploratory frontier, you would have to extract oil for the next 30 or 35 years. Who will Brazil sell oil to?”

Another risk pointed out by Arayara is in the chain of thermoelectric plants that develop around oil exploration areas. This type of energy generation happens from the burning of fossil fuels. In addition to being more polluting, the energy matrix is more expensive than sustainable ones.

A little-heralded danger looms over a profitable and sustainable industry: fishing. According to Arayara, the sector generates R$ 1.8 billion (approximately US$ 365 million) in the areas affected by the Petrobras project, where artisanal fishing also helps to generate 8 million jobs. On the Brazilian equatorial margin there are large producers of shellfish, fish and lobsters, products with high commercial value.

The other side

Petrobras informed that it is diligently conducting the environmental licensing process, complying with all the requirements defined by the environmental agencies, and reinforced that it will accept any decision, whether releasing drilling or opting for further studies to assess the feasibility of carrying out a campaign in that area.

The company also said that it complies with all the requirements and procedures established by regulatory, licensing and supervisory agencies to operate in the Equatorial Margin region, on the coast of the North and Northeast regions of Brazil.

The company also highlighted that only after drilling the well the potential of the asset, the existence and profile of any deposit will be confirmed.

Edited by: Nicolau Soares e Flávia Chacon

Brasil de Fato é um site de notícias e uma agência de rádio brasileira, que também possui jornais regionais no Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Paraná e Pernambuco.[1] Possui uma rede nacional...