Brazilians mobilize to clean up massive mysterious oil spill and end the fossil fuel era

In the absence of an effective response by Brazil’s right-wing government to an oil disaster five months ago, civil society is rising to the challenge.

Marina Martinez
8 min readJan 30, 2020

Originally published at on January 30, 2020.

Greenpeace activists protest in front of the Palácio do Planalto, in Brasília, symbolically taking the oil spill in the Northeast region of Brazil and burnt Amazon trees to the official workplace of the president of Brazil. (Greenpeace/Adriano Machado)

A major oil spill, coming from a mysterious source in the South Atlantic Ocean, has been contaminating Brazil’s coastline since Aug. 30. The oil has already reached a 1,500-mile stretch of the coast across 11 Brazilian states. It’s contaminated beaches, coral reefs, estuaries, mangroves, and at least 14 nature conservation areas. And it has been impacting the health of traditional coastal communities, including the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.

While the oil was spreading out of control, President Jair Bolsonaro was on a tour around the Middle East, seeking to strengthen relationships with oil-producing countries. Left with no choice, the population from affected regions, especially those that rely on the sea to make a living, together with civil society organizations, volunteered to clean up the oil mess.

“The government took over 40 days to activate the emergency plan — or National Contingency Plan — which should have been activated immediately,” said Thiago Almeida, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil. “Due to the inaction and inability of the government to deal with the problem, the population literally rolled up their sleeves and went to do it themselves.”

Addressing impacts and vulnerabilities

A group of residents has been on the frontline of the emergency response in Pernambuco, one of the Brazilian states most affected by the oil spill. The Salve Maracaípe group, through Instagram, raised awareness about the urgent need in removing the oil from beaches and coastal environments, and mobilized thousands of volunteers to help. They also created crowdfunding campaigns, on national and international platforms, to raise funds for buying personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as safety masks, gloves and chemical resistant clothing, including water and food for those involved in the heavy cleanup activities. These essential resources have not been provided by the government at the urgency and scale needed.

“We saw the need to mobilize, to act, to purchase PPEs [for safe oil cleanup by volunteers],” said Daniel Galvão, leader of the Salve Maracaípe group and a specialist in oceanography. “But we had no money for that. So we started a crowdfunding campaign.”

Now with over 60,000 followers, Salve Maracaípe’s page on Instagram has tripled its visibility in recent months, as many people shared their messages and got sensitized about the need to help clean up the oil. In short time, the group gathered almost $30,000 with the crowdfunding campaigns, which allowed them to acquire health and safety resources and to increase the clean up efforts throughout the state.

In just one week, with the help of up to 4,000 volunteers, they removed more than 300,000 gallons of oil from affected areas. However, Galvão cautioned that the contamination of marine and coastal environments will not end with the oil removal, because heavy metal particles from the oil were also released into the water. And this contamination will probably last for decades. (The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, for example, still has not fully recovered from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which happened a decade ago.)

In the state of Alagoas, a local environmental organization has been playing a key role in monitoring areas affected by the spillage, and in identifying and rehabilitating animals that are injured or trapped in oil pools. The Instituto Biota is using its own resources, and the funds it had planned to invest in a rehabilitation center for marine animals, to monitor the coast of Alagoas state-wide on a daily basis. The organization has already found 22 dead animals and seven that were injured since the oil started to spread across their coastal area.

Although most of the oil had been removed from the coast in October, Instituto Biota’s team reported that they found oil spots on a turtle’s nest in a local monitored area in the first week of December. They cautioned that the toxins released by the oil into the environment may accumulate in the bodies of marine animals — such as turtles, fish, birds and aquatic mammals — which can cause serious health issues and death risks to them. And the humans, who may eventually eat these intoxicated animals, can be seriously impacted as well.

Greenpeace Brazil is also working to fill the gaps left by Bolsonaro’s government in addressing the oil disaster. Besides mobilizing its network of volunteers to help in the oil removal activities — for which they had donated thousands of PPEs — across many areas and states that were affected, they have been conducting field expeditions to document the environmental, social and economic impacts on local populations.

Greenpeace Brazil volunteers and locals help clean the crude oil at the beach in Recife, Brazil. (Greenpeace/Joyce Farias)

The organization has collected samples of oil from affected areas, with the help of researchers and specialists, which are being analyzed in university labs. This will potentially allow them to draw conclusions about the origin of the spill and who is behind it — crucial information that remains a mystery.

Promoting transparency and accountability

On Oct. 23, Greenpeace Brazil activists held a nonviolent protest in front of the federal congress in Brasília. They spilled a dark, non-toxic substance on the floor, to resemble the oil spill, and placed posters next to it that read: “Brazil stained with oil” and “A government against the environment.” The action aimed to remind the government of its responsibility in supporting and protecting the country’s inhabitants and nature. (Ironically, 19 activists were arrested for performing “environmentally harmful activities,” yet they were released in just three hours.)

A few hours later, Brazil’s minister of environment, Ricardo Salles, called Greenpeace’s staff “eco-terrorists” on Twitter, and alleged that the organization was responsible for the actual oil spill. In response, Greenpeace has filed a lawsuit against Salles for this false accusation and defamation.

The Brazilian government also blamed the government of Venezuela for the spill, and later, a Greek company, whose tanker ship passed near affected areas where the oil was first seen. These accusations were based on hypothesis and inaccurate evidence.

Amid the dubious investigation of the oil disaster by official authorities, civil society started to call for public hearings, with the participation of specialists, to clarify things. The Salve Maracaípe group helped to build pressure for this through social media.

Galvão participated in the first public hearing relating to the oil disaster, held in December, where he and other researchers from federal universities presented their scientific conclusions about the oil’s origin. He said his research group believes the oil came from an offshore oil rig, which was probably mismanaged by a fossil fuel company. But for some reason, the government have been disregarding this possibility in its investigations about the origin.

It is known, however, that while the oil was spreading and contaminating Brazil’s coastline, the government was auctioning more areas for fossil fuel exploitation in the country. Three auctions have been organized in the last four months. And, according to Almeida, over 2,000 blocks for oil and gas exploration were offered in total in these auctions, including in the Amazon forest, where a sharp rise in deforestation and wildfires have been registered throughout 2019.

“We are facing a climate emergency,” Almeida said. “We actually have to stop any new exploitation [of fossil fuels] and accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy systems.”

Advocating for change and justice

In October 2019, the Brazilian government attempted to auction areas for oil exploration close to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, home to the largest marine biodiversity and coral reef in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is a region that almost 100,000 people depend on to make a living, especially from artisan fishing and ecotourism activities.

But no oil company made an offer during the auction, thanks to a coalition of environmental organizations and activists in the country, that opposed the auction and effectively communicated the risks of exploring for oil near the region. Despite this achievement, the Conexão Abrolhos coalition is now having to combat the oil spill that happened recently, since it reached parts of Abrolhos and is threatening its ecosystem and the local population.

Oceana Brazil, one of Conexão Abrolhos’ allies, is helping to mitigate the oil accident. The organization donated materials to the state government of Bahia, where Abrolhos Marine National Park is located, for safe storage and transportation of the oil removed from coastal areas. In addition, its team has traveled across the coast to plan actions with the artisan fisherman and fisherwoman, who are facing difficulties selling their catch due to the contamination of waterways.

Internationally, Oceana works to protect the world’s oceans. At the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 25, held last December in Spain, the organization demanded a global action plan for the protection of marine ecosystems. These “blue forests” can have a key role in counteracting our climate crisis, but without conservation efforts we risk losing up to seven percent of their area every single year.

During COP 25, civil society groups also called attention to the oil disaster that’s happening in Brazil. Led by, which advocates for a global energy transition, Brazilian activists and other participants of the conference gathered next to a petrol station in Madrid, calling for a “sea without oil.” Indigenous peoples took part in the demonstration as well, some with their faces painted in black, to symbolize the oil that reached indigenous communities in Brazil and is affecting their way of living.

“More than palliative measures, advocates the end of the fossil fuels era, due to all of the destructive impacts of this sector on the climate, human rights and communities,” said Peri Dias, the communications manager for in Latin America.

A photo exhibition called #SeaWithoutOil was co-organized at COP 25, to raise public awareness about the oil spill in Brazil — one of the biggest environmental disasters in the country’s history — and to highlight how the Brazilian civil society is stepping up to resolve the crisis. The exhibition also aimed to shed light on the importance of ending the production of fossil fuels and accelerating the global clean energy transition, which would prevent catastrophic accidents like oil spills from happening again.

While a future without oil and fossil fuels exploitation is not foreseen in Brazil, at least until a new government is put in place, community groups and non-governmental organizations plan on staying vigilant to avoid further harms done to people and the environment.

“We are monitoring the health, not only of ecosystems and fish and shellfish stocks, but also of the population — which is actually, the government’s duty,” Almeida said. “We keep planning, together with other organizations and local groups, what else can be done over the next several months.”



Marina Martinez

Global sustainability researcher. Writing about the controversial relationships among People, Nature, and Economy.