A tale on Oil, Pollution and Racism: Tommaso Rada explores the environmental woes of Brazil’s Quilombola

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Near Salvador, the capital associated with Bahia state, an tropical isle community of Afro-Brazilians live life in toxic marine environments

Located on the east coast of Brazil, Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints’ Bay) is the largest bay in the country. It has long been home to quilombo –  communities of Afro-Brazilians originated from enslaved people who escaped their colonial plantations centuries ago. These communities have existed in relative serenity in the area for centuries, living away from fishing and the gathering associated with shellfish, which they use both as food and as a source of income. However , in 1940, oil deposits were discovered in the particular bay and it wasn’t long before wells were built on top to begin extraction. Over the next 70 years, the increase of the oil and gas industry got a serious toll on the environment, polluting the precious oceans that the local quilombo depend on for survival. Toxic chemicals slowly surrounded their home at the nearby island of Ilha de Maré.  

© Tommaso Rada.

In 2020, São Paulo-based Italian language photographer Tommaso Rada been to the area to gain an understanding of the situation. With funding from the State of Bahia and Salvador City Hall, started working alongside documentary filmmaker Maurício Oliveira and historian Fernanda Gallo on a long lasting multimedia project that seeks to expose these injustices. Rada’s contribution to the project features a photo series that documents the range of industrial infrastructure that has sprung up around the these types of in recent decades – including wells, refineries and commercial ports – and the local communities that remain affected by it. “Since I actually first visited the quilombo [settlement] upon Ilha de Maré, I have been interested in the situation, the environmental and systemic racism the occupants suffer from, and the fact that the surrounding area is very touristic and heavily polluted, ” says Rada.

“The mainstream media reviews on the major accidents without having acknowledging that the problem isn’t just a single event, but a system, a way of thinking”

The particular series, titled A Story on Oil, Pollution and Racism, brings together Rada’s images of local industrial architecture along with archival imagery in order to explore the roots of the scenario and to highlight the continuing nature of the issue. By way of a mix of landscapes, portraits but still lifes, Rada establishes an individual perspective that challenges and engages the selection of historical paperwork and photographs that have been included in the collection. In his photographs of oil wells and gas deposits, pinky hues created by his use of infrared film draw attention to their “unnatural plus alien” presence in the bay. Elsewhere, shots of the quilombo reveal key details about the challenges of life around the island. The waters where locals have always swam and fished, and mangroves where they catch shellfish, are now full of petrochemical residue. The ground in nearby fields is beginning to expel raw oil that was discarded underneath some 50 years ago.

© Tommaso Rada.

These examples of environment degradation are not unusual or even isolated events, explains Rada. They are the inevitable consequences of a system that prioritises growth and profit over the wellness of a community. These issues may not be tolerated by teams that have a voice – historically white and rich – but they are easy to shrug off when those impacted lack the power to are at odds of. “The mainstream media reports on the major accidents without acknowledging that the problem is not just a single event, yet a system, a way of considering, ” says Rada. Not only that, but “the industries present in the area hold a lot of politics influence due to their economic energy and the fact that they can present employment opportunities. For too long the [governing] institutions have felt that the atmosphere and employment are a dichotomy when in reality this is not accurate. ”

© Tommaso Rada.

Uphill Fight

In the hope of giving a voice to these communities and inspiring opposition, Rada’s images also display the residents of Ilha de Maré fighting back against the companies that are doing damage to their home. A small activist team led by women in the island meets regularly to talk about the situation. The women, who are mainly responsible for the fishing and thus feel the effects of the air pollution most keenly, have taken this upon themselves to create organized opposition. But they face a good uphill battle and, despite their best efforts, the situation has changed very little in recent years. “Baía sobre Todos os Santos is now formally an environmentally protected region, but the oil wells continue to be on the island and the pipelines are still running, ” clarifies Rada.

© Tommaso Rada.

Right after witnessing the expansion from the local oil and gas industry throughout his time there, Rada remains sceptical of the future. “I would love to be optimistic, yet I’m afraid I am not really. The Port of Aratu [which is used primarily for oil and gas exportation] has increased in size and an entire community living nearby has been totally cut off from the main streets and from the sea, ” he says. He explains that a much deeper understanding of the problem is essential in the search for a solution. To repair the environmental destruction taking place within the bay (and around the world), more than a simple clean-up is necessary – we must revolutionise our own relationship with the land along with those communities inextricably associated with it. “There is still lots of work to do, ” says Rada. “Brazilian society has been based on a number of colonial beliefs and practices. In order to promote real social change, fairer rules and laws are urgently needed. ” 

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, amongst others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.

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