News / 6 January 2022

How the mangroves in Suape are growing back

"The mangroves were choking, gasping for air. When the dam was partially opened, they could finally breathe again. It was the breath that the animals, the fish in the rivers, the crabs, shrimps and oysters had all been craving."

On the northeast coast of Brazil, activities have been underway since 2007 to develop and extend the port of Suape. The port is being developed partly to support oil drilling along the Brazilian coast. The project is controversial because of the disastrous impact it is having on the natural environment, the rivers, the mangroves, marine life and the people who have lived in the region for many generations. Together with Fórum Suape, specially set up to combat the development of the port, Both Ends has been working for almost ten years to protect the rights of local communities in and around Suape. Now there has been a breakthrough – literally. In August of last year, a controversial dam in the Rio Tatuoca that was destroying the mangroves and the aquatic life in the area was partially dismantled. We spoke to Mariana Vidal,* project coordinator at Fórum Suape, about how that came about and what changes have taken place in the area since.

"It is essential for the mangrove forests that the river and sea water can flow in and out," Mariana tells us. "The dam prevented this, meaning that the forest was almost permanently under fresh water. The dam put a stop to the natural cycle of ebb and flow, required for healthy flora en fauna, for many years. When part of the dam was eventually removed, the water could once again flow back and forth. With spectacular results: an environment that had been in intensive care for many years is now coming back to life."

Official complaint already lodged in 2008

The dam was built in 2007 as a kind of access road for the construction of a large shipyard. The Quilombola community in the village of Mercés, who are descended from former slaves, already lodged an official complaint against the dam in 2008 because of the impact it was having on their living environment. Unfortunately, for many years, the public prosecutor's office did nothing with the complaint. That has however changed in the past two years.

That is first and foremost because Fórum Suape increased public pressure and the visibility of the case and took action together with the Mercés community. Also of decisive importance was that a new official at the public prosecutor's office who was given responsibility for the Suape dossier proved willing to take up the case. "That meant we were able to get help from inside the public prosecutor's office," says Mariana. One of the actions taken by Fórum Suape was to submit a 'TAC' (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta), a legal instrument with which companies can be compelled to take certain measures. "Once the SUAPE port company (Governor Eraldo Gueiros Industrial Port Complex) realised that Fórum Suape had the law on its side, they finally promised to remove part of the dam. And they kept their word. Doing it themselves meant they could retain control."

"On 9 August 2021, some 35 metres were removed from the 170-metre-long dam. This partial opening is however not yet sufficient to allow the natural environment to recover completely. We are conducting ecological research to show that this is the case: we are monitoring the effect of the partial opening and working out what impact full removal of the dam would have. The port company is arguing that removing the dam completely is too expensive. But that is not the full story: they originally agreed that the dam would be temporary. It is now fifteen years later. So they have not complied at all with the agreements made at the beginning."

The ecosystem is recovering slowly, step by step. The greater the flow of water in and out, the greater the recovery. The ecosystem is becoming increasingly diverse and biodiversity will become richer. As a result of this partial opening alone, Mariana and her colleagues are seeing new mangroves growing and that will gradually increase. Fórum Suape therefore continues to apply pressure by using public resources. They have recently submitted a damage claim to the courts. Mariana explains that "the public prosecutor should actually have done that, but now we are doing it ourselves. Through the claim we holding the port company liable for the damage caused by the dam, as they have direct responsibility and commissioned its construction. So it is now up to them to remove it."


There was long an alternative route to the shipyard and yet the port company refused to remove the dam. "There was another reason for that," says Mariana. "The port company wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the people of Mercés to continue to live in the area. It was hard for them to survive there. They couldn't plant any crops, the mangrove forest was sick and people became ill, too. It is easier to get people to move away if they are ill."

According to Mariana, the course on agro-ecology given to the women in the community with the support of Both ENDS' GAGGA programme also had a great positive effect. "It has cheered the women up and they are happy to start farming again. It had all been forgotten, because everything they used to plant was destroyed and removed by the port company, which claims the 'official land rights' top the area. Now they are planting their crops again and hope that the port company will not destroy them."

Despite the dam being only partially removed, the development is very significant for the Mercés community. "It was incredible," Mariana says. "Even more so with a biased legal system that very often decides in favour of the port company. It is clearly very possible to win if people join forces."

Both ENDS' role

"Both ENDS has supported Fórum Suape from the very beginning in combatting many problems relating to the extension of the port in Suape, including the damming of the Rio Tutuoca. In 2015, together with local fishers, a formal complaints procedure was initiated under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises against the Suape port company, Dutch dredging company Van Oord and Dutch export credit insurer ADSB, which also put the impact of the dam on the agenda. Recently, Both ENDS supported Fórum Suape in making a documentary on the history of the Rio Tatuoca and the community that depends on it. We set up a campaign (Rios Livres, Mangues Vivos!) with podcasts and videos. We also contracted a biologist to draw up a technical report on the local ecosystem, and called in a lawyer to help draft our damage claim. Without the help of Both ENDS, none of that would have been possible."

As a young environmental activist, Mariana received a grant from Both ENDS' Joke Waller Hunter initiative (JWHi). "I used that to follow a course in Costa Rica on how to manage wetlands in the light of climate change. That helped to acquire a clear overview of the whole process and the action that was needed. And, as you can see, that has borne fruit!"

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