In Depth

Brazil oil spill: who is responsible?

Leaked documents show government blames Venezuela for mystery spill that has affected more than 1,000 miles of pristine coastline

Anger is growing in Brazil over a mysterious oil spill that has forced the closure of some of the country’s most naturally diverse beaches.

In early September, oil began washing up on Brazil’s northeastern shores, covering a stretch of coast around 1,300 miles long, killing a number of animals and destroying swathes of pristine coral.

The source of the oil remains a mystery, with CBS News reporting that officials in Brazil “have no idea if the amount of oil is increasing or decreasing — or how long the issue will last”. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s far-right president, has deployed 5,000 troops to help deal with the spill.

The response from all parties in Brazil has been one of incredulity and outrage. At the government level, officials are demanding answers from neighbouring nations - namely Venezuela - over the cause of the spill, while environmental groups are furious at how slow the Bolsonaro administration has been to launch sufficient clean-up operations. 

“There is clear revulsion over the government’s inaction,” Marcus Melo, a professor of political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco, told The Guardian. “The government has a certain myopia in understanding how serious this is.”

What happened?

On 2 September, crude oil was detected off the coast of northeastern Brazil, affecting more than 180 beaches in nine states.

Crude oil, which is extremely dense, doesn’t float on water, meaning clean-up operations have been stunted and the region’s diverse wildlife has been badly affected. The Sun reports that at least 15 sea turtles have been found dead so far.

Another result of the density of the oil is that, according to the BBC, “floating barriers usually employed to prevent oil from washing ashore have little effect” meaning clean-up work has been “focused on cleaning up the crude as it comes to the coast”.

This week Hamilton Mourao, the country’s vice president, said volunteers and government workers had recovered 600 tons of oil so far, the equivalent of almost 4,300 barrels.

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Who is at fault?

Bolsonaro has been on the warpath since the discovery of oil on the shores of his country.

At first the president, who has already faced international criticism over his response to fires in the Amazon rainforest, suggested the spill was the result of a “criminal action” to sabotage an oil auction taking place in November, which is expected to generate $50bn for Brazil, The Telegraph reports.

“I wonder, we have to be very responsible about what we say - could it have been a criminal act to harm this auction?” he asked reporters. “It’s a question that’s out there.”

Last week, federal police announced that they were pursuing this line of inquiry and investigating the spill as an “environmental crime”.

However on Monday evening, Bolsonaro changed tack and claimed that Brazilian authorities had identified a country from which the oil is likely to have originated, but he stopped short of naming it.

Shortly after Bolsonaro made the claim, the Folha de Sao Paulo daily newspaper leaked a confidential government document revealing that analysis by state-owned oil company Petrobras showed that the oil had come from Venezuela.

These claims were strongly denied by the government of Venezuela. Nevertheless, Brazil’s environment minister confirmed on Wednesday that the government will call on the Organisation of American States (OAS) to demand an answer from Venezuela over the spill, Reuters reports.

Why are environmental groups angry at the government?

To many in Brazil, the cause of the spill is not important. Environmental groups have responded furiously to what they see as inaction by the Brazilian government to mitigate the effects of the disaster, which threatens both wildlife and the tourism industry in the north of the country.

According to the Telegraph, “public anger is rising over the Brazilian government’s failure to stem the flow”, and in response “local officials have resorted to urging volunteers to aid the clean-up mission”.

The paper adds that videos of volunteers’ attempts to clean up the spills have been “met with ridicule on social media” after footage emerged of locals “equipped with little more than rubber gloves and rudimentary fishing nets battling the huge environmental disaster, questioning why the government has not offered a coordinated national response”.

Furthermore, several Greenpeace activists were arrested yesterday after a protest at the presidential palace.

Joel de Oliveira Filho, owner of a guest house in Pernambuco, told the Guardian this week that no government workers have shown up to help clean, despite a pledge from Bolsonaro that 5,000 troops would attend the operation.

“People in the north-east are cleaning the oil from the coast with their own hands while the federal government is immobile,” he said.

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