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

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Near Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, an island community of Afro-Brazilians are living life in toxic waters

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 descended from enslaved people who escaped their colonial plantations hundreds of years ago. These communities have existed in relative peace in the area for centuries, living off fishing and the gathering of shellfish, which they use both as food and as a source of income. However, in 1940, oil deposits were discovered in the bay and it wasn’t long before wells were built on the surface to begin extraction. Over the next 70 years, the rise of the oil and gas industry took a serious toll on the environment, polluting the precious waters that the local quilombo depend on for survival. Toxic chemicals slowly surrounded their home on the nearby island of Ilha de Maré. 

© Tommaso Rada.

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

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

The series, titled A Story on Oil, Pollution and Racism, brings together Rada’s images of local industrial architecture with archival imagery in order to explore the roots of the situation and to highlight the ongoing nature of the issue. Through a mix of landscapes, portraits and still lifes, Rada establishes a personal perspective that challenges and engages the selection of historical documents and photographs that have been included in the series. In his photographs of oil wells and gas deposits, pinky hues created by his use of infrared film draw attention to their “unnatural and alien” presence in the bay. Elsewhere, shots of the quilombo reveal key details about the challenges of life on 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 environmental degradation are not unusual or isolated events, explains Rada. They are the inevitable consequences of a system that prioritises growth and profit over the health of a community. These issues would not be tolerated by groups that have a voice – historically white and affluent – but they are easy to shrug off when those affected lack the power to oppose. “The mainstream media reports on the major accidents without acknowledging that the problem isn’t just a single event, but a system, a way of thinking,” says Rada. Not only that, but “the industries present in the area hold a lot of political influence due to their economic power and the fact that they can offer employment opportunities. For too long the [governing] institutions have felt that the environment and employment are a dichotomy when in reality this is not true.”

© Tommaso Rada.

Uphill Battle

In the hope of giving a voice to these communities and inspiring resistance, Rada’s images also show the residents of Ilha de Maré fighting back against the companies that are destroying their home. A small activist group led by women from the island meets regularly to discuss the situation. The women, who are primarily responsible for the fishing and thus feel the effects of the pollution most keenly, have taken it upon themselves to create organised opposition. But they face an uphill battle and, despite their best efforts, the situation has changed very little in recent years. “Baía de Todos os Santos is now officially an environmentally protected area, but the oil wells are still on the island and the pipelines are still running,” explains Rada.

© Tommaso Rada.

After witnessing the expansion of the local oil and gas industry during his time there, Rada remains sceptical of the future. “I would love to be optimistic, but I’m afraid I am not. 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 completely cut off from the main roads and from the sea,” he says. He explains that a much deeper understanding of the problem is crucial in the search for a solution. To fix the environmental destruction taking place in the bay (and around the world), more than a simple clean-up is required – we must revolutionise our relationship with the land and with those communities inextricably tied to it. “There is still a lot of work to do,” says Rada. “Brazilian society continues to be 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, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.