Oil Is Not Brazil’s Only Offshore Asset

Ceasa fishI visited the Ceasa market in São Paulo recently and was struck by the variety of fish and seafood on display. There were all kinds of species, some familiar, like tuna and swordfish, others with strange Indian names – tainha, tucunaré, pacu, pirarucu and curimbatá, along with shrimps, octopus, eels, crabs and squid. 

Whenever I see sights like this or visit coastal or river towns I wonder why Brazil does not exploit its fishing resources more. Not only does Brazil have the world’s largest river system but one of the longest coastlines, stretching 7,367 kilometers  (4,578 miles) from the tropics to the chilly, grey South Atlantic.

Investing in a responsibly-managed fishing policy would provide a renewable supply of nutritious food and create jobs and wealth at a very low cost compared with the enormous amount the government is prepared to spend on exploring the offshore, pre-salt reserves of a fossil fuel like oil.

There is little chance of this happening as the fishing industry is not taken seriously. There is a government department which looks after fishing but it is treated as a joke by much of the media which finds the idea of a minister of fisheries amusing. Compare this with countries like Iceland which once fought a brief “cod war” with the UK when it extended its territorial waters or Norway, which refused to join the European Union because it did not want to open its fishing grounds to others.

I used to work in the Northeast of Scotland where the fishing industry was extremely important to the local economy. One of the reasons why the Scottish National Party, which advocates independence, has always been strong there is precisely because it asserted Scotland’s right to its own fishing resources (and North Sea oil but that’s another story).

The fact is that Brazil’s fishing industry is underdeveloped and inefficient. The government hands out licenses to fleets from other countries which reap the maritime harvests. While President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and most politicians are obsessed with keeping the oil giant Petrobras in state hands, they are prepared to sell off the country’s fishing assets for a pittance. 

Lula is prepared to subsidize Brazilian shipyards to make vessels and drilling platforms for Petrobras even though he could buy them cheaper elsewhere but he is not prepared to provide resources to create a modern deepwater fleet.

There are some fairly successful pockets of fish farming, but government figures show that around 60% of Brazil’s fishing is carried out by around 600,000 individual fishermen. In most cases, the methods used have not changed in centuries.

Lula himself described Brazil’s failure to exploit its fishing resources as a matter for “shame” earlier this year when he launched a plan to develop the fishing industry. He compared Brazil’s unimpressive annual catch of around one million tons with that of Peru which catches nine times as much even though it is a much smaller country.

The plan aims to boost the catch by 40% by 2011, encourage popular consumption of fish, create jobs and boost income. Most fishermen live in extreme poverty, are poorly educated, have no job stability or access to infrastructure to help them get a fair price for their produce – that is, if they have enough left over to sell. 

You can see this for yourself on practically any beach. A couple of years ago I was in Bertioga*, a popular resort about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from São Paulo. Early one Sunday morning I watched a group of about 20 men and women dragging a net about 100 meters wide while four men were swimming offshore, helping to maneuver it.

The process was painfully slow and must have been exhausting for the men in the water who were struggling with the heavy net and being battered by the waves. It took more than an hour for the net to be finally dragged in. The catch turned out to be three fish, each big enough to provide a meal for two people, some small crabs and a few flapping little flounders that lost their lovely sheen in seconds as they expired.

Some optimist had parked a rusted truck and pile of boxes nearby but neither was needed. Most of those involved just wandered away as though it did not matter that all their effort had been in vain. One of the women told me that the catch was shared out on better days. She shrugged off that day’s meager pickings as something she could do nothing about.

On another occasion, just outside Natal in the Northeast, I saw a young man wading around in the shallows with a hand-held net which he would lasso above his head and spin into the water. Anything he caught went into a plastic bag. He told me that one or two big fish or around 15 small fish was enough to feed his family which included his wife, children and parents. If he had a good day, he would sell the surplus.

There are millions of families of poor fishermen like this all over Brazil – inland as well as coastal – just as there are millions of families scratching out a living in the barren plots of land called the roça.

A report published by the United Nations/World Bank in October 2008** highlighted the benefits of fishing for developing countries. It said that economically healthy fisheries were fundamental not only to the restoration of fish stocks but to improving livelihoods, exports, fish food security and economic growth.

“Marine fishing operations are only part of the US$ 400 billion global seafood industry, but economically healthy catch operations underpin the sustainability of supply and profitability of processing and distribution activities, a major source of employment, particularly in developing countries,” it said.

“For each person employed at sea another three people are employed on shore,” said Rolf Willmann, a senior fishery planning officer with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. “Fish is the main animal protein for over one billion people. It provides livelihoods for over 200 million people and 90 percent of these people are in developing countries.”

Lula might be right in believing that huge investments in exploring offshore oil deposits will pay off but even if they do, Brazil will not become some kind of fabulously rich oil emirate with the wealth shared around.

Oil prices crash just as they soar, as we have seen recently. Even if the price bounces back and the oil is flowing in 10 years’ time, boosting Petrobras’s balance sheet and Brazil’s trade balance, there is no guarantee that the wealth will filter down to people at this level.

*It boasts that it was one of the first colonized towns in Brazil but is now probably better known as the place where the fugitive Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele drowned in 1979.

** The Sunken Billions: The Economic Justification for Fisheries Reform www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2008/1000931/index.html

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009


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