I’m Brazilian. Like every Brazilian, I have a family WhatsApp group that connects me from Canada to home. Some time in October 2019, messages about avoiding the beach flooded the group. I wasn’t sure what that was about — I joked that I sure wasn’t going to go to the beach, not in Canada. I didn’t think much of it until I went on Instagram.
Every image on my feed was about the oil contamination of our beaches. It had gotten to the point where the governor of the state declared a state of emergency. Tonnes of oil had already been removed and they were still finding oil everywhere. Hundreds of animals had been found dead. No one knew where it was coming from because it wasn’t Brazilian oil. President Jair Bolsonaro said it wasn’t the federal government’s problem to deal with and proceeded to ignore the national contingency plan for environmental emergencies.
Oil had started to appear on our beaches months before, but the government hadn’t acknowledged it. Now, our beaches were black with petrol. Well, not our beaches, my beaches. The beaches I grew up with, where I’d dig up little molluscs. The sands that I would pretend were sprinkles, that I’d roll around in, feeling like a brigadeiro. The sea where I learned that the best way past a tall wave is through it. It was now buried in oil and the federal government refused to do anything about it.
Part of me wasn’t surprised. That had been their general attitude two months before, during the biggest fire the Amazon rainforest had suffered in decades. The saddest part was that the fire was man-made, both by supporters of Bolsonaro and by farmers in their annual illegal burning for open grazing areas. And then, the president accused the NGOs that work towards environmental conservation in the Amazon of starting the fires to “bring Brazil down.” The fire raged for a month before it simmered down to what is considered “normal,” but it still continues to burn, clearing thousands of hectares of virgin rainforest and killing thousands of animals.
I was distraught about the situation. The government’s inaction was infuriating, but what could I do half a world away with no money to donate? I shared information. At least people would know. And if enough people knew, we would be able to do something about it, right? But while I was distraught about the Amazon, I was devastated about the northeastern coast.
That hit home, literally. That was my family being affected. Everything that is part of who I am could be gone, or at the very least deeply affected. And I wasn’t even there to do anything about it. I couldn’t even try to save my home in whatever little way I could find. I couldn’t help my parents. The only people with the power to actually change anything were sitting and watching as if my world wasn’t disappearing.
The state government declared an emergency situation, but that wasn’t enough to clean up the beach. So people started mobilizing — huge groups of people coming together to physically remove the oil, my family included. I wished I was there instead of them.
Petrol is extremely toxic, so I was worried. If it touched their skin, they would have to immediately go to the hospital. If it was put in a place with no air circulation, it would release toxic gases. And here I was in Canada in the middle of fall, trying to focus on classes while everything I loved was in danger. The least I could have done was be there to grieve. To stand with my community.
I love being in Canada. It was my choice to come here. But that doesn’t take away the feeling of impotence that comes with not being able to take direct action on things that matter to you back home.
The day I learned all of this, I cried. Sitting in a crowded 49 bus, looking at the news and the photos from friends and family, I sobbed. Out in public with no shame, feeling like there was nothing else to do. But I did end up doing one thing through all the tears — I kept sharing information.
I shared image after image of what had become of my beaches. I wrote paragraphs and directly explained to friends what it all meant. How the oil was suffocating the marine life, how the government took no action, how it made me feel.
Posting online is important. It allows people to be informed and at least have the potential to do something. But the truth is that sharing information can only go so far. Doing that wasn’t stopping more oil from appearing, it wasn’t donating money, it wasn’t helping with the cleanup.
Still, I did it.
I did it for selfish reasons. I did it because I couldn’t bear that pain alone. I did it because I needed someone to feel my grief too, for someone to understand, for someone to tell me I wasn’t crazy for caring so much.
I continued sharing, but I had to accept that there wasn’t much else I could do. It ended up that coming to terms with my own impotence was a lot like getting past a tall wave — sometimes the only way is through it, head first, with everything you have and with the hope that you won’t be washed away.
I’ve been putting off writing this essay for a number of reasons. Part of me is scared to think too much about what has happened. The other part feels guilty for not being able to do enough.
One can only hold so much grief and that is part of the reason I can’t be moved by any more climate-crisis-instigated disasters. I don’t have space in me to hold all the pain of the world. I just keep coming back to this awful question: what can one person do to save an entire ecosystem when even their government doesn’t think it’s important?