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Swamped By Toxic Seaweed, The French Antilles' Cry For Help

Since 2011, the Caribbean islands have been attacked by rafts of algae which give off a pungent odor as they decompose.

Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Patrick Roger

PETIT-BOURG — First, a stench catches you even before you can see the shoreline. Then a tide of red algae comes, which pours onto beaches, rocks, the mangrove. Coming from the deep and carried by marine currents, this algae is known as sargassum.

"This is no longer an emergency, it is a calamity," said the Minister of Ecological Transition and Solidarity, Nicolas Hulot, on his arrival in Petit-Bourg, Guadeloupe, where a hundred protesters from the local anti-sargassum collective were waiting. He was accompanied by the Minister of Deep Seas, Annick Girardin.

Since 2011, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands have regularly been accosted by these rafts of algae, which can reach several thousand square meters and which give off nauseating smells when decomposing. But this year, the scale and duration of these algae blooms are unprecedented. Worse still, the problem could be prolonged.

"We are facing an exceptional phenomenon not simply because of its magnitude, but one which may increasingly repeat itself due to climate change," says Mr. Hulot.

"They have been there for six months," says Jocelyne Traventhal-Hatchi, spokesperson for the anti-sargassum coalition. "Six months that we've played host to H₂S and NH₃."

H₂S and NH₃: hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, two of the toxic gases identified in the fumes. However, depending on the nature of these sargassums, other toxic components may be active, such as arsenic, which increases fear within the community.

Government mobilization was late. Too late; plunging inhabitants into a sense of abandonment. There had been "a delay in action and a lack of coordination between actors, and the state is not exempt," Ms. Girardin said.

Welcome to Sargasso Land.

At each stop the ministers were met by a reception of residential committees, mostly wearing protective masks, eager to tell the reality of their daily lives for the last few weeks and months. The daily stench that the winds are not strong enough to sweep away, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen eyes, irritated throat. Their testimonials which caused officials to close schools and transfer students away from the decomposing mounds of algae.

For the small islands of the Guadeloupe archipelago, whose economy is largely based on tourism, the consequences are even more catastrophic. Some of them, like Marie-Galante or Terre-de-Bas, were cut off for several days because the ships could not enter or leave the ports, which had been invaded by brown algae. The fishing boats are immobilized in the middle of a pestilential mud that corrodes and oxidizes everything, just as gas emissions blacken and degrade household appliances. The tourists have deserted; shops and restaurants are closing.

Clearing efforts are slow going with only a fraction of the algae having been cleared. The only town hall of Capesterre-de-Marie-Galante has already spent half a million euros. Nevertheless, even if the exchanges were sometimes fraught, this visit was welcomed as a testimony that the state, finally, cared for these territories "at the end of the world." "Welcome to Sargasso Land," Marlene Miraculeux-Bourgeois, the mayor of the town, said upon the arrival of the two ministers, recalling that, in seven years, no minister of ecology had moved to Marie-Galante. As they left citizens begged, "don't give up on us."

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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