A marsh restoration project in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Taken during a damage survey flight following Hurricane Ida. Photo by Sheehan Moore/SouthWings.

On February 3rd, 2023, the Brazilian Navy scuttled a “ghost ship”—an abandoned marine vessel—off the coast of Pernambuco in Northeastern Brazil. The planned sinking culminated months of debate over how the aircraft carrier, carrying heavy metals, radioactive waste, and 9.6 tons of asbestos, should be decommissioned. Originally a French vessel built in the 1950s, it was part of the French nuclear testing program in French Polynesia. The Brazilian Navy bought the ship in 2000 and renamed it the São Paulo. The ship was based near Guanabara Bay in the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro, where it gradually decayed from aging and a fire. A Turkish firm ultimately purchased the ship for scrap metal, but when the vessel arrived in the Strait of Gibraltar, concerns over the vessel’s toxic cargo pressured authorities to block the company’s attempt to moor the ship in Turkey.

A tugboat towed the São Paulo back to port in Rio de Janeiro, which refused to dock the vessel and insisted that it dock at SUAPE, a port complex in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco. When it arrived in Pernambuco, the vessel was towed for weeks back and forth along the coast while authorities decided the toxic hull’s fate. The Brazilian Navy ultimately resolved to scuttle the vessel off Pernambuco’s coast, determining that was the “safest area” for the 32,800-ton aircraft carrier to die. The ship had been at sea for ten months when it was finally scuttled.

The São Paulo case illustrates how coastal communities increasingly must deal with and plan for capitalism and militarism’s abandoned material remains. Today, most of the world’s goods travel by ocean, and maritime transport is expected to double by 2030. Planning for coastal futures will inevitably require planning for man-made marine waste—both large and microscopic—that threatens human and non-human life in coastal communities. Like the disposal of toxic materials elsewhere, the question of where to dispose of hazardous marine waste is a coastal planning issue that often invokes the politics of NIMBYism[1]. Global environmental justice movements have emphasized that hazardous materials are never equitably distributed; poor and racialized communities overwhelmingly bear the burden of toxic waste, while wealthier populations often have the political power to protect themselves from environmental dangers (Bullard et al. 2008; Martinez-Alier et al. 2016). Sinking the ghost ship off Northeastern Brazil’s coast underscores persistent disparities in the politics of toxic waste disposal.

For those familiar with the region, the Navy’s efforts are only the latest in a series of state failures to incorporate Afro-Brazilian traditional communities into coastal planning initiatives, leaving them disproportionately affected by ecological hazards. For Pernambuco’s coastal fishing communities, the scuttling of the São Paulo is yet another example of the state’s failure to recognize fishing and shellfish-collecting communities whose livelihoods and income depend on functioning ocean and coastal ecosystems. It also epitomizes the deep political inequalities between Brazil’s southern states—with higher concentrations of wealthy white populations—and the Northeast Region, with more racialized communities, higher poverty, and social inequities. The São Paulo case makes clear that waste is still not equitably distributed in the international exchange of toxic materials (Reno 2011).

Ships, like all manufactured materials, have life cycles. Historically, decaying ghost ships have served as convenient vessels for disappearing undesirable things at sea, including, at times, unwanted persons infected with disease (Müller 2016, 13). In the twentieth century, ghost ships and barges were used to transport toxic waste, including chemical weapons, often from the Global North to poorer countries in the Global South. By the late 1980s, the inequitable exchange of toxic waste between wealthy and poorer nations led to the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and Its Disposal: a global accord to mitigate the impacts of marine industrial waste for poorer countries (Müller 2016).

Today, unwanted ships are largely decommissioned through processes of recycling called ship-breaking, a strenuous process in which manual laborers—mainly in the Global South—physically deconstruct the ship for reuse and resale. Shipbreaking has distinctive human and environmental repercussions for the communities that deconstruct the ghost ships’ noxious remains (Devault et al. 2017; Yilmaz et al. 2015). However, in some cases, ghost ships are still scuttled or undergo a planned sinking.

Over 700 ships are scuttled annually, contributing to marine pollution, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss (Devault et al. 2017). Warships, like the São Paulo and others, have a uniquely destructive socio-ecological impact, as they often contain high concentrations of heavy metals, remnants of chemical and other weaponry, large quantities of trapped oil and gas, and at times even radioactive waste that leach into marine environments (Browne 2019; Monfils et al. 2006).

For Pernambuco’s coastal communities, the scuttling of the São Paulo is only the latest in a series of state-sponsored environmental injustices prioritizing coastal development at the expense of predominantly Afro-Brazilian fishing and shellfish-collecting communities. In the past decade, the industrial expansion of SUAPE (short for the SUAPE Port Industrial Complex) has dispossessed an estimated 26,000 predominantly Afro-Brazilian fishers and shellfish collectors (marisqueiras) from their ancestral territories (DHESCA 2018). In recent years the complex has received extensive state funding for dramatic expansion and now occupies over 13,500 hectares of territory between the neighboring coastal communities of Cabo de Santo Agostinho (Cabo) and Ipojuca. This expansion has, among other things, included constructing a state-owned oil and gas refinery, a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, a shipyard, and over one hundred other heavy industries, contributing to the loss of beloved species and the degradation of sacred places where residents learned, from about the age of ten, the intricacies of living off the ocean and mangroves.

The state’s expropriation of territory in Cabo and Ipojuca has contributed to widespread depression and, at times, even the death of residents with livelihoods and identities intimately linked to Pernambuco’s mangroves, oceans, and tides (maré). Though they can trace their ancestry to the territory for decades, centuries of racial inequalities related to land ownership mean residents often lack formal land titles and, as a result, are designated posseiros, or squatters. While some were offered a small payment for moving, the port complex’s hired security violently coerced residents off the land if they did not wish to leave. Many were forced to relocate to urbanized municipalities, where they still attempted to travel to the increasingly polluted mangroves and ocean for subsistence.

In this context of growing industrial waste, violence, and ecological degradation, Pernambuco’s coastal fishing communities are being forced to take on the toxic burden of the scuttled São Paulo. The São Paolo was not based in Pernambuco, yet Brazilian authorities forced the ship to circle Pernambuco’s coast for weeks before deciding to scuttle it off the coast. While ship-breaking is not an ecologically sound method, neither is scuttling, and residents fear its implications for their livelihoods that are profoundly interconnected with already degraded ecosystems.

The Basel Convention attempts to address some of the global injustices of waste disposal, yet this story reminds us that there remains no safe way to eradicate toxic materials. The politics of NIMBYism continue to influence how and where ghost ships expire. In coastal communities, already marginalized groups disproportionately bear the burden of breaking and scuttling noxious ghost ships. If we truly want more just coastal futures, these inequities should encourage us to consider why such a heavy burden being placed on already encumbered shoulders. And how can we more equitably plan for ghosts?


[1] NIMBYism is shorthand for the “not in my backyard” response, frequently utilized by wealthy white populations, who often have the social and political connections, money, and other resources to keep toxic waste—among other unwanted environmental hazards—out of their neighborhoods.


Bullard, Robert D., Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. 2008. “Toxic Wastes And Race At Twenty: Why Race Still Matters After All Of These Years.” Environmental Law 38, no. 2:371–411.

Browne, Kim. 2019. “Ghost Battleships” of the Pacific: Metal Pirates, WWII Heritage, and Environmental Protection.” Journal of Maritime Archaeology 14: 1–28.

Devault, Damien A., Briac Beilvert and Peter Winterton. 2017. “Ship breaking or scuttling? A review of environmental, economic and forensic issues for decision support.” Environ Sci Pollut Res 24: 25741–25774.

DHESCA. 2018. Complexos industriais e violações de direitos: O caso de SUAPE, Complexo Industrial Portuário Governador Eraldo Gueiros (CIPS) [Industrial complexes and rights violations: The case of SUAPE, Governor Eraldo Gueiros Port Industrial Complex (CIPS)]. Relatório da Missão de Investigação e Incidência. São Paulo: Plataforma de Direitos Humanos Econômicos, Sociais, Culturais e Ambientais.

Martinez-Alier, Joan, Leah Temper, Daniela Del Bene, and Arnim Scheidel. 2016. “Is There a Global Environmental Justice Movement?" Journal of Peasant Studies 43, no. 3:731–755.

Monfils, Rean, Trevor Gilbert, and Sefanaia Nawadra. 2006. “Sunken WWII Shipwrecks of the Pacific and East Asia: The Need for Regional Collaboration to Address the Potential Marine Pollution Threat.” Ocean and Coastal Management 49, no 9: 779–788.

Müller, Simone M. 2016. “The ‘Flying Dutchmen’: Ships’ Tales of Toxic Waste in a Globalized World.” RCC Perspectives no. 1: 13–20.

Reno, Joshua. 2011. “Transnational Waste and Its Discontents.” Anthropology Now 3, no. 1: 23– 30.

Yılmaz, Atilla, Burak Karacık, Sevil D. Yakan, Bernhard Henkelmann, Karl-Werner Schramm, and Oya S. Okay. 2016. “Organic and Heavy Metal Pollution in Shipbreaking Yards.Ocean Engineering 123: 452–457.