A Geological Historical Bicycle Expedition in the Reconcavo Bay, Bahia

Oil extraction changes the face of every landscape it touches. In Bahia, northeastern Brazil, it was no different. That is the region where oil was first found in Brazil in 1939, and is still actively producing oil today. The shift from Atlantic Forest to sugar plantations to petrochemical landscape left several visible marks in the Reconcavo region. Following current methods of historical geography, environmental history, and field geology, I organized a 3-day bicycle field trip through the main points of interest of oil extraction (both historical and geological) at the Reconcavo Bay in the state of Bahia in December 2021. Here’s my recap of this trip…

Note: turn on closed captions.

The crew included five people: an environmental historian (myself), two specialized cyclists, a drone pilot, and his assistant. The cyclists were my guides around Bahia’s highways, dirt roads, and steep hills, while the drone crew documented the trip and shot the beautiful images in this video. The route covered approximately 75km and included urban perimeters, side roads, and boat crossings, spanning 4 oil towns. These are the first sites of oil extraction in the country and today hold a petrochemical complex, which sits in the ecologically diverse area of the Reconcavo Bay.

There are several advantages of conducting field trips on bicycles, as suggested by Oliveira (2018). These include the speed in which the landscape is observed, as well as the sensorial experience that goes beyond the use of vision—cyclists feel the wind, the sun, the rain, smells and noises, among many other aspects that enhance the field experience. The closer contact with locals creates a richer social and ecological understanding of the landscape. Finally, bicycles are a carbon-zero means of transportation, that have no impact on the environments they cross. In Brazil, this is a growing trend as more research groups implement bike expeditions as their primary mode of field trips.

This expedition provided material for two chapters of my dissertation (on the geological aspects of Brazilian oil and the social interactions in and around oil fields). Combined with archival research, the results of the field expedition offer a more complete perspective of the social and ecological changes that ensued in the Reconcavo Bay in the last 80 years.

Oliveira, Rogério. “Devagar quase parando: o uso da bicicleta como ferramenta para o estudo da paisagem” [“Slowy, grinding to a halt: the use of the bycicle as a tool for landscape studies”]. Geografia Histórica do café no Vale do Rio Paraíba do Sul. Rio de Janeiro: Editora PUC-Rio, 2018.

*Cover image: A view of Mataripe, BA with a patch of Atlantic Forest in the foreground and the refinery in the background. Photo credit: Drone Vision.

[*Cover image description: An aerial shot with bushy forest in the foreground. In the middle, an area of water. On the left, a road that leads to the refinery and storage tanks in the background.]

Edited and reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.