Grassroot efforts lead the clean-up of Brazil's Guanabara Bay
The government promised to clean up Guanabara bay before 2016, but civil society is having to step in and do the job instead
|Without basic sanitation for just under half of Rio de Janeiro’s households, raw sewage and rubbish flow freely into Guanabara Bay. Photograph: Mario Moscatelli/Olho Verde|
Entering the mangrove forest, trees tower overhead as crabs scuttle along the muddy floor and metre-wide spider webs take advantage of the overwhelming number of mosquitoes. Here, the usual putrid stench coming from Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay is almost unnoticeable.
The area, which looks out over the picturesque bay, is at the tip of the Lixão de Gramacho, a monstrous disused trash dump. To make matters worse, the mangrove forest’s neighbours are REDUC, Rio’s largest oil and gas refinery, and two of Rio’s most polluted rivers, Sarapuí and Iguaçu, which pass through the city’s poorest and most densely-populated regions.
Guanabara Bay was chosen as the venue for the Olympic Games sailing competitions to exhibit the city’s stunning natural beauty. The trouble is that it’s severely polluted; without basic sanitation for just under half of Rio’s households, raw sewage and rubbish flow freely into the bay.
Dating back to the early 1960s, negligent public policies in basic sanitation, coupled with intense urbanisation, have been a recipe for disaster. Urban and industrial pollution has affected the lake and the fishermen that live nearby, and has caused the bay’s dolphin population to dwindle. According to Rafael Ramos de Carvalho of the MAQUA research laboratory, sound pollution is seldom considered yet devastating for the survival of the remaining dolphins. “Today the dolphin population is approximately 40,” he says, “extremely low when compared to the eighties when it was around 400.”
Generously-funded promises for a clean-up have been made but to no avail. The government has yet to take any concrete steps, and the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, says that he has given up achieving the goal of an 80% reduction of untreated sewage and floating debris in time for the Olympics, just over 400 days away.
But civil society is stepping forward where the government has failed. From all corners of Rio de Janeiro, people are working towards the lasting legacy they were promised. Fishermen are reporting environmental crimes, engineers are developing new technologies, biologists are replanting mangrove swamps, and sailors are operating eco-boats to remove floating rubbish.
Mario Moscatelli, an environmentalist and biologist, has been reconstructing the mangrove swamp in the most polluted area of the bay for the past two decades. So far, he has planted over 35 hectares. The mangroves surrounding the bay are essential to safeguard long-term improvements and revive a dying ecosystem.
The mangroves act as a natural sewage treatment station, feeding off the sewage and filtering the river water. “I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that there is only life in the bay today as a result of the protected mangroves,” says Bruno Herrera, the head of the Guapimirim Environmental Protection Area.
The newest and most fragile mangrove area is protected by an extensive wooden fence, parts of which have to be replaced when the occasional refrigerator or sofa comes floating down a river and tears through the barrier. “We have removed thousands of tonnes of trash from the bay,” says Gustavo Mafra, who works alongside Moscatelli
"We need to change the approach and sweep the bay as we sweep the streets". Nelson Fielder
While the mangrove swamps provide the best long-term prospect for the health of the bay, in the short term hopes for a cosmetic clean-up are pinned on the removal of such floating debris.
The Rio 2016 Olympic organising committee’s spokesperson, Mario Andrada, says there is no alternative venue for the sailing competition, pointing to urgency as a driving force for politics in Brazil and the only hope for improvement in the bay. “If there were a Plan B, Plan A would be abandoned and the bay wouldn’t be cleaned,” he said.
Authorities are running out of time and are now making last-ditch attempts, including trying to deny the problem by having the environment state secretary jump into the bay fully clothed. The government even asked a local NGO, Instituto Rumo Nautico run by Lars, Torben and Axel Grael, part of Brazil’s most renowned sailing family, to take complete charge of the clean-up of the bay after they volunteered a plan for solving the problem. “They are trying to outsource their responsibility,” says Lars Grael. “They’ve had all this time to plan the clean-up and now suddenly there is this outbreak of concern about what needs to be done.”
Engineer Nelson Fielder has recently proposed a more efficient solution to the eco-boats and is looking to participate in the government’s new clean-up bid. He designed a 30-metre wide collector that attaches to the back of fishing boats. “It can collect a thousand times more than with what has been tried,” said Fielder. “We need to change the approach and sweep the bay as we sweep the streets. If it doesn’t end up on the beaches, it will end up in the ocean.” Fielder’s approach also opens a window of opportunity for struggling fishermen, as renting out their boats would bring additional income.
According to Herrera, conservation efforts must involve local populations and fishing communities, preferably through direct employment. “The local population should be seen as the main guardians of the environment because they are the ones that most depend on conserved natural resources.”
Even without external incentives, this already proves true. The traditional fishing communities have been playing a crucial role in protecting Guanabara Bay. “Fishermen are the eyes of the bay,” said Alexandre Anderson, head of the AHOMAR fishing association and victim of several death threats as a result of his militancy. He claims to see small oil spills several times a week. “It’s not only oil, but chemicals, acids, and industrial detergents. We patrol the waters daily and denounce these crimes.”
The fishermen are now working with the Brazilian Bar Association to present a legal case detailing environmental crimes and other abuses committed by the petroleum industry. The Brazilian Bar Association’s human rights director, Marcelo Chalréo, says that this is a matter of survival for the people that live in Rio and around Guanabara Bay.
Another investigation is looking at suspected irregularities in the government’s bay sanitation programme, PDBG, which has yet to reach 10% of its objectives after 20 years. The enormous Alegria sewage treatment station operates at a mere fraction of its capacity. “Why doesn’t it work?” Chalréo explains. “They never built pipes between people’s homes and the station.”
Bruno Herrera points to the conclusion of this sanitation programme as the first of three steps for the recovery of the bay – the conclusion of the basic sanitation programme, more rigorous inspection and regulation of industrial activity, and a reforestation programme for the mangroves and rivers. He says: “If this were done, Guanabara Bay would naturally recover in a matter of years and could again be the productive environment it was just a few decades ago.
“However,” concludes Herrera, “my hope is entirely linked to an increase in collective organisation and social participation.”
Fonte: The Guardian
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