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The endless struggle to clean up Rio de Janeiro’s highly polluted Guanabara Bay

The colony of artisanal fishermen Z-11 sits on the edge of the Guanabara Bay facing Governor's Island and Rio de Janeiro's international airport. It is currently the most polluted part of the bay.

  • Once a nursery for marine life, Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro is now dying from the dumping of thousands of liters of sewage into its waters; artisanal fishers now survive by picking up the garbage that floats in the bay.
  • Faced with failed promises of de-pollution by the government, civil society organized itself, creating areas of environmental protection and pressuring the companies responsible for basic sanitation in the state, which is still deficient today.
  • On the shores of the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, a biologist started replanting the mangroves; life returned and the site has become a model of what can be done to save the Guanabara Bay.

At eight in the morning, the sun is already scorching the avenues and shopping malls of Barra da Tijuca, an upper-middle-class neighborhood on the west side of Rio de Janeiro. From the scalding runway of a busy private airport, helicopters transport tourists and executives along one of the most beautiful and renowned coastlines in the world.

One of these helicopters is preparing to take off as Mario Moscatelli settles into the passenger seat and checks his camera. There will be no images of Christ the Redeemer; the biologist’s eyes are trained to see things most tourists prefer to ignore.

Behind the buildings, a wide coastal plain is revealed, embraced on three sides by mountains with a dramatic profile. Between the white rows of luxury condo towers and car-lined avenues stretch long lagoons, each surrounded by a thin border of mangrove swamp. The Lagoon Complex of Jacarepaguá is what remains of a once-untouched tropical ecosystem that connected the surrounding Atlantic Forest with the ocean.

Instinctively, the biologist points his telephoto lens downward, snapping pictures of the lagoons at a point where deep blue water mixes with a brilliant green. The odd color is evidence of high levels of cyanobacteria that thrive in organic material — in this case, thousands of liters of raw sewage. Seemingly unconcerned, jet skis cross the toxic mix in front of Iberian-style mansions with tennis courts and swimming pools. Degraded over decades of feverish urban expansion, the so-called Veneza Carioca, in its current state, is just the symptom of a much bigger problem.

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A bay of death

From the divided city at the foot of the Massif of Tijuca, through the working-class neighborhoods of the Fluminense Lowlands to the coves of Niterói, the landscape reveals the full extent of the tragedy: Guanabara Bay, the historic gateway to Rio de Janeiro, is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most polluted coastal ecosystems in the world.

Along the entire western edge of the bay, a sickly sludge oozes from a dozen polluted canals. The tide is low, and from above, one can see the bottom of the bay is covered by a thick layer of black mud. Decades of untreated sewage have produced silt in some places up to several meters deep. Of the native mangroves that once covered the entire coast of Rio de Janeiro, few remain here. What exists around the campus of the federal university and Governor’s Island is due, in part, to the efforts of biologist Moscatelli to reactivate this ecosystem.

For decades, Moscatelli has been fighting to preserve what’s left of Rio’s native mangroves. Its rebirth is yet another front in the global war against climate change caused by the human species.

“When you fly over the mangroves, you see them full of garbage,” laments Moscatelli. “What takes me 20 years [to build], some guy destroys in a week. And there is no reaction from the government, despite the law being clear on protecting these ecosystems.”

A discarded sofa in the Canal de Fundão, one of the most polluted stretches of Guanabara Bay, close to the campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Moscatelli, who also teaches children about the importance of mangroves, sums up the value of this ecosystem in a way that anyone can understand: “I see a maternity ward, a breeding area for marine life. There’s a supermarket here; it’s free food. You have all this flora and fauna directly or indirectly related to this here. If you cut down the tree, you don’t have the leaf. If you don’t have the leaf, there’s no way to feed this whole web of life.”

Mangroves are incredibly efficient at sequestering carbon dioxide, up to four times more than the Amazon Rainforest. In addition to filtering toxins from the soil and water, its deep roots provide a natural and effective barrier against coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels. “This is the first line of defense,” says Moscatelli.

Unfortunately, this perspective is not shared by the majority of people in the city. “In Rio de Janeiro, people associate the word mangrove with something smelly, degraded,” says the biologist, recalling that the Mangrove Canal, in the center of the city, was where the Portuguese royal court landed in Rio after fleeing Napoleon’s invasion in 1808. Then known as the Saint Diego Mangrove, its channel was later filled in, becoming a sewage ditch and an area of prostitution.

“The mangrove swamp was seen as something rotten, while the landfill resembles the Aterro do Flamengo, which is that beautiful and organized thing,” says Moscatelli, referring to a popular waterfront park in the city’s center, constructed with earth taken from nearby hills to expand the growing capital’s buildable land.

In the Tupi language, Guanabara is “the bosom of the sea.” Long before Europeans arrived, countless generations had benefited from the bounty of this natural harbor protected by surrounding mountains and dense forests. Portuguese explorers marveled at its fragrant flowers and countless species of fish, crustaceans and sea turtles as well as whales and dolphins. Believing that the bay was an estuary, they named it the River of January in that month of 1502, and the newfound colony soon became the gateway to a nascent Brazil.

Five centuries later, the bay that blessed the city throughout its history is today a very different one: Guanabara Bay sees 18,000 liters (4,755 gallons) of sewage released into its waters every second. Nearly half of all wastewater in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region, with its population of more than 13 million, goes untreated. Domestic garbage, industrial waste, appliances, furniture and even corpses can be found floating in the murky waters of the Guanabara — which is still recovering from the impacts of a spill of 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of crude oil in 2000.

Almost all the beaches along the Guanabara, both in Rio and across the bay to the city of Niterói, are unsuitable for swimming. A veritable cemetery of abandoned ships dumps unknown amounts of dangerous chemicals into the bay. The native bottlenose dolphins (Sotalia guianensis), which decorate the state’s coat of arms, have practically disappeared. Of the approximately 400 that thought to call the bay home in the 1980s, it is estimated only 30 survive today

It is estimated that 18,000 liters (4,755 gallons) of sewage are discharged per second into the waters of the Guanabara. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Planter of mangroves

And yet, the Guanabara resists, a living testament to nature’s resilience and capacity for renewal. A central pillar of this resistance has been the dedicated and fearless efforts of civil society, including popular movements, academics and policy advocates. And environmentalists like Mario Moscatelli.

As a teenager, Moscatelli established a special relationship with nature, spending time diving and fishing near Angra dos Reis (King’s Cove), a traditional tourist destination a few hours from Rio. Born and raised in Copacabana, without yet studying biology, he understood the importance of keeping the mangroves intact. “When I saw a stretch of the Big Island coast being occupied, I knew it was one less place where I could fish.”

After graduation, the budding biologist got a job at Angra’s city hall conducting environmental inspections for the municipality. He obtained funding from Germany to start a reforestation project, planting mangroves in degraded areas. But his conservation work put him at odds with crooked developers and politicians looking to profit off a legally protected coastline. First came the intimidation, then came the death threats. “I could only go to Angra with police protection. My life literally became hell.”

Forced to flee his own country for defending its natural wealth, Moscatelli waited a year and a half in Germany before returning home in 1989. There, he saw an opportunity to revive the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, which, despite existing in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, had been abandoned by local authorities. As a young boy, his father would take him there on weekends to a nearby amusement park, but it had since become a dump.

Through research, he discovered that the lagoon had a native mangrove ecosystem up until some 150 years ago, when the area became busy with plantations and mills using slave labor. With the experience gained in Angra, Moscatelli turned his parents’ tiny apartment into a nursery. Filling the trunk of his father’s hatchback with mangrove seedlings, he drove them to the lagoon, stepped into the mud and began planting. “People said I was crazy.”

Biologist Mario Moscatelli (right) supervises the work of a colleague during the replanting of mangroves in Jardim Gramacho, close to a disused dump. The area is the most polluted part of the bay and exists under the shadow of the city’s infamous criminal organizations. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Simultaneously, the biologist began to investigate what was behind the pollution and discovered that the state water and sewage company of Rio de Janeiro, CEDAE, was dumping untreated sewage directly into the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. “I started to fight with the big state company, which was paid to carry out sanitation in that region but wasn’t doing it.”

Before the era of social media, Moscatelli would go to newspapers, TV and radio stations to publicize what was happening to the lagoon. In 2000, after a great die-off of fish, he handed over the entire directorate of the state-owned company to the Federal Police. “At the time, I was an adviser to the state secretary for the environment. Of course, I lost my job.” With the help of the Public Ministry, the biologist finally managed to force CEDAE to replace its sewage treatment infrastructure, which had not been maintained for years.

Thanks to these cleanup efforts and the replanted mangroves, life has returned to the lagoon. Walking along its placid waterfront today, it is possible to see native capybaras, waterfowl and small fish sharing a clean and healthy environment, a long journey from the open sewer where Moscatelli started planting seedlings more than 30 years ago. The project has been a rare success story, but the hope is that this is a critical first victory in a broader campaign.

Currently, Moscatelli manages several reforestation projects in a number of Rio de Janeiro’s lagoons and along the shores of Guanabara Bay, in addition to carrying out regular aerial monitoring and giving lectures with local schools to raise awareness among the new generation about the importance of a healthy mangrove. “The Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon is an example, a microcosm of what can be done in the Tijuca lagoons and Guanabara Bay. It’s just a matter of scale.”

An employee of a local biofuel company plants mangroves as a form of environmental compensation in the place where the now-defunct Jardim Gramacho dump used to operate. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Fishers forced to scavenge

On another front in the battle for the revitalization of Guanabara Bay, Sergio Ricardo Potiguara has struggled to hold the line for decades. Born in the hinterland of Rio Grande do Norte, in the traditional lands of the Potiguara people and moving to Rio de Janeiro when he was 18, the ecologist started his fight early. Right after the international ECO-92 conference held in the city, he helped to revive the grassroots movement Baía Viva (Living Bay), which had its origins in the environmental and democratic activism against Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship.

In 1984, Baía Viva was instrumental in the fight to obtain protected status for the remaining original mangrove forest in Guanabara Bay, the Guapimirim Environmental Protection Area, with 13,926 hectares (34,412 acres), in the extreme northeast of the bay. It is here that the last bottlenose dolphins seek refuge.

As the leader of Baía Viva, Potiguara has been campaigning publicly for decades for environmental justice and the rights of communities that suffer the worst consequences of its destruction. A place where fish and crustaceans feed and reproduce, a healthy mangrove swamp like the one that existed in Guanabara for millennia was responsible for sustaining countless generations of fishers, from the first inhabitants of the region, the Indigenous Tupinambá people, to the thousands of artisanal fishers who still exist today, many of them descendants of Indigenous peoples and former slaves from Africa.

Today, neither the Tupinambá of the Guanabara nor the fish that used to serve them as food exist. In difficult times, such as the 2014-18 recession, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the current period of economic stagflation, poorer families in Rio could make fishing a reliable source of income. However, in a tragic irony, professional fishers are now forced to scavenge cans and bottles from the bay’s polluted coastline to sell for recycling in order to survive. Many suffer from health effects associated with prolonged contact with toxic water, such as skin rashes, dysentery and cancer.

A fisher shows scars on his legs caused by repeated exposure to contaminated water in the municipality of Duque de Caxias. The area suffered an oil spill in 2000 and today much of its industry and refineries are accused of dumping chemicals into the bay and its adjacent rivers. Image by Andrew Johnson.

Potiguara cites one recent studyestimating that the annual economic cost to the state caused by the pollution of the bay is at least 31 billion reais (around $6.5 billion) per year due to the loss of fishing, in addition to the added strain to an underfunded health system and the loss of tax revenue from real estate devaluation.

“In a metropolitan region with lots of poverty, such as the situation in the fishing communities, two out of three young people neither work nor study,” says Sérgio. “The environmental recovery of Guanabara Bay is important not only from an ecological point of view, but also for public health and for the economy of Rio de Janeiro.”

Having faced threats and intimidation for their efforts themselves, the Baía Viva movement continues to support fishing communities in organizing resistance, such as the fight for reparations from the Petrobras oil spill disaster in 2000. Decades later, fishers still find oil in their nets.

David (left) and Josué (right), two artisanal fishers from the Z-11 colony in the Ramos neighborhood, leave at dawn to try their luck on the Guanabara. Photo by Andrew Johnson.

Privatized waters

Potiguara places the greatest blame on the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro, which first promised to clean up the bay back in 1995. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. “At the time, it was widespread theft. We made a report and submitted a complaint to the Legislative Assembly. A Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry was installed and concluded that more than 300 million reais [around $60 million] were wasted on overpriced works, that is, stolen. Exactly what was needed to complete the basic sanitation works.”

Then came the 2016 Rio Olympics. “At that time, Baía Viva spoke for itself in the media. Nobody cared about us. Why? Because Rio de Janeiro was receiving an investment of around 60 billion reais [$12.5 billion],” he says, recalling the heady days of optimism. “There were projects everywhere, a lot of money coming in, jobs, co-option of the political class.”

One of the promises of the mega-event was the proposal to clean up the Guanabara and deactivate the Jardim Gramacho dump, once the largest in Latin America (now next to one of Moscatelli’s reforestation projects). “They used public money to finance large private companies to build new sanitary landfills, instead of implementing selective collection or treatment of leachate”, says the ecologist, referring to the toxic run-off that, unless treated carefully, seeps into the soil and then the water table.

Fishermen from Z-11, a colony located opposite Governor’s Island and the Galeão international airport, returning after a night of fishing. Image by Andrew Johnson.

The Olympic hangover from the public spending spree and its ensuing corruption scandals was followed by the country’s worst recession in decades, along with falling oil prices, the main fuel of Rio’s economic engine. The state was bankrupt, unable to pay teachers, doctors or police. To avoid social collapse, the government looked for something to pay off its debts.

“In the ’90s, the state of Rio de Janeiro had already privatized all its services,” recalls Potiguara. “They privatized the ferries, the trains, the subway.” Everything but the jewel in the crown, CEDAE. Initially, there was resistance from labor unions and civil society, concerned about massive layoffs and the sale of public assets to foreign capital. But, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the revision of the federal law of the Sanitation Legal Framework was approved allowing the privatization of sewage treatment services in Rio de Janeiro.

In June 2021, after decades of broken promises to clean up the Guanabara, Rio’s government let go of one of its most profitable assets. CEDAE was divided into four blocks and sold for a total of 22.6 billion reais ($5 billion), just over half its expected value, for a period of 35 years. The auction itself was financed by the National Bank for Economic and Social Development with public funds, raising doubts about its legality. “This happened in the first six months of the pandemic and nobody could protest, nobody could complain,” laments the ecologist. “It was sold at a bargain.”

The state-owned company remains in control of water collection and treatment of drinking water, but the most profitable parts of the company, the distribution and treatment of sewage, are now in private hands. One of the concessionaires, Iguá Saneamento, a private water and sewage company, belongs to Canadian pension funds that have recently been the target of public criticism in that country for unethical investments.

CEDAE has long been the target of criticism for its inefficiency, dysfunction and corruption. Several taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects have fallen into disrepair or been completely abandoned. The new private for-profit concessions claim that their responsibility to shareholders and their contractual obligations to the state will oblige them to fulfill what is known in business jargon as their “ESG commitments” (environmental, social and governance).

Corporate reorganization and the influx of foreign capital have already shown results: In 2022, for the first time in decades, Botafogo Bay, next to the famous Sugarloaf Mountain, finally became safe for bathing, thanks to a repurposed sewage system. Further improvements to treatment plants and collection lines are underway across Rio’s metropolitan area.

But while the concessionaires promise to treat 90% of all wastewater by 2033 and invest a total of 30 billion reais (more than $6 billion) over 30 years to improve sanitation, less than 6% of those funds are earmarked for Rio’s roughly 1,000 favelas. Around 1.5 million people, nearly a quarter of the city’s population, live in communities with precarious access to public services such as water and sanitation. Many live as hostages caught between warring criminal factions and a state security service, one of the most violent in the world, that sees their homes and communities as enemy territory.

Águas do Rio, one of the concessionaires that won two of the four blocks from the sale of CEDAE, reported after its first year of operation that its investments prevented “the daily release of 1 million liters of raw sewage into rivers, canals and the Guanabara Bay.”Based on the most recent estimates from 2014<, this amounts to just 0.06% of the total.

The biologist Moscatelli remains cautiously optimistic. His projects are expanding and evolving. He has secured funding and partnership with two of the concessionaires, Águas do Rio and Iguá Saneamento, as part of their ESG commitments. The first sponsors maintenance and replanting efforts at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon and the other finances a pilot project to revitalize the Camorim lagoon, in Barra da Tijuca.

A third partnership with Gás Verde, a biofuel producer that took over the decommissioned Gramacho landfill, in the Fluminense Lowlands, supports Moscatelli’s efforts to recover mangroves in a heavily industrialized area with some of the worst levels of pollution in the entire region. Workers wade through knee-deep mud to plant seeds next to an area controlled by armed drug traffickers while ceaselessly burning mounds of garbage from clandestine dumps encroach on the forest, all within sight of the country’s largest petrochemical complex.

“It’s a drop in the sea of ​​what needs to be done,” admits Moscatelli, adding that the work has taken its toll on his health. The biologist recently survived lymphoma and blames the stress that helped cause it on his job. “It is a calling, despite the dangers, despite the challenges. I choose to insist,” he says of his commitment. “Some people hear it but don’t respond; others hear it and respond. The intensity of this response varies from person to person. My answer is here.”

His tired eyes contemplate the first tree he planted more than 30 years ago on the edge of the pond where his father first brought him as a boy. He has since passed away, but the tree on the edge of the water is tall and healthy. A pair of waterfowl glide serenely on a calm surface of clear water. “When I’m depressed, I come here and talk to them. They say, ‘Hey, Moscatelli, calm down, calm down. Come on, let’s continue. We’re right here.'”

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Banner image: Guanabara Bay with Rio de Janeiro’s international airport beyond, seen from a fishers’ colony in the neighborhood of Ramos. Image by Andrew Johnson.

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