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The DNA of pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay


Text by Mirna Wabi-Sabi and photography by Fabio Teixeira
Originally published August 2nd, 2023, in Brazilian Portuguese.
Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara bay, July 1, 2023.

The Brazilian Sanitation Panel states that more than 30% of the population of Rio de Janeiro does not have sewage collection (2021). Today, 18,000 liters (nearly 5 thousand gallons) of sewage per second are dumped into the Guanabara Bay, with state investment quadrupling in the last 3 years, reaching almost 1 billion reais. The expenditures are monumental, while the results are abysmal, and this fiasco would be easy to explain from the perspective of corruption and incompetence in the management of public resources. However, a cultural and historical analysis would better explain what causes these symptoms in the city's administrative processes.

Data on costs and levels of pollution are evident, as well as the dangers of this pollution to public health. It has been known for at least 20 years, for example, the alarming rates of Hepatitis A in children in low-income regions of Rio de Janeiro. But these numbers do not lead to solutions by holders of governmental power. The problem is not a lack of money or awareness of the seriousness of the situation, but the legacy of the Hygienist model.

The Hygienist movement was born in Brazil in the late 1800s and at the end of the Industrial Revolution. With the formation of urban-industrial centers during the Revolution, there was a massive increase in the population of Rio de Janeiro, and with it chaos, poverty, pollution and environmental destruction. This movement aimed to mitigate these metropolitan symptoms with the implementation of European urban models, which essentially manufactured ghettos. By utilizing the medical theories of European scientists, initiatives were promoted by hygienists which segregated poverty from wealth and destroyed natural environments through the 'beautification' of cities.

The culture of European extractivism deals with the non-European environment as a source of resources for human beings, whether practical or aesthetic. It never promotes the balance of local ecosystems, it only promotes profit and high standards of living for those who profit. Therefore, the manufacturing of ghettos guarantees 'Hygiene', as defined by the movement in terms of education and health, in an insular way. The Hygienist model is the manifestation of the expression 'sweeping under the rug'. As long as urban insalubrity was not seen by elites in city centers, it would be as if it did not exist. In other words, it's as mature a system as a game of peek-a-boo.

Since cities came to be, the conditions of urban insalubrity have been a class issue with disastrous environmental and human repercussions. In the article "The Hygienist Movement" on the history of private life in Brazil, Edivaldo Góis says that many of the hygienists saw "the lack of health and education of [Brazilian] people [as] responsible for our backwardness in relation to Europe." Being that numerous diseases, customs, and management models from Europe were responsible for this impropriety. A people that promotes class division does not accept the natural reality that the ecosystem does not respect social segregation. Sooner or later, the pollution of a portion of the ocean or of an urban body of water becomes pollution on prime beaches, and 18,000 liters of sewage per second in the Guanabara Bay is a worldwide problem.

In the 1990s, 1 billion US dollars were spent on the Guanabara Bay Cleanup Program (PDBG) after alarming evidence of cases of Hepatitis A in children in Duque de Caxias. Even with massive funding from a global source, the results were horrifying. Sewage treatment centers were built but they were never functional, accountability and late payments pointed to poor financial management by the state, hundreds of millions of US dollars were wasted in interest rates, and this failure cannot be attributed to institutional stupidity alone. Now billions of reais are being spent again on infrastructure projects, which are already delayed, to solve this persistent pollution problem of the last century.

Rio de Janeiro, entre 2015 e 2019.

Sanitation in low-income regions is a challenge today because for more than a hundred years, the class divide fostered by the legacy of the Hygienist movement has disembodied these geographic spaces from "epidemiological surveillance activity" as well as individual provision of sanitation resources. The idea that what is private exists in symbiosis with the public, rather than resulting in the investment of public resources in improving the private environments of low-income individuals, has resulted in reactionary justifications for eugenics. That is why, instead of investing in improving the structures of family and individual homes in poor regions, they invest in a "belt" for collecting sewage around the bay. This means that the sewage that leaves these areas is captured and prevented from affecting noble areas, but the individual context of the residents remains the same.

According to a "conceptual study" on this 'belt', the obstacle to "universal sanitation" is cost. The estimate in the report is 1900 reais per inhabitant, totaling more than 33 billion reais in Rio de Janeiro. Since the financing of 1 billion dollars in the 1990s was equivalent to just over 5 billion reais, the price "far exceeds the contribution of resources to the sector". However, 33 billion refers to the cost for the population of the whole state of Rio (not just the city), and the 1 billion dollar funding was specifically aimed at cleaning up the Guanabara Bay.

The rivers that pollute the Guanabara Bay the most permeate the geography of the city of Duque de Caxias, called Sarapuí and Iguaçu. If 1900 reais per inhabitant is a reliable estimate, with less than 1.5 billion reais it would have been possible to bring sanitation to the entire population of Duque de Caxias, which between 1991 and 1994 was made up of less than 700 thousand people.

But instead of proposing precise strategies, focusing on contextual and local needs, the report soon makes parallels with European and U.S. American models of sanitation. In doing so, it reveals itself to be a descendant of the Hygienist movement. The organization responsible for the report, FGV CERI, explicitly positions itself as interested in an infrastructural development centered on economic growth. For them, infrastructure regulation in the country, even when it involves the environment and public health, revolves around one objective only: "attracting investment". Thus, sustainability fosters the nation when it is economic and financial.

Quantifying a socio-environmental problem such as pollution in the Guanabara Bay is not always easy. How many liters of sewage are being dumped illegally? How much does basic sanitation cost per person? How many children have become ill from polluted water bodies in their areas? In this case, the numbers are evident and the reality is inescapable. What is missing is the analysis of the historical and cultural, or genetic, context that leads to these alarming and persistent results. From the creation of the Hygienist movement in Rio de Janeiro, today we are at least the fifth generation to witness the disastrous development of the metropolis that leans over and suffocates this bay. It is necessary to know what was inherited from the DNA of this city, which was named after this magnificently unusual body of water – Guanabara.


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Text by Mirna Wabi-Sabi
Photography by Fabio Teixeira


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