Biologist Mario Moscatelli has battled to save Rio de Janeiro’s environment for three decades.
Moscatelli believes that the opportunity, presented by the Olympic Games, for ecological improvement has already been lost.
Once a month, the Carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro) flies over the city on behalf of the “Green Eye” project, which monitors pollution levels in Rio. However, the picture is always the same: Rio de Janeiro’s turquoise waters remain marked by the dark stain of raw sewage.
It’s a side of Brazil that the authorities are keen to keep hidden; Moscatelli has struggled for years to get the issue onto the public agenda. While the environmentalist does notch up some small victories, he’s not forgotten the frustration he felt six years ago at the failure to capitalize, in an ecological sense, on being awarded the Olympic Games.
"When I saw that Rio de Janeiro would host the Olympic Games, I had great expectations. I'm a biologist and Carioca who works for the rehabilitation of the degraded ecosystem. So I figured that with the arrival of the Olympic Games, the Brazilian authorities, who had agreed to a series of concrete actions in the sense of recovering Guanabara Bay and the lagoon system of lower Jacarépagua, in preparation for the Olympics in 2016,” explains the conservationist.
“Unfortunately, I was wrong. What people see today in Guanabara Bay is practically the same level of garbage and sewage. Ganabara Bay, 200 plus days from the Olympics, remains a latrine.” Moscatelli adds: “The lagoon system of lower Jacarépagua, where the Olympic Park and the Olympic Village are located, have financial resources and part of the project has already been started. But because of a series of legal and technical problems, the project has been paralyzed for a long time. So, it will only be completed long after the Olympics are done. Particularly, since it has started, it’s important to the Cariocas that it’s executed.”
Indeed, people, like Moscatelli, expected that the clean-up would happen well before 2016 but this has failed to happen. “They’re behind at Guanabara Bay and here at the Bajada lagoons — progress will only be made by 2018," he says resignedly staring toward the horizon of the beach in Barra da Tijuca.
Have the Olympic venues affected the biodiversity of the city?
No, they actually made them better. The removal of the Vila Autodromo favela from the Olympic Park's current location has cleared a marginal strip of the environmental area of Lake Jacarepaguá. I am looking at this from an environmental point of view, not a social one. From the environmental point of view, there will be a big improvement in that area, because houses are being removed and the marginal strip is seeing the return of native vegetation, so that's a positive aspect. The creation of the Olympic Park will greatly improve the recovery of the marginal protection strip. In relation to the other facilities, all of them will have services for the collection of wastewater. So there will be no impact in the lagoons where such facilities will be created. Now, what actually happens is that the major environmental problems that existed 10 to 20 years ago, have more effectively been combated. So, at the Guanabara Bay and Lake Jacarépagua, the hydrographic base — the rivers, lagoons and the bay — are almost all dead. And they are dead due to Rio de Janeiro’s urban sprawl. This brings the production of sewage and garbage that goes directly into the rivers, bays and lagoons.
Is it mainly the favelas that are polluting the waters?
Not necessarily just the favelas. Here in Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood of upper middle class and upper-class residents, you have several areas that are not favelas and continue throwing wastewater into rivers. Clearly, a favela that has difficulty installing a sewage system, will then directly throw their wastewater into the lakes, rivers, bays and everything else.
What precautions should tourists who are visiting the beaches in Rio take?
There are some beaches in Rio de Janeiro that are not suitable for swimmers because of the large amount of wastewater, especially when the tide is low. For example, here we are on an ocean beach in Barra da Tijuca, where initially you would not see any problem. But, just in this oceanic stretch of beach between Quebramar to Pepe beach — a stretch of a few kilometers — is polluted with sewage during low tide. People should check for contamination before visiting a beach. Not all the beaches are polluted but unfortunately many of them, like the ocean beaches, depending on the tide and weather conditions, it’s mandatory to observe the daily indications made by the environmental agency.
To what extent will the Olympics address environmental issues in Rio de Janeiro?
What I can guarantee is this: Brazilian authorities had time, they had money. Brazil five or six years ago was in a completely different economic situation to today; they set goals within the matrix of responsibility between the state and municipality union, but the Brazilian authorities didn’t go through with their promises. In my understanding, they never intended, in the case of Guanabara Bay, to do anything. I went for the last six years with the authorities, and indeed in the case of Guanabara Bay, we’ll be reaching, I’d say 5 percent of what was planned — and I'm being optimistic. In regard to the lagoon system of Jacarépagua Bay, only by 2018 will we reach around 60 percent of the suggested improvements. And that’s because the other 40 percent would be relating to the rivers. Then the lagoons will be cleaned and dredged and the shelter belts will be recovered, but the rivers will not be addressed.
By the numbers
65 percent of sewage and garbage from Rio de Janeiro is expected to reach the sea without treatment.