In the Tupi Indigenous language, the Guanabara Bay is the “bosom of the sea”. Long before the arrival of Europeans in 1502, countless generations relied on its calm natural harbour and dense mangroves for their sustenance. Portuguese explorers marvelled at perfumed flowers and more fish than they’d ever seen back home: a veritable Garden of Eden. Baptized as the River of January, the colony soon became the gateway to a nascent Brazil as well as its mirror. But what once reflected a breathtaking natural beauty is now one of the most heavily polluted coastal regions in the world.
The Guanabara has witnessed many changes, from capital of a continental empire to nexus of the transatlantic slave trade and UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearly a fifth of all slaves taken from Africa arrived on its shores. With the end of slavery and the dawn of industrialization came decades of urbanization, and millions migrated to the city from the impoverished interior looking for opportunity. The Herculean efforts of these working-class masses were met with little if any corresponding investment from city officials, especially in the area of sanitation. As a result, the world famous statue of Christ faces a 412 square kilometre toxic dump.
Greater Rio de Janeiro, with a population of over thirteen million people, treats barely half of all its waste water and around eighteen thousand litres of raw sewage are released into the bay each second. Everything from trash to heavy metals, furniture and dead bodies (victims of the city’s infamous gang violence) can be found in the bay’s murky waters. Beautifully-written environmental laws are practically unenforced in a state that is a byword for corruption and impunity. Poor in governance but rich in oil, the country's second-busiest port has seen more than two million litres of crude oil spilt since 2000 alone, complementing dangerously high levels of mercury and ammonia. After decades of failed attempts to clean up the bay, the local government now puts its faith in the privatization of Rio’s state sanitation corporation, CEDAE. Only time will tell what the consequences will be.
But even through all of this the bay is still very much alive, a testament to nature’s resilience and capacity for renewal. Studies indicate that if all pollution were to cease tomorrow, after no less than five years the Guanabara will have cleaned itself through its natural water recycling process. In a country like Brazil with its abysmal inequalities, worrying about pollution can seem like a luxury. But as the story of the Guanabara demonstrates, it is often the marginalized and working classes who have the most to lose from environmental injustice and the most to gain from its reversal. For the bay and its defenders this justice remains elusive in a long, costly and often lonely struggle. But when asked about the future there comes the common refrain: “hope is the last to die”.