'Guardians of the River' make tiny dent in Rio's unrelenting pollution

Small steps toward a cleaner Rio de Janeiro pay off, but are being smothered by the sheer volume of favela garbage clogging rivers and ending up in the city's Guanabara Bay.

'We have money, we have technology but we don't have the interest to solve these problems'

Leonice de Almeida looks at the Carioca River bed in her Rio favela, Guararapes, where a group called Guardians of the River have been plucking out garbage for six months. 'You could find unimaginable things in the river,' she says. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue towers over Guararapes, a favela on the way up the mountain to Brazil's most famous attraction.

Residents feel a special pride looking up at the monument. But looking down to the river that bisects their community, they see a polluted, clogged waterway covered in garbage, struggling to make its way to the sea.

"You could find unimaginable things in the river," says Leonice de Almeida, a Guararapes resident. "Animal bodies, refrigerators, couches, parts of cars, motorcycles.

See reams of garbage on Rio riverbank

6 years ago
Duration 0:39
The banks of many of the rivers that flow through Rio de Janeiro are littered with all kinds of waste.

"I think the community lacks environmental awareness," she says. "They don`t find any other option and end up throwing things here. It's total laziness."

Almeida has set out to change that, slowly. A tiny team, so called "Guardians of the River," regularly don rubber gloves and boots to pluck trash out of the Carioca River.

Garbage stretches across the shores of a channel leading to Rio's Guanabara Bay, swept in by the tide and tangled in the mangroves. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

At first, six months ago, they carried out two truckloads of garbage a day.

A small dirt plot has been marked as a recycling place, almost unheard of in most favelas. Big bags of plastics and cans wait to be carried away.

"We have been talking to the community about the importance of keeping the river clean — not to look good in the picture, no. This is for their own health," Almeida says.

Olympics haven't changed sanitation problems

But even as the favela looks cleaner, sewage in Guararapes still flows untreated into the river. Demands to improve sanitation have gone unheard, and no amount of Olympic money has changed that.

Fifty-five rivers flow into Guanabara Bay, site of some of the Rio Games events. According to biologist Mario Moscatelli, 49 of them are dead, with no oxygen.

In Guararapes, a Rio de Janeiro favela, a small team is paid a modest stipend to pick out garbage from the Carioca River, which travels down to the sea. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

Since 1992, he's been trying to protect the ecosystem.

"I am very very upset," he says. "The Olympics were my last hope, and now I have lost hope."

He guides a CBC reporter to the shores of a wide channel leading into the bay. It's a staggering scene. A stinking mass of garbage, metres wide and 10 centimetres deep, is trapped under the mangroves at the water's edge. Heaps of garbage stretch all along the shore. There's a toilet seat, a motorcycle helmet, shoes, lots of plastic — a nightmarish picture of discarded human consumption, swept in by the tide and tangled up in the mangroves.

Across the Fundao channel on the other side is a hulking cement sewage-treatment plant, which only treats one-half of the sewage water that comes in. There's no pipes to connect the rest.

Biologist Mario Moscatelli has lost hope for an environmental legacy from the Rio Games. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"This is a political, social, cultural problem," Moscatelli says. "We have money, we have technology but we don't have the interest to solve these problems. The garbage, the sewage are not a priority."

Not even now with the Olympics? "Nothing," he says, outside of some eco barriers and eco boats skimming the waters where the competitions are held. 

The Olympic opening ceremonies last Friday were beautiful, he says, but the creative team's nod to a clean environment was pure hypocrisy. 

"I don't have more patience. It's the same history, the same politicians, the same argument and the result is the same."

Trinkets from trash

Felipe Silva is a willing foot soldier. His father is a leader in Guararapes. Silva is a part-time tour guide and budding recycler. Convinced there's cash for his community in the garbage, he's urged people to drop bags of trash at the steps to his house.

He rips them open, singlehandedly separating cans from plastic, looking for material he can transform.

Felipe Silva shows off a prototype of a tiny trinket made from some of the plastic that gets frequently dumped in Rio's waterways. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"Our intention is to take this material, turn it into a product related to the city and sell them to the tourists," he says.

Silva's helping spearhead a project with help from the World Wildlife Fund to mould discarded plastic into tiny trinkets.

He hands over a bluish prototype, made from plastic cups. "Here is the Corcovado mountain, with the Christ on top of it." 

He fingers the shack-like ridges on the side. "And here it's the favela, which we couldn't leave behind. It's our reality."

On Tuesday, Silva took some discarded plastic and the moulding machine to the tourist hub at the foot of Christ the Redeemer, showing off his small step to a more sustainable Brazil.

Next week, he says, the trinkets will be available for sale in a swank new tourist shop, with profits going back to the favela. That way, instead of turning up their noses at Rio's pollution, Olympic tourists can take a bit home with them. 


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.