Rio de Janeiro is beautiful, yet rotten with pollution

A new book called "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God" shines the spotlight on the widespread environmental degradation occurring in one of the world's most geographically stunning cities.

I wish I’d been able to read Juliana Barbassa’s incredible new book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, before arriving in that city in November 2014. I stayed for a month, entire family in tow, excited to get to know a city I’d romanticized for years.

Over the course of those weeks, my feelings for Rio were a rollercoaster. Having already lived in northeastern Brazil, I spoke fluent Portuguese and had good friends in the city, which made for some great times; but I also felt disappointed by the city’s lack of regard for the spectacular landscape that so defines it and was continually horrified by the level of pollution.

While Dancing with the Devil explores a variety of cultural and historical topics, much of Barbassa’s focus is on environmental degradation. Indeed, one cannot write about Rio without addressing these problems because they are so widespread.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God© Simon & Schuster

I stayed with my family in the western suburb of Barra da Tijuca, thanks to some terrible advice given by an acquaintance with whom I no longer wish to talk! Our apartment was in a gated high-rise condominium, a distant walk and ten lanes of wild traffic away from the nearest grocery store. I wondered, “What the heck is this place?” My sense of bafflement never went away.

Barra, according to Barbassa, is touted as the future of Rio. It is the place to which many downtown residents have fled in search of greater safety and space, fresh air, privacy, tranquility; but in turn they have created another mess of ongoing construction and environmental devastation in the form of pollution and habitat destruction. I saw that in the once-beautiful marshy canals, home to capybaras, caimans, and blue-shelled crabs, now littered with garbage and smelling of sewage.

Barra is where many of the 2016 Olympic events will be held. The Organizing Committee pitched it as a “truly beautiful setting… surrounded by lagoons, mountains and parks,” not to mention 16 miles of stunning white sand beaches. But the construction of Olympic sites comes at a high cost. Barbassa cites caiman expert, Ricardo Freitas:

“The reality is f--- the animals, f--- biodiversity, f--- the laws, and long live construction. All of this is being done because some people will make a lot of money, and it’s being done with no monitoring, no support, no rescue of species.”

Other problems are the filthy waters of Guanabara Bay, where many of the Olympic aquatic events such as sailing and canoeing will be held. Nothing has materialized from the Olympic Organizing Committee’s promise to clean it up. The Bay looks beautiful from afar, but get close and the stench of sewage is so bad it makes you want to gag. My own family’s attempt at a stroll along Guanabara Bay resulted in my kids begging to leave because of the awful odor.

Barbassa writes: “The state’s streams and rivers delivered about 480 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of raw sewage to the bay, every day. It made nearly all beaches along the bay too polluted to swim; its stench greeted me every morning when I ran past the mouth of the Carioca [River]. Sewage burbled up from burst pipes and pooled along the curb of my street in Flamengo. Neon-green cyanobacteria, which feed on this organic matter, scummed up the lagoons out west.”

With everyone from swanky hotels in Ipanema and Leblon to poverty-stricken favelas all illegally pouring their waste into pipes that empty directly into the Atlantic, Barbassa points out that Rio’s sewage problem clearly goes beyond not having the means or resources to do the right thing. There’s a disturbing acceptance among Cariocas of having to coexist with the degradation of the very landscape that defines them, even when it affects them physically:

“In 2011, the latest year examined, Brazil’s public health system had 396,048 patients hospitalized because of intestinal infections presumed to come from contact with sewage. More than one-third of those who got sick were children under five.”

The infamous Gramacho landfill site, also located on Guanabara Bay, received 900 trucks disgorging 9,000 tons of trash daily for over 40 years, until it closed in 2012. It was profiled in Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's Oscar-nominated documentary, Waste Land, about the trash collectors who worked there.

“The toxic juice produced by its fermenting organic matter had flowed into the bay and seared all vegetation it touched, opening a ring of devastation. The methane gas it exuded had polluted the atmosphere and created the danger of occasional explosions.”

Even though Gramacho is closed, the damage has been done and the leaching will continue. Meanwhile, the trash produced by 13 million residents has simply been moved to another official location, where it will continue to contaminate its surroundings.

How much worse does it need to get before Rio’s officials pay attention and push through the necessary changes, as challenging as that may be? Who knows, but it’s downright tragic that hosting the Olympics has not provided enough incentive to address these environmental disasters once and for all. The uncomfortable reality is that Rio, despite being one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, is dirty, broken, and rotten, and it’s difficult to find hope in this situation.

You can order Dancing with the Devil in the City of God online.

Tags: Book Reviews | Books | Brazil | Olympics | Pollution

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