In the Tupi language the Guanabara is the “bosom of the sea”. Long before the arrival of Europeans, countless generations benefited from the bay's natural harbour shielded by dense mangroves. Portuguese explorers marvelled at perfumed flowers along its shore and waters teeming with life. Baptized the "River of January", the maritime colony became gateway to a nascent Brazil. From imperial capital to UNESCO World Heritage site, the Guanabara saw a fifth of all slaves taken from Africa arrive on its shores. With industrialization came urbanization and with it millions of migrants to the city but their arrival contrasted with a decline in public housing and sanitation which continues to this day. What once reflected Brazil's immense wealth and natural beauty is now one of the most heavily polluted coastal regions in the world.
In 2020, Greater Rio de Janeiro saw eighteen thousand litres of raw sewage released into the bay each second, nearly half of all waste water in the metropolitan area of thirteen million. Everything from household trash to industrial waste, furniture and corpses can be found in the bay’s murky waters. Progressive laws are practically useless in a state that is a byword for corruption and impunity. Poor in governance but rich in deep-sea petroleum, more than two million litres of crude oil has been spilt in the country's second-busiest port to complement its toxic levels of mercury and ammonia.
Yet still the Guanabara endures, a living testament to nature’s resilience and capacity for renewal. Studies indicate that if all pollution were to one day cease, after no less than five years the bay will have completely recycled its waters. In one of the most unequal cities in the world where environmental concerns are secondary at best, it is the poor and working classes who have the most to lose from this injustice and the most to gain from its reversal.
In 2021, after decades of broken promises to clean up the Guanabara, the local government began the privatization of Rio’s state sanitation corporation, CEDAE. Time will tell if this new chapter will lead to the bay's long-awaited renewal. For 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”.
Part of a wider, ongoing documentary project on Rio de Janeiro post-2016.