Rio's 'Bay of All Delights': The Polluted Waters of The 2016 Olympics
Mauricio Fidalgo


This story is over 5 years old.


Rio's 'Bay of All Delights': The Polluted Waters of The 2016 Olympics

A century of industry and mismanagement has turned the Guanabara Bay from natural paradise to industrial wasteland. Now its pollution may pose a threat to the 2016 Olympic Games.

Rio is the Bay of all Rivers — the Bay of all Delights — the Bay of all Beauties. From circumjacent hill-sides, untiring summer hangs perpetually in terraces of vivid verdure; and, embossed with old mosses, convent and castle nestle in valley and glen.

To those familiar with the modern Guanabara Bay, around which sprawls the city of Rio de Janeiro, this description of the region by Herman Melville must seem like a surrealist fantasy. So must the depiction of the bay in Whale Hunting, a work by 18th century Brazilian artist Leandro Joaquim, which shows giant mammals being hunted amidst the waves.


Today, much of the region's wildlife has been eradicated by the untreated sewage and industrial waste that pours into the bay on a daily basis. Broken television sets, plastic bags and used condoms are a more common sight than fish, and last week a severed arm was found floating in its waters.

In less than six months' time the polluted bay will host the sailing competitions of the 2016 Olympic Games, but it is not only athletes who are at risk from Rio's filthy waters.

Read More: How Brazilian Soccer Came to Haiti and Haitian Soccer Came to Brazil

Despite health warnings, hundreds of local people swim at Flamengo and Botafogo beaches every weekend, while thousands of fishermen struggle to survive in impoverished communities dotted around the bay. Part-time yachtsman and rowers steer their vessels through the trash, and those who work in the region's tourist industry battle to downplay the bay's problems.

VICE Sports met just a few of the thousands of cariocas—Rio natives—who live and work in and around the city's polluted waters.

The Ecologist

According to Sergio Ricardo, director of the Bahia Viva ("Living Bay") NGO, the pollution of Guanabara Bay is linked to the growth of Rio de Janeiro and the region's industrial expansion.

"Over the last 20 years the state of Rio de Janeiro decided to wipe out fishing and agriculture," he said in his office not far from Rio's Praça XV square, the arrival and departure point for the aging passenger ferries that crisscross the bay.


"They weren't interested in the financial value of these activities, and instead they chose a strategy of industrial mega-projects."

One of those projects was the Duque de Caxias Oil Refinery (Reduc) in the northwest of the bay, which was built in 1961. The discovery of large volumes of oil in the pre-salt layers of the ocean floor near Rio has led to a second wave of industrial growth in recent years.

The processes of industrialization, which involve dredging and drilling of the ocean floor and the release of oils and other toxic wastes into the water, has had a devastating effect on the bay.

The bay has become an industrial zone, not a natural one. Photo by Mauricio Fidalgo.

"The great environmental indicator of the level of pollution in the bay is the tucuxi. In 1995 Rio de Janeiro State University identified 800 animals in the bay, ten years later there were 400, and now there are just 35," said Ricardo. "They've been described as the most contaminated mammals in the world."

The fate of the tucuxi, a freshwater dolphin found in Brazil, also highlights the failure of the Rio state government's Guanabara Bay Depollution Program, which began in 1995, has been extended several times, and has failed to produce significant improvements in the condition of the water.

According to Ricardo, Rio's historic inability to clean up the bay meant the city's pre-Olympic promises rang hollow. "We knew that the pledge to clean 80% of the waters of the bay wouldn't work," he said angrily. "The International Olympic Committee was highly irresponsible. If the depollution programs hadn't worked in 20 years, how could they accept this target, which was obviously based on false promises?"


Ricardo is now involved in a project, backed by some of Rio's top universities, to build an observation and research center on one of the bay's abandoned islands. "Some people think the bay is dead, and that it should just become a car park for ships and industry," he said. But we still believe the bay can be recovered, and used for tourism, and transport, and fishing, and environmental research."

The Fishermen

On a rickety jetty in the sleepy working class neighborhood of Tubiacanga on Rio's Ilha do Governador, fishermen Robson Salgado de Oliveira and Alex Sandro Santos stared down at the piles of refuse washing against the few wooden fishing boats that remained afloat.

"There was shrimp in the bay up until two or three years ago. And anchovies and hake, but now they're basically extinct," said Robson, a 51-year-old father of six. "I have to travel further and further away every day to get a decent haul. I work two shifts per day, starting at 3 a.m., and make around the minimum salary."

In addition to the damage caused by industrial activity, the bay, and the lives of the fishermen who depend on its waters, has also been devastated by a series of environmental disasters.

In 1975, the hull of the Iraqi tanker Tarik Ibn Ziyad was breached, spilling 6 million liters of crude oil into the bay. In 2000, a leak from a REDUC pipeline released 1.3 million liters of oil into the water.

Robson Salgado de Oliveira has to fish two shifts a day just to feed his family. Photo by Mauricio Fidalgo.

The environmental devastation wreaked by the REDUC pipeline leak has had a catastrophic effect on the often very poor fishing communities of the bay. According to Alex, the fishermen still feel the effects of the spill. "Even today, we have to boil our nets to get the oil from the leak off them," he said.


In 2007 the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, responsible for the Reduc complex, and which is currently embroiled in a billion dollar political bribes scandal, was ordered to pay the fishermen around $300 million U.S. in compensation for the loss of their livelihoods. It has yet to pay out.

"No one has been compensated so far. The majority of people don't live off fishing any longer, and their children or grandchildren don't want to become fishermen. They don't want to go hungry like their fathers," explained the ecologist Sergio Ricardo.

And the industrial activity in the bay has made the lives of the fishermen difficult in other ways.

"There are so-called areas of exclusion, where small boats can't come near pipelines or platforms. The fishermen can be arrested as environmental criminals," said Sergio Ricardo. "It means less than 20% of the bay is available for fishing. How are more than 20,000 fishermen expected to live?"

Both Alex and Robson are contemptuous of the authorities' unsuccessful attempts to improve the condition of the bay—both in the build-up to the Olympics and before.

"All the Olympics have done is cause the state government and the city to waste time and lose credibility. They'll do nothing," said Alex. "We could clean the water better ourselves. We could get 200 boats together, and trawl the water, but there's nowhere to put all the trash."

The Cultural Center and Community Leader


Not far from the Ilha do Governador, and just over an hour's ferry boat ride away from the bustle and chaos of Rio de Janeiro, the tiny island of Paquetá is an oasis of calm and faded, bucolic charm. The island, which is home to around 5,000 people, is car-free and has only a handful of stores.

"Paquetá is a peculiarity. It's a social, democratic space. We've managed to preserve a way of life without cars," said José Lavrador Kevorkian, director of the Casa de Artes Paquetá, a cultural center and NGO on the island.

Yet while the ferries shuttle handfuls of residents and visitors back and forth between the island and Rio de Janeiro, there is a sense that the tourist industry of Paquetá and the other islands on the bay has suffered from Guanabara Bay's sullied reputation.

The island of Paquetá has found its tourist industry diminished because of pollution to the bay. Photo by Mauricio Fidalgo.

"The Ilha do Governador used to be known as the 'little princess of the north'," said the ecologist Sergio Ricardo. "Songwriters like Vinicius de Morais and Luiz Gonzaga had houses there. It was a summer holiday destination."

Paquetá has a similarly rich history. "The island became known in 1808, when Dom João VI (the King of Portugal and Brazil) took shelter here in a storm," explained Jose Kevorkian. "And (former president) Getúlio Vargas would come here for musical evenings."

Now, however, the island's sense of isolation means it is relatively untouched by the growing excitement surrounding the Olympics. "The city doesn't understand Paquetá," said Kevorkian. "The Games are taking place right beside us, but they won't have an impact on us."


By the standards of Guanabara Bay, the water surrounding Paquetá can appear relatively clean. "We're close to the central canal of the bay," explained Kevorkian, "which means the water circulates well. And the island itself is not a major source of pollution."

Yet even in the midst of the closest thing the bay has to an idyll, the damage caused by pollution is never far away. The INEA (the Rio State Environment Agency) pollution report for February found that seven of the island's eight beaches were unsuitable for swimming. "When it rains, you can see the floating trash," said Kevorkian sadly.

The Sportsmen

In August last year, Isabel Swan, a Brazilian yachtswoman who won bronze at the Beijing Olympics, led a flotilla protest in the bay. She vocally criticized the authorities' inability to deal with the pollution and stood in solidarity with the rights of the region's fishermen.

"She was our inspiration," said the ecologist Sergio Ricardo. "The protest was all over the international media." Since then, however, such protests have fallen silent, and Ricardo believes that Olympic team bosses may have suggested to athletes such as Swan that they adopt a lower profile when discussing the bay.

These suspicions seemed to be confirmed when VICE Sports reached out to the Brazilian Sailing Confederation. "The athletes prefer not to give interviews when the subject is Guanabara Bay, because the subject of pollution always comes up," a spokesperson from the organization's press department said.


Members of the historic Guanabara Regattas Club knows solutions for the Olympics won't become permanent. Photo by Mauricio Fidalgo.

However, at the Guanabara Regattas Club, an expensive, traditional sailing club near Botafogo Beach, which has hosted water sports for over a century, people are only too willing to talk about the bay.

"I've used the bay since I was a child," said Marcos Jose Lemos de Lima, vice president of the club's rowing department. "We lived downtown, and we would go to Flamengo Beach. So I'm used to the pollution. It's seasonal, sometimes you come early in the morning and the water will be clean. But at Botafogo, for example, the dirt is visible, and it's dangerous. You might find TVs, or tables…in fact one of the tables we use here in the boat garage was found in the bay."

De Lima doubts that there will be much improvement before the Olympics.

"There are only a few months left before the games, and when I row here I haven't seen any difference. Athletes are tough, but there is sailing in the bay, and with some types of yacht the yachtsperson practically touches the water, so there might be health problems," he explained.

Yachtsman Matheus Menezes Gonçalves, a former junior World Champion in the snipe category, agreed. "It gets worse every year. I can see the differences. The last opportunity to make things better was the Olympics, but we've missed our chance," he said.

Even if the authorities manage to cover up the pollution during the event, Gonçalves believes it will only be a temporary solution.


"They'll improve things during the event, with screens and nets, and we'll have a "magical week". But after that it will be back to normal. My grandad swam with the dolphins here in the bay, and now it's a latrine."

The Scientist

"Historically, the bay has always very desirable. It's a natural port, and there's an amenable climate and lots of fish. But the exploitation of the bay outstripped our ability to provide infrastructure, such as piped water, drainage, sewage, and refuse collection," said David Zee, a professor of Oceanology at Rio de Janeiro State University. "And the difference between the exploitation and the infrastructure goes into the city's rivers, like the River Carioca, which subsequently flow into the bay."

According to Zee, attempts to clean up the bay for the Olympics have been undermined by the major financial crisis currently affecting the Rio de Janeiro state government. Construction has been held up on a group of planned River Treatment Units, meant to address the sewage pouring into the bay from the city's rivers. Only one unit is close to completion.

The financial crisis has undermined efforts to clean Guanabara Bay. Photo by Mauricio Fidalgo.

"If the work had been finished then perhaps they could have met their objectives," Zee said. "But Brazil is going through a recession, and the economic crisis means they have had to prioritize. There's no money, and there's a lack of planning."

A number of international athletes have already complained of picking up infections from the water. In July last year, Ivan Bulaja, the coach of an Austrian sailing team, told the Associated Press that the bay had "by far the worst water quality" he had seen, after a number of his sailors fell ill with vomiting and diarrhea. And a month later, German sailor Erik Heil was treated for several skin infections that he believed were caused by bacteria in the polluted waters.

"The pollution could cause hepatitis, gastroenteritis, eye infections and inflammations," confirmed Zee. "But the authorities have made their choice. Sewage is not a glamorous issue. They don't understand the benefits that treating it would bring for the bay, for Rio, and for tourism."