For nearly 8000 years the Guanabara Bay, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, has sustained hundreds of generations of families. In the Temiminó indigenous language it was “the bosom of the sea” and one of the richest biospheres in Latin America. Beginning in the nineteenth century, it became a hub of commercial fishing activity. Today, only a handful of species are found in her cloudy, brackish waters: the bay is currently one of the most heavily polluted coastal regions in the world.
Waves of migration into the city since the early 1900’s were met by a lack of affordable housing, poor infrastructure and ineffectual government. Millions of families still live in slums, favelas, where waste collection and treatment are problematic. But the problem is certainly not relegated entirely to poor neighbourhoods: in metropolitan Rio alone, only forty percent of waste water is treated. Some municipalities in its periphery lack any and all treatment. As a result, the Guanabara has become an open sewer. The thirst for oil has also caused immeasurable damage. Once harvested from whales around the bay it is now brought from wells deep below the underwater crust then transported to refineries along the bay’s edge, with devastating consequences. Since 2000 alone, nearly 1.5 million litres of oil have been spilled into the Guanabara and its estuaries.
It is estimated that between 5000 and 18,000 registered and unregistered artisanal fishermen operate in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara bay. Fishermen have borne the economic cost of its environmental degradation more than any other group. But while the fish are vanishing, the quantity of fishermen continues to grow thanks to a faltering economy still recovering from a crippling recession. For Rio's poor living near the bay, relying on its bounty has always been a way to weather the economic storm. Now it's becoming unsustainable. “I’ve been fishing since I was sixteen, I learned from my uncle,” says Santelmo, 58, “this is all I’ve known. We used to have no problem finding fish, now we have to risk fishing in restricted military areas, where they shoot us with rubber bullets. My brother lost his leg to a soldier’s lead. We can’t fish during certain times of the year but the government doesn’t pay us our social security on time, so what are we supposed to do? Starve?”