For thousands of years the Guanabara Bay, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, has sustained hundreds of generations of families. The first inhabitants, the Tamoios, called it “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. In agony, on the verge of total environmental collapse it 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 favelas where waste collection and treatment are problematic. But one can hardly lay the blame on the poor alone: in metropolitan Rio only forty percent of waste water is treated. Some municipalities in its periphery lack any and all treatment. Whether one lives in a shack or a gated condominium, works in a multinational industrial park or a local workshop makes little difference. As a result the Guanabara has become 412 square kilometre open sewer.
Being in an oil producing region, perhaps its destiny was always destined to be tragic. Once harvested from whales, oil is now brought from wells deep below the underwater crust then transported via pipeline to refineries along the bay’s edge. Recent "accidents" have had devastating consequences. Since 2000 alone, nearly 1.5 million litres of oil have spilled into the Guanabara and its estuaries, contributing to the devastation of the once healthy mangroves, the wildlife population and the health and economic well-being of bayside communities.
It is estimated that anywhere between ten and twenty thousand registered and unregistered artisanal fishermen operate in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara bay at any given time. These workers have carried the economic cost of its degradation more than any other group. But while the fish are vanishing the diminishing resources continue to be shared among many. For Rio's poor living near the bay, relying on this ancient trade has always been a trusted way to weather an 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?”