River clean-up strengthens struggle for land rights in Horto Favela

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This article is part of a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University, to produce articles for the Digital Brazil Project on human rights and socio-environmental justice in the favelas for RioOnWatch.

Since January 2020, residents of Horto favela in the botanical gardens Rio de Janeiro neighborhood South zone, was involved in a new project. The proposed objective of Horto Natureza is to work towards the revitalization, maintenance and conservation of the Macacos River, which flows through the favela and its peripheral areas.

The project was only officially launched recently, but it has been in the works for a long time. Roberto Fonseca, founder of the Horto Natureza project, worked on the Guardiões do Rio (Guardians of the River), in 2001, an initiative that trained community workers to work on cleaning and conserving rivers and canals. He explains that since then he has felt motivated to take better care of the environment of the community in which he lives. “In 2001, I was invited with some residents of the Horto favela to work for ‘Guardiões do Rio’, a project of the mayor at the time. Caesar Maia. We needed work and it was a good opportunity. That way, I learned to put into practice everything my parents had taught me as a child: to clean up our neighborhood and take care of what belonged to us. And, to make money doing that, it was even better, ”says Fonseca.

For a while now, following accusations that the favela was responsible for the pollution of the Macacos River, and the countless attempts to relocate residents of the area, Fonseca decided to act: “It was then that I started to denounce the fact that the sewage leaks and the waste did not come from the inhabitants of the favelas but from the buildings and the businesses. [surrounding it]», He remembers. “At the end of the ‘Guardiões do Rio’ project, I humbly continued to clean my area, but from 2018 I felt that more was needed; I felt the need to start rallying local residents again and sensitizing the public to the fact that we must take care of what is ours, ”he explains.

The main lines of the Horto Natureza project have started to take shape since then. The objective of the participants is to promote the socio-environmental development of the region, through educational actions and professional training. Fonseca explains that the actions developed range from the cleaning and maintenance of the Macacos river to the reconstruction of the walls and facades of the houses. Certain collective actions are also dedicated to the organization of zones intended for the elimination of waste, with the aim of promoting adequate collection and sorting.

The activities developed by the project are directly linked to the history of the favela, which was born when slaves were brought in to work on the construction of the botanical gardens. Over the years, the community has maintained its knowledge and connection to nature, passed down from generation to generation, with the support of workers and teachers in local schools. Fonseca is a picture of this story. He was born and raised in the Horto favela, learning what he knows through his life experience.

“I studied in all the schools we have in Horto [Júlia Kubitschek, Capistrano de Abreu, Camilo Castelo Branco and Manuel Bandeira]. At Camilo’s school we had a teacher who taught us everything about the local fauna: how to catch a snake, how to catch an animal without killing it. He was the kind of teacher who spent more time in the forest than at school with the students, and that’s where I learned everything I still know today. Mr. Walter! Anyone in Horto knows who Mr. Walter was, ”explains Fonseca. He adds, “Whenever we found a different insect or animal, we would catch it and bring it to him so that he could classify it and explain the species. Many of us weren’t even his students, but he always kept his classroom open, even for those who weren’t students.

Behind the project, put into practice by Fonseca and other inhabitants of Horto, lies a long-standing struggle: the right of the community to stay in the area. By denouncing where the pollution of the Macacos River and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon really comes from, the Horto Natureza project seeks to demystify the idea that it is the inhabitants of the favelas who are responsible for the pollution of the waters of the Macacos River. , which flow into the Rodrigo de Freitas. Lagoon.

After these complaints, the Municipal Environment Secretariat concluded that the service CEDAE is one of those responsible for the pollution of the river. The company was fined 1 million reais (US $ 190,000) for the irregular disposal of wastewater from the Macacos River. In January of last year, the company had already been fined for the same reason. In addition to CEDAE, removal of chemicals from a textile factory located on the banks of the river also contributed to polluting the waters. According to Fonseca, after a series of complaints, the company took action and fixed the issue.

Since the beginning of 2021, various collective actions to clean up the Macacos river have been organized, and Fonseca explains that people from different areas of the Horto favela have participated: “Some from Grotão, some from Caxinguelê, and we are going downhill. the river to clean up. above. “Through these actions, the project aims to establish a dialogue with the Municipal Secretariat of the Environment of Rio. Eduardo Cavalieri, head of the secretariat, visited the region on April 17th.

The project benefits from partnerships with the capoeira group of Mestre Mico Preto, former resident of the Horto favela; IBS, a franchise specializing in high performance cycling; as well as the support of the residents of the community and of the Association of Residents and Friends of Horto Florestal (AMAHOR). The Horto Natureza project is seeking more support and is undertaking virtual crowdfunding campaigns with national and foreign support. At the same time, the project encourages a healthier space for the community by strengthening historical ties families have with the environment.

In the future, Fonseca dreams of expanding the activities, creating a space for community vegetable gardens, for the replanting of plants originating from the Atlantic forest, as well as to mobilize its neighbors to participate in the cleaning of the street which gives access to the favela, and in the maintenance of the jackfruit trees that grow on the side of the road. The intention is that the socio-environmental actions of the Horto Natureza project involve children, adolescents, adults and the elderly from Horto.

Once again, the favela shows that its vital history is closely linked to the land, and the Horto Natureza project is a snapshot of that relationship.

About the authors: Emerson de Souza is a musician and socio-cultural activist who, since the 1990s, has participated in cultural and political collectives such as Cambralha and Fome de Educação (Hungry for Education). He is currently president of AMAHOR and representative of the Horto Museum.

Taísa Sanches is a post-doctoral researcher in social sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio) and activist for housing and the right to the city. She works with the Horto museum and the Museum of evictions projects.

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