Greg Love 6/20/96
Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira
It was only 9.00 am, but the day was already bright, sunny and warming up considerably when we reached the communities of Babilonia and Chapeu Manguiera in the forest green Fiat of Nahyda von Der Weid, coordinator of Roda Viva's "Ecology Goes to School" program. Creeping up the hills overlooking Copacabana Beach, this ostensibly exotic location is belied by the poverty that becomes readily evident from the sight of muddy, rubbish- and rock-strewn alleyways haphazardly criss-crossed by tubes and pipes of various sizes running into the chaotic array of cheap red brick and lamina houses that make up most of the buildings in the communities.
As Rio de Janeiro undergoes a wave of urbanization that began throughout Latin America in the 60's and 70's, communities like Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira, presently inhabited by some 2000 people, have formed around the older and more established areas of the city, expanding at an often uncontrollable pace. Local and national budgets for urban development, a restricted lack of resources and, most notably, political will, were and continue to be unable to provide even the most basic of services for many of Rio's newest and poorest communities. The result has been a series of shantytowns, or "favelas," in and around the city. As the favelas have grown, the lush tropical forests that once dominated the mountain sides of Rio have progressively been cut down to make room for new settlements.
This poses a number of problems for not only the inhabitants of the favelas, but for all the people of Rio. Most obviously, the unique flora and fauna of these areas is at risk of being irretrievably lost.
In the remaining old forests of Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira, monkeys still inhabit the area, but as a local teacher and resident of the area involved in the "Ecology" project remarked, there were not nearly as many as there were just few years ago. (Unfortunately, I was unable to spot any of the apparently shy tree-dwellers, but the teacher insisted that some of the chirping noises we heard were in fact the primates she was talking about). As many "cariocas" (what the people of Rio are known as in Brazil) are justly proud to claim their city as one of the most forested big cities in the world, the recent deforestation is destroying not only the city's unique wildlife, but its deep sense of pride in being identified as a city surrounded by a vibrant and unique natural beauty as well.
On a more tangible level, and of more immediate concern for the inhabitants of the favelas, is the risk of landslides and loss of potable water sources. The removal of hillside vegetation has destabilized many of the steep slopes, increasing the threat of landslides, especially during the heavy rains that come during the summer. Moreover, with less vegetation, the hills and mountains that form the watersheds of Rio are no longer able to absorb the same amount of rainfall as when the forests remained intact. For a metropolitan area of nearly 6 million inhabitants, expected to grow to some 12 million by 2015, the loss of the watersheds' ability to absorb and retain water poses a serious problem for aloof Rio's inhabitants.
In an effort to protect the environment and their communities from the threat of landslides and inadequate water supplies, in 1993, Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira's local elementary schools joined with Roda Viva's "Ecology" program to initiate environmental education and reforestation projects. Financial and technical support were solicited from and provided by the Secretary of the Environment of Rio's mayor, Cesar Maia. Naming the effort "O Project Mutirao de Reflorestamento"( The "United Force" Reforestation Project), 16 hectares in and around the communities are currently being reforested by community members, compensated for their work through municipal funds. When the project is completed, some 32,000 fruit-bearing, native and exotic trees, all provided by the municipal government, will be planted in the designated areas.
To celebrate the successful initiation of the project, the teachers, students and representatives of Roda Viva planned a day of games, prizes and just plain fun, an opportunity of which the kids took full advantage. After organizing everyone into groups, we all began the climb up the hill that lead to the principal areas being reforested, a location offering a breathtaking, panoramic view of many of Rio's barrios (boroughs), beaches and bays. Sitting ourselves down in front of the ruins of an ancient Portuguese fort and watchtower, a drawing was held to award prizes to the children for their hard work and dedication in helping to protect the environment. After all the prizes were distributed to the enthusiastic young audience and the coordinators said a few words to commemorate the project, we all trotted back down the hillside to the community plaza for yet more prizes, games (including a heated soccer, or "futebol" tournament), music and a tasty lunch of rice, grilled beef and two types of "feijoada," a local dish of beans, meat and spices.
On our way down the hillside, a number if teachers took me to a freshwater spring that was the primary source of potable water for the communities. Dipping their hands in the concrete basin that collected the water and splashing it about their faces, they remarked on how important it was to keep the spring from being depleted. Without it, they weren't sure what the communities would do to get their water. That is why the reforestation project was so important, to keep the water from drying up. Was their any other reason they thought the project was important, I asked. Without hesitating, one of them respond, "Oh, yes. This project has taught the children, and the adults too, how important it is to protect the environment. If we hurt the environment, we hurt ourselves. It also teaches us to work together as a community, to realize that without working together, we cannot overcome this poverty that hurts us all."
As it turned out, the festivities planned for the day ended up, well, lasting all day. When the sun began sinking behind the hills and my ride home about to leave without me, I said good-bye to the kids (an activity that took ten minutes in and of itself), the teachers and the other adults, promising that I would be back in about two weeks for their next activity. As we were leaving, some teenage boys had hauled drums of varying sizes from the building we had used as our "headquarters" of sorts for the day's activities and began pounding along to the music blaring on the loudspeakers. The younger children gathered around and began dancing. Just because we were leaving didn't mean the party was over, and I found myself looking forward to returning in two weeks time.