The degradation of urban wetlands in Rio de Janeiro, part 1: the dilemmas of urban planning and the history of the Baixada de Jacarepaguá

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This is the first in a series of four articles on the “Degradation of the Pantanal Carioca”, as the wetlands in the western area of ​​Rio de Janeiro were once called.

“To enable its conservation and enhance our fauna species, this huge lagoon should be handed over to the Confederation of Brazilian Fishermen as a biological lagoon reserve. The leaders of this institution are true patriots for the moral and material aid they devote to the legitimate cause of nature protection. — Magalhães Correa, 1936

These words were written by Magalhães Corrêa in his 1936 book O Sertao Carioca (“The hinterland of Rio de Janeiro“). Artist and professor at the National Museum and the School of Fine Arts, both now part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)—as well as a journalist at Correio da Manha diary, he documented the rivers, lagoons, sandbanks, fauna and flora with great precision and detail, as well as the local habits of the inhabitants of the Jacarepagua plains – a vast territory in Rio de Janeiro, between the Tijuca and Pedra Branca massive.

Baixada de Jacarepagua Region
The Baixada de Jacarepaguá region and the lagoon complex are located between the Pedra Branca and Tijuca massifs in the western area of ​​Rio de Janeiro.

The word Jacarepaguá—yacaré-upá-quá in the indigenous Tupi-Guarani language—means “alligator valley” or “shallow alligator lagoon.” According Technical informations by the National Institute of the Environment of Rio de Janeiro (INEA), the Jacarepaguá lagoon complex in Rio de Janeiro West area is formed by the Tijuca, Jacarepagua, Marapendi and camorim lagoons. Measuring approximately 280 km2the watershed of the whole is formed by numerous rivers which descend from the massifs and flow into the lagoons, connected to the ocean by the Joatinga Channel which allows the exchange of fresh water and sea water. The “Pantanal Carioca“, as this wetland is called, is rich in biodiversity, with 51 amphibians, 24 reptiles, 384 birds, 91 mammals and 89 species of fish.

This region corresponds to the current Municipal Planning Area 4 (AP4) of Rio de Janeiro. According to the census, AP4 had a population of 909,955 in 2010 and about 1,011,946 in 2015.

Professor of Geography and member of the Historical Institute Baixada de Jacarepaguá (IHBAJA), Val Costa, explains that the wordsertaoused by Magalhães Corrêa to describe the region was once a generic denomination for the hinterland, wild places, inhospitable for mass occupation. This is how Jacarepaguá was perceived at the time. However, Magalhães Corrêa warned us about the potential for environmental exploitation in the area.

“The expression ‘Sertão Carioca’ was intentionally used to describe a Rio de Janeiro inhabited by fishermen, hunters, ax workers, charcoal burners, carpet makers, basket weavers, clog makers, potters, banana plantation workers, dams and street vendors. A place of untouched nature, rich in forests, salt marshes and mangroves. However, Magalhães Corrêa has warned that this “tropical paradise” is in danger of disappearing over time. future and denounced the indiscriminate removal of firewood from the region’s Atlantic Forest.—Val Costa

The risk reported by the naturalist has now become a reality. INEA recognizes that the process of degradation of the Jacarepaguá lagoon complex is well under way. This is attributed to the discharge of pollutants from many activities in the area. In his book, Magalhães Corrêa reported that the region was experiencing environmental deterioration caused by the uncontrolled exploitation of resources to support Rio de Janeiro’s growing population.

The pollution of the Jacarepaguá lagoon complex is linked to the lack of sanitation policies and the demand for land in the region. This led to many filler projects and disorganized growth of the AP4. We must therefore go back in time to understand how pollution in the region arrived at its present state.

From the extraction of Pau-Brazil to the infill sites in the name of progress

To understand how the region was populated, we must go back to the 16th century when the Baixada de Jacarepaguá was occupied by the Tamoios. This indigenous group had two large settlements in the region: Guará-Guassú-Mirim (on the shores of the Camorim lagoon) and Takûarusutyba (in the current vicinity of Taquara). Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baixada de Jacarepaguá became known as the “Plain of Eleven Millsafter the construction of many sugar mills in the region. In the 19th century, the slopes of the Pedra Branca and Tijuca massifs were invaded by coffee plantations. From the beginning of the 20th century, large rural properties were divided into smaller plots and the region welcomed small and medium-sized polyculture farmers.

With this, the Atlantic Forest in the region has undergone various human interventions such as the extraction of Pau-Brazil, the harvesting of sugar cane, the plantation of coffee, the breeding, charcoal production for the urbanization of Rio, and the construction of houses. Regarding the lagoon complex, Val Costa states that isolated anthropogenic interventions were already taking place: “in the 1930s, the water bodies of the region were already receiving oil from tourist boats visiting the lagoons of the Baixada de Jacarepaguá”.

Rio’s southern zone expanded along the coastline throughout the 1960s and reached the western zone by the end of the decade. As tourism also increased, automobile access to the area was granted. Both Tijuca Bar and Itanhanga neighborhoods began to attract people with high purchasing power, which furthered the political interests of the military dictatorship. The decade also brought the new modernization plan of the former capital of Brazil, known at the time as the State of Guanabara (which later became the city of Rio de Janeiro). Commissioned from the architect and urban planner Lúcio Costa, co-creator of Brasilia, the plan for organized occupation of the region.

The concept involved a major metropolitan axis to balance built and green spaces, and integrate the North, South and West areas of the city. In the 1970s, the first major real estate developments appeared in Barra da Tijuca: the Nova Ipanema (1975) and Novo Leblon (1976) apartment complexes, the Carrefour supermarket (1976) and, shortly after, the Barra Shopping Mall (1981 ). Life in Barra da Tijuca was characterized by large areas occupied by condominiums with residential units, shopping options, their own leisure areas and other exclusive buildings.

This new way of life has consolidated the region as an elite destination, a stronghold for the middle and upper classes. People were looking for a way of life in the neighborhood. Meanwhile (or rather, as was intentionally part of this project), the scarcity of public housing policies has left low-income populations – many of whom helped build or worked in the area – on the margins, living in remote areas or near streams and lagoons. . This is how the first favelas, like Rio das Pedras, formed in the region. Contrary to what had been foreseen by Lúcio Costa, the filling and drainage projects introduced in the region have upset the balance of the local ecosystem.

According to geography professor Val Costa, population growth and disorderly occupation have increased the concentration of organic matter in the lagoon complex. The rivers flowing into the four lagoons began carrying a volume of discharged material that far exceeded the complex’s sewage and waste disposal capacity.

“Many socio-environmental problems have arisen following the occupation of the banks and lagoons of the area. The lack of adequate monitoring of urban growth in the region has led to an increase in illegal activities such as the deforestation of the slopes of the Pedra Branca and Tijuca massifs, the elimination of mangroves, the appearance of river banks and lagoons filled for irregular land use. — Val Costa

According to articleRecent urban dynamics of the city of Rio de Janeiro: considerations following the analysis of data from the IBGE census and municipal urban licensesin recent decades, no district of the capital has experienced greater growth than the AP4 in terms of population and housing. The population increased by 47% between 1980 and 1991, by 25.29% between 1991 and 2000 and by 33.33% between 2000 and 2010. Housing increased by 34.84% between 1991 and 2000 and by 51.21 % between 2000 and 2010.

In July 2022, the local government demolished an irregular building in the Muzema favela which had been built by a militia (decommissioned, vigilante police gang) and was valued at over R$3 million (USD 580.00). According to the Technical Coordinator of Special Operations (COOPE), the building was erected on a slope and in an area of ​​high geological risk, without confinement or permit. COOPE informed that the region of Muzema is now under constant surveillance and that there are 60 ongoing trials. In the articlePublic Order Secretary Brenno Carnevale said 970 demolitions of irregular occupations of public space were undertaken in 2021, particularly in areas influenced by organized crime.

Despite the urbanization process initiated in the 1960s, it was not until 2009 that the Barra da Tijuca wastewater treatment plant began to operate. Public water service CEDAE is responsible for Rio’s municipal sewer system. The region lacked an adequate sewage system for more than five decades, which in turn polluted the lagoon system.

Posted in 2001 by the State Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development, studies of the PLANAGUA project estimate that around 700,000 residents of Barra da Tijuca, Jacarepaguá and Recreio dos Bandeirantes dumped around 40,000 kg of BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) per day in 2000. BOD is a measure of the microbiological respiratory requirements of a specific ecosystem to break down untreated sewage into water bodies. This jeopardizes the region’s water supply systems which nowadays are on the verge of environmentally unsustainable.

This is the first in a series of four articles on the “Degradation of the Pantanal Carioca”, as the Baixada de Jacarepaguá was once called, in the western zone of Rio de Janeiro.

About the authors:

Philippe Migliani graduated in journalism from Unicarioca with a specialization in investigative journalism. Working as a freelance journalist and freelance reporter for the newspapers Meia Hora and Estadão, he collaborates with the Coletivo Engenhos de Históriaswhich investigates and recovers the history and memories of the Grande Méier region, and with PerifaConnection.

Fernanda Cale graduated in journalism from Unicarioca with a focus on popular communication as a way to reach a diverse audience in a clear and simple way. Two years ago, she helped found Lume Agency—a communications agency producing independent journalism in Jacarepaguá, focusing on Rio das Pedras, where it was born.


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