Early on an October morning, Gabriel Oliveira stares at the crowded lineup of São Conrado, a heavy beach break in the south of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A few minutes earlier, the nineteen-year-old, best known as ‘Popó’, was right there in the outside. It was the first of four times he would hit the waves until noon. These morning sessions have been the pattern of his daily life since he was six, when the carioca started spending the entire day at the beach, located in one of the city’s wealthiest districts. It was his way of keeping a distance from the reality that surrounds his home 1.5km away, in Favela da Rocinha, Latin America’s largest informal settlement, home to about 200,000 Brazilians.
Popó lives with his parents and three brothers in a one-storey household at Street 2, an area where drug dealers have established their headquarters. José ‘Bocão’ Ricardo, who founded Rocinha Surf School in 1987, taught him how to ride waves, the same way the forty-four-year-old had already done with hundreds of kids from the community. “If it wasn’t for surfing, I don’t know how my life would be,” Popó tells me, without taking his eyes off the waves. “Lots of friends of mine took the wrong road. I have never been interested in following this drug-trafficking path, but even so surfing has saved my life.”
Popó is no weekend warrior; he dreams of becoming a professional surfer, and is currently looking for sponsors who could support him to travel and compete. “Some elite athletes said to me that if you learn how to surf here, you can ride waves anywhere, because this is a hollow, fast spot.”
But when he’s surfing at São Conrado, Popó has something else to worry about besides getting barrels and landing airs. We are standing on a large sprawling deck on the far left of the beach. Below it there is a ditch through which crude sewage flows fast until it reaches the sea, about fifty metres away from the lineup of the so-called Cantão – São Conrado’s beloved home break. At the edge of the deck, there is an opening, so we climb in to see the channel for ourselves. The creek’s stench makes staying there almost unbearable.
“Thanks to God I have never gotten sick,” says Popó, recounting a day when he saw two rats and a dog lying dead on the sand. He points to a middle-aged bodyboarder called Anderson Guerreiro: “His son, in turn, contracted a pretty serious hepatitis six months ago, but he is already back in the lineup.”
Sewage has been dumped into the Cantão of São Conrado since 2001. Before then, the sewage used to end in the middle of the beach, between Nacional Hotel and the old Intercontinental Hotel, now known as Royal Tulip. This situation – a brown stream with piles of trash – was not a pleasant one, but at least the sand worked as a filter: solid waste was retained, and some fluids would be absorbed.
The water began to get dirtier after the then-governor Anthony Garotinho decided to fix this problem, during the fervour of state elections. His multimillion-dollar idea consisted of removing the brown stream from the hotel’s beachfront and creating a type of canal for it, leading out to the far edge of the sea. For this, the government built a deck attached to the shoreline, inside which they created a channel that stretches across to a rock at the left corner of the beach. The stone was drilled to make the channel that ends up at the hole below Niemeyer Avenue.
Since then, a dense liquid is discharged into the sea every day. During low tide, the sewage runs through the ditch. In high tide, the waves constantly break inside the hole, slowing down its outflow. When this happens, anyone nearby gets hit with a stench.
The sewage comes from Rocinha and gets partially treated at a facility managed by town hall’s Rio-Águas Foundation. Then it is discharged into the river of Aquarela do Brasil Avenue, and is added to by illegal sewage connections along the way to the ocean. Workers from Water and Sewer State Company (Cedae) manually remove part of the solid waste daily. But lots of pollution finds its way to the waters of São Conrado, so garbage collectors from the city’s Urban Cleaning Environmental Company have to spend their early mornings picking up piles of trash throughout the sand.
This is the biggest problem São Conrado has faced for fifteen years. But it’s not the reason why the beachbreak was, once again, ruled out as an alternate spot for the Rio de Janeiro stop of the World Surf League (formerly the ASP World Tour). Attached to Niemeyer Avenue is a pipeline that pumps crude sewage from São Conrado to Ipanema Submarine Emissary. According to the local government, it is treated there before getting discharged into the high sea. However, the rusty tubing is clearly at the end of its lifetime, so Cedae is building a new pipeline. But the job, which was due to be completed at the end of 2014, had its deadline postponed to the first quarter of 2016.
After heavy rains, the old pipeline frequently bursts and turns the sewage into a huge waterfall that lasts until Cedae makes repairs. This happened on the eve of this year’s Rio Pro contest. The photographs were shocking to outsiders, but a sadly familiar scene for local surfers: brown cascades meeting a green-blue sea.
Although there is a budget of 150 million reais (24,74 million pounds, or nearly 40 million US dollars) available to depollute São Conrado and five other beaches in Rio de Janeiro, the dream of riding clean waves again remains distant for surfers and bodyboarders from Cantão, most of whom live in Rocinha. Environment State Institute (Inea) has been recording the amount of excremental matter in the sea. From 2003 to 2007, São Conrado’s water was classified as “bad” or “regular”. Since 2008, it has been considered “very bad”, including every measurement made this year. The roots of the sewage issue come from inside the favela.
“The problems in Rocinha may be due in part to a lack of consciousness from its own people,” says Marcello Farias, a thirty-nine-year-old who was born and raised in this huge favela. “But at the same time, the politicians are the ones responsible for treating our sewage. Picking it up and dropping it into the ocean without treatment is irresponsibly easy.”
Marcello began riding waves at Cantão in 1986, when the water was still clear and the waves were even longer, more powerful and better aligned, as there were no concrete sidewalks or buildings to block offshore winds. In late 2012, he co-founded the movement Salvemos São Conrado, and ever since wakes up early every day to report on social media about the water quality at his home-break. The rest of his day is taken up with running his surf shop in the favela, and he frequently moonlights as a bartender to pay the rent for his store and apartment, where he lives with his girlfriend.
Salvemos is a group of local bodyboarders engaged in demanding real solutions from public powers to turn Cantão into a pollution-free wave. They also organise beach clean-ups, and are about to release an educational film that captures the environmental problems Rocinha and São Conrado have been struggling with for two decades. During this year’s Rio Pro, they pushed forward a petition that collected 4,000 signatures, including those of pro surfers Adriano de Souza, Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo and John John Florence. Now they are planning to release it on the Internet to reach more people and increase their pressure against the government.
On a Sunday night at Largo do Boiadeiro, one of Rocinha’s commercial spots, local residents are hanging out. A long channel known as Valão stretches itself across the street. “This was supposed to be a pluvial river, but because it’s open people have been using it as a dumpster,” explains Marcello, who used to live in this area before moving to Travessa Oliveira, at the bottom of Rocinha. “Every time it rains, the sewage floods and spreads everywhere around here. Solid waste runs with the flow without a break, and ends up in the river treatment unit.”
We make our way to Marcello’s apartment and on the way he bumps into a friend. Claudio ‘Pamonha’ is a forty-seven-year-old man that has been surfing at São Conrado since he was eight. I ask what the sport means to him. “This question gives me chills,” he says, “surfing is everything in my life.” He takes us back to the mid-’90s, when the sewage system’s pipelines began to burst, making the sea dirty. “Look around and guess what is missing here. Basic sanitation – we don’t need anything else.”
The following morning, Pamonha and Marcello take us to Lajão, the most critical spot when it comes to the pollution of the so-called river. To get there, we have to pass through an area controlled by drug dealers. But along the way we meet more and more surfers and bodyboarders, keen to raise awareness of Rocinha’s lack of basic sanitation as the roots of the sewage issue at São Conrado.
A huge, vertical rock stands in the middle of Lajão. On top of it there are a few households precariously built. In between the houses a waterfall of trash spills down, containing every type of waste imaginable – from plastic bags to couches and fridges. “The government doesn’t care about us, but finding a solution for this problem depends a lot on the help of Rocinha residents,” says twenty-eight-year-old Diogo Rodrigues, who has lived in the favela his whole life. “If we had a square or a court over here, no doubt people wouldn’t throw away their trash. We can no longer accept living like this. If the government doesn’t do anything, we are the ones that have to be in charge.”
Surfer Carlos ‘Mister M’ Belo lives near Lajão, in a three-storey building with his father, paternal grandma, three uncles and five nephews. In 2012, he co-founded the Rocinha Surfers Association (ASR), where he works as a coordinator and surfing instructor. “Our goal is to turn surfers into citizens by rescuing kids from the community, taking them to the beach while encouraging them to look for a new way of life,” he explains.
Carlos knows how important this kind of support is. “The routine of a kid inside Rocinha,” he says, “is to wander around the slum. Soon an armed guy would come to talk. If you are not strong-minded, you will end up besides him, earn some cash, become his bodyguard, pack a gun. Once you get in, it’s hard to find an exit.” Growing up, Carlos saw many relatives follow that road, but never took it for himself. “I was never interested in joining this criminal world, and surfing played a big part in this decision.”
José ‘Bocão’ Ricardo introduced Carlos to surfing at age ten. The kid would go to school in the morning, pick a donated board at Rocinha Surf School – which back then was held in a junk shop near the favela – and spend the whole day at the beach. “I would only go home at night, exhausted, and then eat and sleep. So I didn’t have time for moping around.”
When Carlos turned eighteen, his older friend Marcio Pereira came up with the idea of creating the Rocinha Surfers Association. He immediately envisioned an opportunity to introduce kids from the favela to everything he has learned from the sport. Among ASR’s actions, surfing goes hand in hand with education and ecology, through beach clean-ups and environment lectures. He claims that almost every kid from Rocinha has come to the beach to ride waves at least once. “We try to educate these children because they are our future,” Carlos explains. “By doing it, when their parents toss trash out in the streets, they will say, ‘Look, my teacher told me that if you do this, the waste will get to the sea, a marine animal could eat it and die, and it is going to pollute our own home break.”
Rocinha children also have another person to look up to within their community: eighteen-year-old pro bodyboarder David Barbosa. When we meet, he is packing his bag to leave for Puerto Rico with a chance of clinching the Pro Junior world title and qualifying for 2016’s professional elite. David has been riding waves at Cantão for a decade, and feels a responsibility. “I have to keep up the momentum, especially to show young kids that it can be more than a sport,” he says. “By coming from a slum, we’re stigmatised for its violence, so few opportunities are offered to us. I noticed one, grabbed it and here I am now, trying to make a living as an athlete.”
The young bodyboarder lives with his grandparents in a house near Lajão. He thinks that the indifference of politicians is responsible for the trash tossed into the pluvial river that flows across Rocinha and reaches Cantão. Yet, he also believes that a solution could come from within his own community. He says that surfers and bodyboarders frequently get together to walk by São Conrado, distributing bags to people hanging out on the beach so they won’t leave their waste behind.
“However, it also depends on Rocinha residents,” he acknowledges. “We, surfers, can’t do everything by ourselves. Everyone must be on the same fight. We may not always succeed, but we gotta keep on trying.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 53 – The Change Issue.