Yet when Olympic sailors tested themselves in preliminary regattas, they ran an obstacle course of floating plastic bags, submerged sofas and mattresses, and trash of all kinds, even the carcasses of dead horses, dogs, and sometimes people too. 2012 Bronze Medalist Allan Norregaard from Denmark complained: “I have sailed around the world for 20 years, and this is the most polluted place I’ve ever been.”
Fifty rivers drain into the Guanabara, and fifteen cities holding 8 million residents surround the bay with 70% of their untreated sewage being poured directly into the waters prior to Olympics. Since then only one of the eight promised sewage treatment plants has been built. The bay is a slum dump, open sewer, and massive petri dish for Hepatitis A, cholera, dysentery, cancer-causing agents, and superbugs.
But that’s only part of the environmental Armageddon. The oil refinery, Petrobras, has had three major oils spills and regular oil and heavy metals runoff, building up toxicity in the fish. Sailors for the Sea reported drainage and waste from “14,000 industries, 14 oil terminals, 2 commercial ports, 32 dock yards, more than 1,000 oil stations and 2 refineries that surround the bay. A little more than a third of the 13,000 tons of solid waste produced every day in the Rio de Janeiro area is ejected directly into Guanabara Bay.” As the fisheries have collapsed so have local economies.
It’s not a pretty picture for Jesus to be looking over . . . or overlooking. In July 2013, Pope Francis held Mass at Copacabana Beach. He admonished “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need.”
Alexandre Anderson and other poor fisherman have banded together to try to bring back the bay. He’s been shot at, and another colleague has been brutally murdered, his boat sunk. Still, Anderson refuses to give up. “We fishermen understand that the Guanabara Bay still has life. The Guanabara Bay is a nursery for many species, if only they would stop polluting and the government would start acting.”
The distress of Rio’s poor is the distress of the poor around the world, living in societies’ detritus. In Christ atop the Bay, we see not only a statue of faith but a symbol of our human longings for something better. They stand juxtaposed against our inabilities to handle our own waste or create livable societies for all. Rio is us, and we are Rio.
Brazilian ecologist Mario Moscatelli considers Rio’s challenges like those of Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars fight between good and evil. Moscatelli was asked to help prepare Rio and the Guanabarra Bay up for the Olympics. Working with the United Nations and world funders, Rio began rigging garbage barriers along the coasts, stringing trash-blocking buoys across river outlets, and sending “ecoboats” out to collect garbage. But Moscatelli found the funding slow and grudging, inadequate for the enormous task. “If it's hard to get authorities to care about the Guanabara Bay now with the Olympics looming,” he said, “imagine what it will be like once they're over.”
In June 2016, Moscatelli met with Brazillian Archbishop Joao Orani Tempesta to present him with a proposal for Pope Francis called the Olho Verde project (Green Eye)--an environmental watchers initiative. “I think it is an obligation for every human being, even if he has no real profession, to leave behind a better world than the one in which he was born."
This the real race we are running at Rio and around the globe--can we change our ways quickly enough to restore enough of our oceans, rivers, air, and land to keep the world a hospitable place for life before it’s too late? Not just for the richest among us, but for the poor first--as they are suffering now? Perhaps as we realign our values and restore the waters and our common home, we can find deeper levels of meaning and victory, restoring ourselves socially, economically … and spiritually.
Director of Interfaith Oceans, Marybeth Lorbiecki is author of A Fierce Green Fire: Aldo Leopold’s Life and Legacy (Oxford, 2106) and Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2014).