Green shoots in the favelas

11 Jul

Following the depressing results of the Rio+20 conference I needed something to buoy my spirits and feel optimism about the potential for humans to use our intelligent creativity to solve the challenges ahead. Luckily, help was at hand through two amazing local organisations, Catalytic Communities and Verdejar. For the past 12 years CatComm has been highlighting the resourcefulness, energy, activities and community resilience within the favelas, supporting the communities to communicate their achievements and needs.

During and followering Rio+20 CatComm arranged visits to several different favela communities and projects. I joined a visit to Verdejar, “Going Green”, a project in Complexo do Alemao, made up 13 favelas in the North Zone of Rio. We were slightly late to meet our host Cicero, a history teacher cum co-ordinator of Verdejar, but he showed only enthusiasm as I rattled out questions (fantastically translated by Felicity from CatComm)  as we bounced along in a tiny van. Walking up the hillside, above us was the Serra da Misericórdia and the last remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest in the North Zone, which Verdejar aims to protect and reforest through its newest project. In what was until recently a dilapidated house and a small patch of open ground the local community has created an education building and a space to test and demonstrate agroecology, green sanitation and solar energy practices. As we walk up the small path towards the house on the left was a pit where they are growing banana trees to clean sewage from the houses, filtering the water, recycling the nutrients and producing bananas to eat. On the other side is a forest garden, where they are gradually reforesting the land whilst producing abundant food such as sweetcorn, fruits and salads for the community.

The sewage treatment system is in the foreground and a little of the forest garden on the right of the picture

In their education centre, recently decorated with greetings from all over the world by young people at the Rio+20 youth conference, Cicero shows us a video from a recent workshop where they built a solar thermal water unit on the roof of the building. All that was needed was to flow the water through tiny tubes in a black plastic sheet,  a few licks of white paint on the water butt to keep the water hot and voila! The roofs of Rio are dotted with blue plastic water butts, with this simple technology free hot water courtesy of the sun could be brought to every house in Rio.

Solar thermal heating system on the roof of the education centre

And they are now not working alone. They have projects with the botanical gardens in Brasilia to study the sewage cleaning process and with the biology and geography departments at UFRJ to study the impacts of the Serra da Misericórdia on the region, including the water and creating a cooling microclimate. In contrast to the secretive approach of many chemistry groups it was refreshing to see such openess to share ideas, communicate and work together with anyone interested. I hope that a new connection with the Green Chemistry Group at UFRJ can be developed!

But it was not only the physical steps that they had taken that was impressive but the community they have built around the project. This seems to have been integral since  Luis the Poet first had a vision of creating a green protected space in Complexo do Alemao, wheeled some plants down to an open patch of ground in his wheelbarrow and protected the space with other local people. Today many people help on the vegetable plot and the harvest is shared.

There are still challenges though. The Serra da Misericórdia is now protected by law but with frustration Cicero described how mining for cement manufacturing still goes on, with the people nearby suffering from the dust produced, let along the destruction of the precious remaining ecosystem.

However, I hope the vision of Luis the Poet will live on. Cicero was surprised by the current interest and enthusiasm from outside the favela in Verdejar, a project that has grown from a small seed and been watered with love and care. But it is these seeds that we need, these green shoots sprouting everywhere to feel optimism that we do have the creativity and will to create a more sustainable world.

For more examples of sustainable projects in the favelas watch the video by CatComm on “The favela as a sustainable model”

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