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Heat, droughts and an Indian Feast

20 Jan

I’ve been neglectful over the past few weeks. I should have had lots of time over to post during the quiet Christmas . I thought that I would be incredibly sad, missing family and friends but it felt like such a different world and such a different experience that it was hard to correlate the hot weather and sunshine with Christmas Day. And Christmas Day was hot…the thermometer hit 43.2 C across Rio, the highest ever recorded temperature. We decided it was the perfect day to cook an Indian curry! We surrounded the table with four fans as an attempt to try and keep cool, it didn’t stop the sweat dripping.

An Indian Feast on Christmas Day in Brazil

An Indian Feast on Christmas Day in Brazil

Its amazing the lethargy that the heat brings on, the imperative to slow down, lie down, rest, sleep early and the difficulty to generate enthusiasm and excitement to think, communicate, do new things. But this heat is not just a personal challenge. The North East of the country has been suffering the worst drought in 30 years, the amount of milk produced in many states has dropped by 40 – 50% with many animals dying. Friends visiting the Chapada Diamantina near Salvador recently walked along dry riverbeds, in the rainy season! Around 90% of the electrical energy used in Brazil is hydroelectricity. The drought has resulted in low levels of the reservoirs, down to 28-30% of normal levels across the country, a decrease in energy production and a tripling of the use of thermal power plants. Attempts to ensure the continuity of electricity supply by opening the floodgates at hydroelectric plants is depleting the reservoirs even faster. At the same time the high temperatures cause an increase in energy consumption as the use of air conditioning rises. Electricity prices will continue to rise, where inflation was already at 7.8% last year, as well as CO2 emissions.

This has coincided with droughts across the world, particularly in North America, resulting in much higher soybean and corn prices. The result of this, lots of farmers in Brazil switching to growing soybean and corn instead of other crops such as cotton, rises in land prices and huge pressure to convert more land to agriculture.

Its a worrying and vicious cycle if the effects of a changing climate, decreasing agricultural yields and rising food prices just results in the conversion of more land for agriculture, increased habitat destruction, emissions from land-use change and the loss of carbon sinks.

Thankfully the rain has now returned to Rio…abnormally so, with temperatures closer to that of the winter. But I’m not complaining. The fans are silent and our energy has returned!

Plastic bags…with the strength of a sickly kitten

15 Nov

Okay…after all the enthusiasm of the last few posts I need to get to something that really irritates me here. The plastic bags! Now the average shopper in the UK is still certainly smitten with the plastic bag and there is no sign yet that any change will take place in the government’s voluntary approach to reducing their use. However, the Brazilians (or at least Cariocas) take it another extreme.

The main issue is the extreme flimsiness of the plastic bags. Each bag is probably the size of a large loaf of bread and has the strength of a sickly kitten. Anything heavier than a packet of crisps needs needs its own bag. Half a dozen eggs, one plastic bag. Packet of beans, one plastic bag. Bag of tomatoes, just placed in one plastic bag, placed in another plastic bag…..arrrghh! If this wasn’t enough  frequently they DOUBLE bag items, especially bottles of drinks, because they aren’t strong enough to hold one litre of liquid…who designed these bags and why do the shops keep using them?

Packing shopping is also one area where staff show an abundance of zealousness and enthusiasm for their jobs. I have to quickly whip out my rucksack and thrust in front of the staff to prevent any shopping from being wrapped in plastic. ‘I don’t need a bag’ was one of the first phrases I learnt here. I feel so rude every time I say it and people can instantly tell I’m a gringa!

I discovered recently that at my local supermarket I do actually get a few centavas back for not using their plastic bags. This isn’t advertised or communicated and there’s no suggestion that they want to wean people off their plastic bag fettish from the abundance of them at the check-out. However, somebody in the upper echelons has obviously brushed shoulders with corporate social responsibility at some point.

Reducing plastic bag use is a small dot on the path to a more sustainable world. But every time I see the waste and lack of awareness its like a tiny pin puncturing a little more of my hope and adding to the giant sized challenge that lies ahead.

Green fingers and a house of worms in the tropics

12 Nov

I’m so excited about growing plants again…we now have a little herb garden! I’ve been completely confused by the seasons, here in winter it is as hot as the UK’s summer and all of the knowledge I had about when and how to plant seemed redundant in this climate. The back of a seed packet came to the rescue showing that I could sow the seeds at any time of the year. Any time! The sowing, growing and harvesting of crops feels so entwined with the passage of the year that it feels alien to be able to plant seeds that will peek up their heads now, in November. How is it possible to know where you are without the regular rhythm of rebirth, growth, abundance and barrenness? Here in Brazil there is a cycle of everlasting abundance punctuated by bright flashes of colour as different plants flower and fade.

I have also been able to use the fresh compost created by our very own casa da minha (house of worms) who have been feasting for the past couple of months on our piles of organic waste. I’m so glad we haven’t been throwing it away, it always feels like a terrible crime to waste such nutrients to decay in a landfill belching methane-rich gases.

So I hope my little seeds and plants will grow fast and strong, fed by the warmth, sunshine and delicious nutrients. Thank you worms and beautiful earth. I’ll enjoy the abundance of Brazil whilst I can.

Little herb garden

Little herb garden

My seedlings

My seedlings

Casa da minha - house of the worms!

Casa da minha – house of the worms!

Delicious compost

Delicious compost

Brasil belissima…Paraty and Ilha Grande

11 Nov

I feel as though I am gloating slightly writing these posts, reveling in all the natural beauties of Brazil that I’ve been so lucky to see. But what I want to share are how my eyes have been opened. I can’t remember well what were my preconceptions of Brazil before I arrived. I think I thought of beaches, of samba, Carnival and was frightened by the stories of crimes and violence and wondered whether I would be able to walk around the streets feeling safe at all. And of course any country is so much richer than these surface images, with so many layers and contradictions. Brazil is certainly a rich tapestry, of peoples, history, food, music, culture and landscapes and the more I explore the richer it becomes.

Paraty

Paraty is an old colonial town, four hours bus ride from Rio de Janeiro but still within Rio de Janeiro State. Its nestled on the seas edge in a curving bay dotted with islands along the emerald green coast. Mountains rise beyond it, leading to Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais and the old gold trails that brought gold from the mines in the interior and made this town sumptuously rich. Boats would depart laden with the treasure to Europe, until the bay became too small for the ships and the town was mostly abandoned. This though has done wonders for its tourist industry, almost entirely preserving the old town complete with giant ankle-wrecking street stones and beautiful white-washed houses. It is picture-postcard perfect, a little too perfect, but lovely for a quiet stroll.

Hiring an brightly painted old fishing boat, decked out for tourists these days, gives you the best view of the town from the water and enabled us to explore the remote beaches, swim in crystal clear water with hundreds of dancing fish and turtles. The waterfalls in the mountains nearby are also famous along with their cachaça distilleries and daredevil antics, including one with an enormous rock you can slide down into the water. On your bum if you’re a visitor, surfing style if you’re a local (young man).

But my best memories are of the most delicious food that we ate at a tiny beachside restaurant called Quiosque Encantado (Enchanted Bar). It had just been started by a local couple and every night we went there they had a different incredible meal using local fresh ingredients. We sampled a local moceque (fish stew) cooked gently on the barbeque with banana, manioc and prawns in a clear rich broth imbibing it with a delicious smoky flavour. We ate fresh squid delicately grilled and seafood pasta with enormous quantities of perfectly cooked prawns, mussels and cockles collected from the beach in a divine tomato sauce. The food was out of this world, I can almost taste it whilst I’m writing this. With the sand under our feet and a full moon rising over the sea, it was idyllic.

If you are looking for it the bar is on Praia Jabaquara and is the kiosk furthest from Paraty, just after Restaurante La Luna. Enjoy!

Paraty from the sea

Paraty from the sea

Paraty's historic streets

Historic streets

Beach hopping

Beach hopping

Heading out of the sunshine

Heading out of the sunshine

Waterfalls in the verdant mountains

Waterfalls in the verdant mountains

David describing the best moqueca in the world!

David describing the best moqueca in the world!

Grilled fish and squid

Grilled fish and squid

and the perfect view..

and the perfect view..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ilha Grande

As if these earthly delights weren’t enough we travelled on to Ilha Grande (big island). It lies just off the coast, about 2 hours from Rio de Janeiro. The history of the island, most recently as a prison for the ‘most dangerous criminals’ in Brazil has resulted in its steeply ridged interior remaining covered in verdant Atlantic rainforest.  Stunning isolated beaches are dotted around the island, with azure waters, reachable only by boat or by trekking through the forest. Its a decadent lifestyle with sunbathing and relaxation punctuated only by dips in the sea, caiparinhas, walks in the forest and eating.

Heading towards Ilha Grande

Heading towards Ilha Grande

Relaxing with fantastic views - Praia Abraaozinho

Relaxing with fantastic views – Praia Abraaozinho

The only way to get around...

The only way to get around…

Sand so fine it crunches under the foot like snow and falls gently into the clear sea

Sand so fine it crunches under the foot like snow and falls gently into the clear sea

Walking through the forest around Ilha Grande

Walking through the forest around Ilha Grande

Brasil lindissima…Foz do Iguassu and the Pantanal

4 Nov

Wow, its been a long time since I’ve written on here. Life has taken over. There have been so many things that I’ve wanted to write about, so many different things and events going on but somehow I haven’t found time. This has partly been down to me falling more in love with the beauty of Brazil, its people and the culture.

My parents came out to visit us for a month in the middle of September and I was really lucky to be able to have a couple of weeks off to visit some places outside of Rio. Before that I had been to Sao Paulo briefly for a day. So below are a few of the fabulous places in beautiful Brazil!

Foz do Igussu

This waterfall is breathtaking. It straddles the border of Brazil and Argentina and on both sides there are amazing views. On the Brazilian side you get an overview of the vastness of the myriad mini-falls tumbling down the side, which with the stretches of rainforest stretching beyond and soaring birds harks back to the wilderness that was here just a few centuries ago. I stood watching the falls mesmerized at the power and beauty of the site. On the Argentinian side you can get up close and personal, staring down into the Devil’s Throat and the swallows diving in and out of the mist with rainbows (and double rainbows!) stretching across the sky.

Foz Do iguassu - the view from the Brazilian side

Foz Do iguassu – the view from the Brazilian side

Looking down the Devil's Throat

Looking down the Devil’s Throat

Foz do Iguassu facing the Devils Throat

Rainbows over Foz do Iguassu

Rainbows over Foz do Iguassu

The Pantanal

The pantanal literally means ‘swamp’ in english. Its an enormous area in the west of Brazil which spreads into Bolivia and Paraguay. In the rainy season (the summer) 75% of the area is flooded whilst in the dry season the waters dry up and the rivers recede. This means that very few people live there, mainly fazendas (farms) with cattle, which means that the area supports huge numbers of wildlife.  In the dry season they congregate around the remaining water making a wildlife viewing haven.

I had no expectations going out there,but it was incredible. I loved every part of it, the quiet solitude, the vast flat stretches of scrub and trees, early morning walks quietly moving through the bush hearing the sounds of myriad different birds and spotting armadillos and monkeys. Going out on a boat along the river seeing giant otter (2-3m long), caiman, hawks, herons, capybaras (giant guinea pig-like animals) swimming in the water with their babies. Sitting still at 5am as the dawn light rose watching tapirs sniffing along the ground for fruit. Watching an enormous orange full moon rise over the trees. Listening to beautiful pantaneira music at night.  It has fantastic jaunty with rhythms often with sad aching words. If you’re interested in listening to them check out ‘A loira do carro branco’ (The blond girl in the white car), ‘Cabocla Tereza’ and various other songs (with English subtitles).

The pictures below can’t do justice to the beauty of this place.

Evil looking caiman

Evil looking caiman

Shimmering bird

Shimmering bird

Birds in the trees

Birds in the trees

Black hawk looking for prey

Black hawk looking for prey

The little touc toucan

The little touc toucan

Rhea chilling out

Rhea chilling out

Sunset over the pantanal

Sunset over the pantanal

Howler monkeys trying to hide

Howler monkeys trying to hide

Cute little monkey

Cute little monkey

Exploring the river

Exploring the river

Tuyuyu cooling off

Tuyuyu cooling off

Giant otter

Giant otter

Wolfing down its fish

Wolfing down its fish

Trekking through the bush

Trekking through the bush

Tapirs sniffing for breakfast

Tapirs sniffing for breakfast

Capybara family heading downstream

Capybara family heading downstream

Sunset over the river

Sunset over the river

Cowboy songs

Cowboy songs

There are more places to show but I’m going to save them for the next post….

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”

What a disappointment..but there’s hope

23 Jun

Well what a disappointment Rio+20 was, or at least the official UN conference. Once again, like previous environmental conferences politicians keep kicking the real decisions to be made into the long-grass. In the final text there are vague assertions about the direction to be taken, but if any organisation had spent a year and huge amounts of resources developing a plan such as this they’d think it had all been a waste of time if there were no specific targets, no deadlines and no resources committed. I’m particularly concerned about how sustainability appears to be defined in the document (see also George Monbiot’s discussion). The three traditional pillars are highlighted – economic, environmental and social – but the economic aspect has mutated into the requirement of sustained economic growth. Some areas of the world definitely do need economic growth to lift their populations out of poverty but sustained economic growth for the whole world is not a recipe for solving the major environmental challenges we face but to accentuate them. One paragraph is truly troubling:

“We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.”

If anyone can explain to me how sustainable patterns of consumption and production are compatible with sustained global growth please let me know. Unless they mean they aim to promote the continued expansion of the globe itself?

And what were the leaders doing for 3 days in Rio? With the text agreed before they arrived and the Brazilians trying to prevent chaos by refusing to reopen the text they made set speeches (how dull and fruitless, couldn’t they have just emailed them to each other), had pretty pictures taken and visited the sights (I definitely spotted the Venezulans heading up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer).

Venezuala's ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

Venezuala’s ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

But elsewhere in the city there was a little bit more hope. At the people’s summit there were some excellent workshops, talks, theatre, music and so much passion and warmth and lots of connections being made between groups from across the world. I went to a fantastic talk about ecovillages and the challenges and benefits of living in communities from Macaco Tamerice from Damanhur in Italy. I was particularly interested in the new currency that they are planning on setting up between ecovillages in Europe with the potential to open it up to other people with similar interests as a means to create a more localised economy separate from the current system.

The Rural Women’s Assembly was full of inspiring, strong women standing up for their communities and livelihoods. Particularly striking was a young woman from South Africa who talked about how they had challenged a pharmaceutical company that had patented their traditional medicinal knowledge as a weight loss solution, claiming that the community had died out. A woman form Lesotho described how they had formed co-operatives in order to have a stronger voice and that the government is now meeting and listening to them and how they were sharing and multiplying their seeds to have more resilience. A women from Paraguay also told how the different indigenous groups were meeting to share their experiences to make their opposition stronger.

The Rural Women's Assembly

The Rural Women’s Assembly

Another discussion focused on the campaign for climate jobs (jobs that help reduce CO2 emissions)  in the current economic climate around the world with so many people are unemployed. Issues were raised about the challenge of linking the environmentalists and people focused on poverty or jobs whilst a guy from Zimbabwe raised concerns about becoming dependent on technology from developed countries without the technical skills to maintain it. He told how Zimbabwe had had solar energy since the 1990s, but that the loss of scientists and engineers meant that when anything broke it could not be fixed.

The final workshop I went to was about biomimicry – taking inspiration from nature. There were some fascinating examples, including adding bobbles on the edges of wind turbines based on hump-backed whales which improves they efficiency by 30%, basing the shape of cars on the boxfish which actually makes them more aerodynamic and uses less material, harvesting dew in the desert based on a beatle’s shell with the aim to create a forest in the Sahara. On a larger scale people are also working to create production systems that work like an ecosystem. Its all really interesting work but we also need to make sure that these systems are definitely beneficial and more sustainable products and systems.

So the people’s summit was great. I met some people who are working on environmental projects here in Rio so I hope I can get more involved in those. However, I was disappointed with a few things, the lack of information about what was going on and where, the lack of real examples at the summit about how we can live more sustainably (there was virtually no renewable energy generated onsite despite the sunshine!) and the masses of consumerism. Not corporate consumerism but half the people present seemed to be selling something, in particular from the indigenous groups. Their way of life has been trampled, they often have little space to grow food and survive, this was a great opportunity to sell a few things, but I felt sad to see so many feathered ornaments, belts and necklaces set out for sale and people spending time selling things instead of building campaigns and connections.

So Rio+20 is over. Once again there were many disappointments, it has not been a transformative moment, and it seems that we do not have the leaders with the vision and courage to truly face up to the challenge. So instead it is up to us as individuals and communities to build the future we want.