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Christmas is coming…

15 Dec Our gorgeous little christmas tree

Today I have totally embraced Christmas. Despite the weather I am determined to bring some of the customs and traditions that make it so special. So today the house has been wafting in the smells of Christmas and been adorned with treasures. I’m already beginning to feel a warm glow and excitement…though the men around me aren’t helping!

I made mincemeat. I’ve never actually made it before, just helped to stir my mum’s delicious version. Lacking both suet and brandy it was a slight variation on the traditional mincemeat combining a various recipes. I just kind of threw everything together, some dried raisins, sultanas and candied peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange and lemon, grated apple, muscovado sugar and a liberal helping of whiskey. Luckily we did have some appropriate alcohol, non-boozy mincemeat just wouldn’t be right. And ahh the smell…. it’s my memory of the start of Christmas, the spices, fruits and juices mingling into a heavenly scent. I have to say it also already tastes pretty good! But we’ll wait for the taste test at the end of the week when I’ll be making mincepies for various Christmas parties. We’ll see what the Brazilians make of it. So far British food has got a thumbs up…lemon posset, shortbread and scones have all been a hit!

I’ve also been decorating the house. We didn’t want to buy anything because we probably won’t be here again next year but it’s amazing what you can do with a little bit of crepe paper, some wire, a few branches from the garden and a bit of ribbon. I borrowed a few ideas of the internet for the wire and watercolour angels but I’m so pleased with the result! Now we just need to plan something special for Christmas Day! But I’m looking forward to carols by candlelight tomorrow night.



Our cute christmas wreath

Our cute christmas wreath

Our gorgeous little christmas tree

Our gorgeous little christmas tree






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 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”