Tag Archives: community

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.

A little bit of Rio (+20) here I come

18 Jun Any costume goes

Everywhere in Rio seems to be getting in on the action of Rio+20. Here’s just a taster….

You feel that a bit of exercise to some crazy disco beats is going to get you in the mood to take action for sustainability come to the massive, weirdly empty arena at Copacabana beach…

Exercise for Rio+20!

Exercise for Rio+20!

Want to be a tourist and ride the train to the top of Corcovado mountain for a spectacular view, no problem, your helping create a better world….

Ride the tram for Rio+20

Ride the tram for Rio+20

Even Christ the Redeemer has turned green in the name of sustainability…

Christ the Redeemer turns green

And then there are the fantastic costumes and dancing to be found across the People’s Summit. My particular favourite and the women in something like shaggy cow costumes with enormous paper breasts. I think they were a group campaigning for women’s rights in Brazil.

Any costume goes

Any costume goes

I apologise if some of the above sounds too skeptical. However, the cariocas (people from Rio) definitely seem to be embracing Rio+20. There’s an exhibition at the fort on Copacobana beach about humanity including video and art installations, interactive activities, exhibitions on biodiversity, workshops and examples of sustainability in action. The focus like much of Rio+20 seems to be on how to combine economic growth with beneficial social impacts and respect for the environment. This event has been hugely popular completely exceeding the organisers expectations – 45,000 people visited it on Saturday and when we tried to go yesterday there was a two hour queue stretching about 500 metres down the road. We’re hoping to see inside later on in the week. As a worker at a public organisation I will get a special Rio holiday from Wednesday – Friday! The main aim is to reduce traffic on the road when all the Ministers arrive for the main UN Conference…we’ll see how well it works, but I’m happy that I’m free to spend time at the various events.

The queue for Humanity 2012

the queue continues