To land the Olympics, Brazilian politicians made lofty promises about cleaning up their waterways. One eco-warrior is holding them to their word.
It is eight in the morning on the second-to-last day of August. Brazil is mired in an impeachment crisis that has roiled the country for nine months. In 29 hours, an unpopular president will be forced out, and the streets will erupt into protest over her replacement. It is one of the most intense days in the recent history of Brazilian politics, but eight candidates for mayor and vice-mayor of Rio de Janeiro have all taken the morning off from the campaign trail to accompany a biologist and “Star Wars” fanatic on a trip down a lagoon that smells of rotting eggs and shit.
Mario Moscatelli’s battered aluminum boat floats atop a viscous, olive-green soup. Bubbles rise to the surface and make a lugubrious noise when they pop. The candidates, their campaign staffers and a smattering of reporters watch the environmentalist from a larger, more stable barge. But the smell hits everyone at once. “Methane and hydrogen sulphide,” Moscatelli will soon explain, a byproduct of decomposing sewage.
“Our city has the word ‘river’ in its name,” he says. (Rio de Janeiro, translated literally, means River of January.) “And all of our rivers are dead.”
Tijuca Lagoon is one of four lakes in the Jacarepagua lagoon system, which borders the increasingly irrelevant Olympic Park. In 2009, when Rio submitted a bid to host the games, it promised to dredge Jacarepagua Lagoon and turn its waters into a swimming destination. None of that ever happened. The city also pledged to build five sewage-treatment plants along the rivers that feed into the lagoon system, but only completed one, The Washington Post reported in July.
In August 2015, less than a year before the opening ceremony, about one ton of fish turned up dead in the lagoon in a single day. The majority of them were tilapia, according to Moscatelli, who says they “can probably survive in hell.” The culprit, the State Environmental Department announced at the time, were strong winds that had whipped the toxic sludge at the bottom of the lagoon and overwhelmed the water with noxious gases – the same ones now giving off a pungent smell. In April, during a test event at the handball arena, athletes complained that the stench had wafted onto the court.
Of all the government’s unmet environmental pledges in the run-up to the games, most controversial was the failure to decontaminate Guanabara Bay, where the sailing competitions took place. For months, the media focused on the filth found in the water: human waste; super-bacteria; enough furniture, appliances and car parts to stock a Midwestern city; dog carcasses; a corpse. Now the world’s attention is gone, and Moscatelli is left to wonder whether the sanitation issues that plague Rio will ever be addressed at all.
Moscatelli singles out the state’s water and waste management company, CEDAE, as having what he calls a “monopoly” over the sewage dumped in the Jacarepagua lagoon system. While the company supplies water throughout the state, an April investigation by newspaper O Globo found that it only collects sewage from 38.9% of its customers. In the same month, Brazil’s federal police raided at least six of CEDAE’s treatment plants as part of a year-long probe into suspicions that the company has been illegally dumping sewage across Rio’s waterways and taxing citizens for water treatment that it never carried out.
“If we followed the letter of the law, we’d see plenty of Cedae chiefs arrested,” Moscatelli says, pointing at the candidates. “Arrested. Because environmental criminals belong in prison.”
The political candidates who showed up to Moscatelli’s lagoon expedition include a human rights activist who inspired a character in Brazil’s highest-grossing movie of all time, a right-wing lawyer running for vice mayor and the country’s former minister for racial equality. All are more accustomed to delivering speeches than listening to them. That Moscatelli managed to corral these strange bedfellows onto a barge may be a testament to his reputation (legendary) or the dire case of water pollution in Rio (a public health emergency) or, more likely, the sheer relentlessness with which he pestered them on Facebook until they RSVPed.
“It’s what I always tell people: to be a cuckold is part of the game,” Moscatelli says. “But to get cheated on and take it lying down? That’s a choice.”
Moscatelli’s combative approach toward government officials dates back to 1989, when he became one himself. He was 25 and had landed his dream job, as head of the newly inaugurated Environmental Monitoring Agency of Angra dos Reis, an Edenic beach town south of Rio. The agency was tiny: just him and two other idealistic twenty-somethings, Paulo Sevalho and Fernando Pereira, tasked with protecting the town’s nature reserves from urban encroachment.
Until that point, Pereira says construction companies had no trouble getting permits to build in areas theoretically protected by law, particularly in what Pereira remembers as the “filet mignon parts of town” – the verdant coastlines and luscious mangrove forests. So “the three lunatics,” as Sevalho describes them, went on the offensive. They slapped fines on real estate firms, embargoed half-completed construction projects and reported violators to the state’s Public Prosecutor’s Office. Whenever the government tried to mediate a compromise between the agency and the development firms, the three men refused to budge.
It was those very mangrove forests in Angra that compelled Moscatelli to become a biologist – he had fallen in love with the exquisite trees and their tentacular roots during diving excursions in high school. “I’m a Cancer,” he says. “Cancers are ruled by the moon, which in turn rules the tides, which mangroves depend on to survive. My name, Mario, combines two words – mar (sea) and rio (river) – and mangroves grow where these two things meet. All I can say is: fuck! It’s karma!”
Mangrove swamps provide a crucial function in coastal regions. They are a buffer against violent storms and waves. In turn, the knotted roots trap and filter sediments brought to the coastline by rivers, thus staving off erosion. When the mangroves die, the coastline dies, and so as the mangroves in Angra succumbed to deforestation, Moscatelli resolved to save them himself, going swamp to swamp, replanting them by hand, one tree at a time.
He drew inspiration from an unlikely environmental hero: a fighter pilot who found intergalactic fame when he singlehandedly destroyed a massive space station. Yes, Luke Skywalker. Moscatelli is, by his own admission, “an absolute maniac for ‘Star Wars.’”
“My mother was a Sith, my father a Jedi. I’m sure of it,” he says. Both of Moscatelli’s late parents came from Italy, and he spent much of his childhood in Rome. His diplomatic father, from the north, stood in contrast to his fiery Neapolitan mother. Moscatelli considers himself “more of a Sith than a Jedi, because I’m almost all emotion. Had I let myself be guided by reason, I don’t think I would have gotten anything done.”
That emotion guided his crusade against real estate interests in Angra. It also made him vulnerable to attacks.
“Our entire monitoring approach was orchestrated by Mario,” says Sevalho. “He started to bug people. No one’s stupid, or blind. Everyone knew where [the pressure] was coming from. And things got really bad.”
In October of 1989, Moscatelli was spending the weekend at his parents’ home in Rio when he got a phone call. “If you come back to Angra,” the voice on the other end said, “we will kill you.”
It was the first of four death threats. He had reason to worry: less than a year earlier, Brazil’s most high-profile environmentalist, Chico Mendes, had been shot dead by a rancher. He’d been the ninetieth Brazilian conservationist killed in 1988. (Not much has changed since – Brazil today is the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists, according to a June report by Global Witness.) The threats became so conspicuous that a German NGO whisked him out of the country in mid-1990. He returned 45 days later and, no longer able to travel to Angra without a security detail provided by the state, left his government post in 1991.
The first death threat in 1989 had chilled him to the bone. That very afternoon, Moscatelli says, he hopped on his motorcycle and rode around Rio to clear his head, until he reached the city’s most famous and picturesque lagoon, the Rodrigo de Freitas, which abuts the craggy peak topped by Christ the Redeemer. There, Moscatelli spotted a mullet leaping out of the water. Although the edges of the lagoon were barren, mullets are characteristic of a mangrove ecosystem. Moscatelli had heard rumors that lush foliage once surrounded the water, and in the state archives, he found confirmation. Mangroves had grown there once, and they could grow again.
A man marked for death has no time for hobbies, but Moscatelli was determined to use the still-vital mangroves of Angra to revive the ones that Rio had lost. For the next two years (while he still led the Environmental Monitoring Agency in Angra) Moscatelli spent nights on the beach digging up mangrove seedlings. On weekends, he stuffed them in his dad’s old car, which he rechristened “the mangrove mobile,” and transported them to Rio.
“The government turned to me and said, ‘What makes you think you can plant here without prior approval?’ And I’m like, ‘Say what? In Angra you pretty much hand out deforestation permits.’ I didn’t see the need to get their permission.”
His legacy would not be in Angra, but on the Rio swamps, where the mangrove roots began to take hold. The years passed, the seedlings grew and the government made an about-face. In 2000, the State Environment Secretary recognized Moscatelli’s efforts and nominated him to be the lagoon’s natural resources manager. He lasted three months on the job.
During his brief tenure, nary a week would go by without Moscatelli informing the press about clandestine sites through which CEDAE, the water utility company, was allegedly pumping raw human sewage into the lagoon. He authored and delivered an exhaustive report to Rio’s Environmental Protection Agency identifying eleven of them. He then threatened to quit his job if CEDAE didn’t provide a timeline for bringing its alleged sewage-dumping scheme to an end. Two days later, he did just that, saying that he refused to collude with CEDAE by being part of the same government.
“If CEDAE isn’t the entity dumping sewage into the lagoon,” he told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo upon tending his resignation, “then it’s raining poop in Rio.”
(Reached by Narratively, CEDAE’s communications department wrote that the company has always acted with respect to the law, to public institutions and to the people of Rio. It added that CEDAE does not have jurisdiction to punish those who illegally hook up their sewage lines to stormwater drains, does not charge customers in an improper manner and has made itself available to investigators.)
Two weeks after resigning, Moscatelli and a few fellow environmentalists led ten thousand protesters in a “group hug” around the lagoon. The act worked: it prompted CEDAE to reform sections of the sewage system. “I’m feeling like Joaosinho Trinta,” an ecstatic Moscatelli told O Globo at the event, referencing one of Brazil’s most influential carnival parade directors. “Today’s hug put the power of the people front and center.”
Although it still suffers from pollution, the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon has become Moscatelli’s personal sanctuary. It was on its borders that he ran into a high school crush who became his wife, and where he came to celebrate the birth of his two daughters. His original “daughters,” the mangroves, are now more than twenty years old. He has since replanted other mangroves in Rio. These include the trees that line the Jacarepagua lagoon system, and which today serve as the background as he leads the mayoral candidates down murky waters.
It’s hard to tell whether today’s expedition will yield any results. Current Mayor Eduardo Paes came on a similar tour while campaigning, but Moscatelli says he never showed up again after getting elected. Carlos Osorio, one of today’s mayoral candidates, will later announce that sanitation, and the decontamination of Jacarepagua lagoon specifically, will be one of the main issues tackled by his administration. But he’s far behind in the polls, and the frontrunner, Senator Marcelo Crivella, is not on the boat. (He is in the capital taking part in the impeachment trial.)
To make matters worse: Rio is broke. The state issued a “public calamity” decree in June, citing fears of a complete breakdown of the government’s security, health, education, transportation, and environmental sectors. Two days before Moscatelli’s expedition, local newspaper Extra reported that Rio is getting ready to declare bankruptcy no later than December. Among the issues discussed amid the financial crisis, Folha reported, is the privatization of CEDAE.
“Some tell me it has to be privatized,” says Moscatelli. “Others that it has to be nationalized. No! It has to work!”
The group is halfway through its expedition when one of the candidates proposes an idea: why don’t they join Mario in his boat for the trip back, and record a video together? They can say something like, “We don’t agree on many things, but when it comes to the environmental emergency in Jacarepagua, we are all in the same boat.”
The others hesitate. They look around, they whimper. Two vice-mayoral candidates demure: Roberto Anderson, an urbanist affiliated with the Green Party (“If Mario says that the boat can’t handle too much weight, who am I to impose?”) and Rodrigo Amorim, the right-wing lawyer (“I just want to win the election.”) The rest, surrounded as they are by reporters and photographers, sheepishly file into Moscatelli’s canoe-sized vessel.
“What a historic scene it would be,” the barge captain says, “if that little boat tipped over.”
The boat doesn’t tip, but its motor breaks down in a matter of minutes. The candidates float out toward the middle of the lagoon. It’s a satisfying scene: helpless politicians, stranded inside an aluminum shell, under the blazing sun, surrounded by poisonous waters. Índio da Costa, the mayoral candidate who coaxed the others into the boat, steps forward to investigate. He pulls the engine back, and the culprit is revealed: a burlap coffee bag caught on the propeller.
Earlier in the excursion, Moscatelli had warned that this could happen. “This whole area is silted up,” he told reporters, while out of the candidates’ earshot. “I have to keep looking back to check where I can steer. It’s embarrassing. Embarrassing! For fuck’s sake. I’ve brought the whole world here. And the authorities can’t bring themselves to feel any shame.”