Meet The Star Wars Fanatic Fighting To Save Brazil From Environmental Destruction

To land the Olympics, Brazilian politicians made lofty promises. One eco-warrior is holding them accountable

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.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively

Narratively is a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, such as that of a fearless eco-vigilante in Cambodia and driving faster than God on Utah's disappearing salt flats.

Cover image by  Cleuci de Oliveira.

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