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In Brazil’s Olympic bay, tides of death and ecological devastation

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to Rio de Janeiro, where, late today, the regional government declared a state of public calamity over a major budget crisis.

    In just seven weeks, the Summer Olympics will open. Among the many concerns for athletes competing in the Games has been the waters of the heavily polluted bay where the sailing competition will take place. But thousands of Brazilians' lives and livelihoods depend on this troubled body of water.

    "NewsHour" producer Jon Gerberg and NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro bring us this story of their life-and-death fight to save the bay.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Alexandre Anderson is a hunted man, targeted for his work on these treacherous waters.

    Every day, as he heads out onto Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay, he's on a mission to defend the bay he calls home. He tells us its stark beauty hides a dark reality.

    ALEXANDRE ANDERSON, Fisherman (through interpreter): We hope the Olympics will show the world another bay. There is the bay for the rich, for visitors to see, and there is the bay of the fishermen, who are suffering. That is the bay of excrement, garbage, and oil. It is the Guanabara Bay of violence.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Alexandre took us on a tour of that bay. He knows it well. He grew up fishing here. But as the bay got more and more polluted, he became an activist, who leads a fishermen's organization.

    The ecological devastation here is hard to miss. He shows us a mangrove swamp used as an illegal dumping ground for trash. Raw sewage is also pumped into the bay from communities that have no access to sanitation.

    But for Alexandre Anderson, the biggest polluters are not only the residents who lack basic infrastructure, but also the petroleum industry. This is one of the biggest refineries in the area. And it's right on the banks of the Guanabara Bay.

    And you can see here in the water it's slick with oil. Rio de Janeiro, a world-famous beach town, is also Brazil's oil and gas heartland. Energy accounted for 13 percent of Brazil's GDP in 2014. And almost three-quarters of the world's recent deep-water oil discoveries have been made in Brazil. The Guanabara Bay is the industry's hub.

    Alexandre takes us to an oil industry shipyard and points out broken eco-barriers meant to stop paint and chemicals from leaking into the water.

    ALEXANDRE ANDERSON (through interpreter): All this material contains heavy metals. Some are very toxic. This is an environmental crime. This is a company that is using a natural resource and polluting it. The small quantity of fish that we have left here are being contaminated or being killed.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Alexandre points out guards protecting the site. He's had run-ins with them before. We speed away. Alexandre spends his days documenting these infractions and reporting them. He says the authorities do little to stop what's happening.

    ALEXANDRE ANDERSON (through interpreter): We fishermen understand that the Guanabara Bay still has life. The Guanabara Bay is a nursery for many species, if only they would stop polluting and the government would start acting.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    In a statement issued to "PBS NewsHour," the state environmental secretary said the problem is that many groups have oversight of the bay, but they don't have a common plan or vision for its recovery and preservation.

    In the absence of government, Alexandre says the fishermen have become the guardians of the bay instead. Many like him have become vocal advocates, staging demonstrations and taking other actions to call attention to the state of the bay. Brazil's national oil company, Petrobras, is responsible for at least two major oil spills in the bay that severely damaged the ecosystem.

    For Alexandre, speaking out against one of the most powerful economic forces in the country almost cost him his life.

    ALEXANDRE ANDERSON (through interpreter): They shot at me in front of the fisherman's association. Shrapnel hit my waist, but I knew I had to keep fighting. Other fishermen have been killed.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Brazil is the among the most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmental defender. One of Alexandre's colleagues was brutally murdered, his body tied to his fishing boat and sunk after being riddled with bullets.

    Alexandre is in a federal protection program and lives in a secret location. Up until recently, he had a permanent security detail. He blames the shadowy forces protecting the oil industry for the violence.

    The state oil company, Petrobras, also at the center of a massive corruption scandal here, released this statement to "PBS NewsHour": "Petrobras is unaware of these incidents and rejects any act of violence against the fishermen," it read. "The company maintains a dialogue with the fishing and other communities that surround the Guanabara Bay. Petrobras is also a company that, along with other activities, invests in social and environmental projects in the Guanabara Bay. All of our projects rigorously follow the various government environmental controls and are licensed."

    Prosecutors have been investigating several murders and disappearances of fishermen on the bay. A prosecutor who has dealt with Alexandre's case told "PBS NewsHour" he had no proof directly implicating the oil industry in the deaths.

    LAURO COELHO, JR., Federal Prosecutor (through interpreter): It is involved in an environmental and economic conflict in which there is a clash between development and the environment, and in the midst of this conflict, deaths occurred.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    The polluted waters, from the oil industry, from the raw sewage and trash dumped into the bay, have also hurt the fishermen and their families in other ways.

    Alexandre takes us to visit the oldest fishing community in the region in a town called Surui. Romildo Soares de Oliveira is the president of the fishermen association here. He tells us young people are leaving, the community is dying, because the bay can no longer support their livelihood.

    Brazil promised to clean up Guanabara Bay for the Olympics. That could have meant a new start for the artisanal fishermen who have been plying their trade on the bay and its tributaries for hundreds of years.

    ROMILDO SOARES DE OLIVEIRA, President, Fishermen Association of Surui (through interpreter): We had hope for the Olympics. We end up believing in these false promises to clean up the bay, to bring a better bay for the fishermen. We were excited, but the end of this soap opera is always the same. Nothing happens.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    The water, which they rely on for their survival, has been proven to carry dangerous viruses and bacteria with devastating consequences.

    Romildo introduced me to a group of residents. They have seen family members become severely sick and hospitalized for weeks. Yuri Chagas, a 14-year-old from Surui, went swimming in the river after he cut his foot. It then began to swell, and he was hospitalized.

    YURI CHAGAS, Surui Resident (through interpreter): I was a month there, urinating with pus. They almost had to amputate the leg, but later they decided it wouldn't be necessary. I have had to do physical therapy, because I was walking with crooked leg.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Some have even died. Antonio Batista Reis lost his 11-year-old son 15 years ago.

    ANTONIO BATISTA REIS, Surui Resident (through interpreter): At high tide, the kids used to bathe in the river. I do not know what happened. One day, he went to bathe and came back with itchy eyes. We took him to the clinic and his eyes began to swell. He then went to the hospital and died.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Reis, like the others, is sure that the polluted water was the cause.

    We took that assertion to Alberto Chebabo, head of infectious diseases at Rio's Federal University Hospital. He said there is no way to prove a direct link, but he said ingesting or even touching the bay's water can result in a number of diseases. And he said that children are at higher risk.

    ALBERTO CHEBABO, Rio's Infectious Diseases Society (through interpreter): If you look at the statistics of hospitalization around the bay, there is a clear picture of the risks to people being exposed to this water. When you consider this population, especially children, living in these degraded areas, it is very easy to see the link between the bay's environmental contamination and these diseases.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Back in Surui, Antonio Reis, a fisherman himself, says he says he has no choice but to continue to work in the waters that he believes killed his son.

    ANTONIO BATISTA REIS (through interpreter): The most majority of the people here, about 80 percent, live from the fishing. We have to fish. We have to find a way. There's no other solution. We have to risk.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    He says the people have a right to clean water. But Romildo, the president of the fishing association, believes nothing will change.

    ROMILDO SOARES DE OLIVEIRA (through interpreter): A lot of people talk about athletes, about Olympics, but lives are being cut short here. People do not talk about it, but lives are being taken.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    As we head home, Alexandre Anderson tells us he believes this place can be restored. He says he has fought for the bay long before the Olympics, and he will continue long after the Games have come and gone.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR in Rio de Janeiro.

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