A Closer Look at Rio’s Discarded

By Annie Costner

Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay is home to 55 rivers and streams. Sadly, 52 of these are dead, choked by trash — mostly plastic — and other pollution.

There is no organized system for solid waste removal from Rio’s favelas, the informal settlements, or slums, whose inhabitants account for roughly one-quarter of the total population. Garbage collection is not even consistent in some of Rio’s most expensive neighborhoods. When it comes to sanitation services, the numbers are even more grim: It is estimated that a mere 25 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s 10 million inhabitants are connected to treated sewage systems. So human waste from about 7.5 million people flows untreated directly into Guanabara Bay. 

In recent months, the pollution issue has been covered in the media, mostly from the perspective of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and athletes that will compete on the bay, such as sailors and windsurfers. “Welcome to the dump that is Rio,” carped the German sailing team to the press months ago. The venues are simply unacceptable by their standards. Not only is plastic pollution consistently visible and unsightly on the water, it is interfering with navigation, and affecting timed races. 

If you can get past the unsightliness, and the smell, you’re left to contend with the actual health risks. In 2015, the Associated Press conducted an independent investigation showing bacteria and virus levels that far exceeded what is considered safe for boating or swimming. Many athletes in training have fallen ill with extreme nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that lasts for days. When it comes time for real competition, these dire conditions will impact some Olympians’ ability to compete at all. 

Related: ‘The Discarded’ Plastic in Rio’s Bay

Clearly these are newsworthy circumstances. However, me and my trusty partner at Sound Off Films decided to send a team of filmmakers (all native Brazilians working in production in Los Angeles) to investigate the other side of the story — how do cariocas (a popular term for natives of Rio de Janeiro) feel about the pollution? After all, they’re the ones who live with it. They will still be living with it when the cameras, international press, and the entire Olympic circus have packed up and gone.

“The Discarded,” a Sound Off Films production in the works, seeks to tell their story, which is largely rooted in the greater dilemma of economic development: Why are some communities considered valuable, and others, discarded?

I blame my alma mater, Brown University, for making my brain rattle like this. I majored in Latin American studies as an undergrad, mostly because I wanted to study abroad in South America, but also because after a few pass/fail public policy classes, I had become obsessed with development models the U.S. had impressed upon Central and South American nations in the 1960s and 1970s. I traveled to Santiago, Chile, to research a subject every child of a Hollywood movie star is dying to explore: access to and distribution of potable water and sanitation in urban Latin America. 

From that hot page-turner (re: even my own mother could not bring herself to finish that beast of a thesis), I moved on to a career in community organizing, eventually lobbying for Clean Water Action. I learned simply this: 

U.S. policy is built on a foundation of good storytelling. We don’t make laws in this country because the facts add up, or because we are making good on a promise to right every wrong that exists here. The law will shift in direct proportion to the heart and emotion that activists and policy makers can drum up around their issue. A good heartstring-pulling story makes for good policy — sometimes, it’s the only thing that does. 

Curators at the new MAC Contemporary Art Museum in Rio asked if they could premiere our little film — which is indeed in Portuguese, not English — on August 6, two days ahead of the Olympic opening ceremonies. Of course we said yes, without knowing where or how we would get the money to finish post-production. The request itself was deeply satisfying, if not validating, that they would want to share this message more broadly, that it reflected a common perspective.

We intend to use the film as a pivot point for further action, which we will be able to take if we are able to fully fund the project and get the film screened. To help, please visit this link

Annie Costner is a filmmaker and activist, and the daughter of actor/director/musician Kevin Costner. All photos are from “The Discarded.”

More related stories:
ESPN: The Promise Rio Couldn’t Keep | NY TIMES: Note to Olympic Sailors: Don’t Fall in Rio’s Water | The Guardian: Funding problems hit plan to clean Rio’s polluted waterways ahead of Olympics  | HUFFPO SPORTS: REPORT: Olympians At 2016 Games Will Be Swimming and Boating in Contaminated Waters

*All contributions made to support this film are tax deductible through Sailors for the Sea, a leading conservation organization that works with boaters to protect the waters they love. This film and its message have been supported by a partnership with Plastic Pollution Coalition. 

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