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  • The DNA of pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay

    Text by Mirna Wabi-Sabi and photography by Fabio Teixeira Originally published August 2nd, 2023, in Brazilian Portuguese. Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara bay, July 1, 2023. The Brazilian Sanitation Panel states that more than 30% of the population of Rio de Janeiro does not have sewage collection (2021). Today, 18,000 liters (nearly 5 thousand gallons) of sewage per second are dumped into the Guanabara Bay, with state investment quadrupling in the last 3 years, reaching almost 1 billion reais. The expenditures are monumental, while the results are abysmal, and this fiasco would be easy to explain from the perspective of corruption and incompetence in the management of public resources. However, a cultural and historical analysis would better explain what causes these symptoms in the city's administrative processes. Data on costs and levels of pollution are evident, as well as the dangers of this pollution to public health. It has been known for at least 20 years, for example, the alarming rates of Hepatitis A in children in low-income regions of Rio de Janeiro. But these numbers do not lead to solutions by holders of governmental power. The problem is not a lack of money or awareness of the seriousness of the situation, but the legacy of the Hygienist model. The Hygienist movement was born in Brazil in the late 1800s and at the end of the Industrial Revolution. With the formation of urban-industrial centers during the Revolution, there was a massive increase in the population of Rio de Janeiro, and with it chaos, poverty, pollution and environmental destruction. This movement aimed to mitigate these metropolitan symptoms with the implementation of European urban models, which essentially manufactured ghettos. By utilizing the medical theories of European scientists, initiatives were promoted by hygienists which segregated poverty from wealth and destroyed natural environments through the 'beautification' of cities. The culture of European extractivism deals with the non-European environment as a source of resources for human beings, whether practical or aesthetic. It never promotes the balance of local ecosystems, it only promotes profit and high standards of living for those who profit. Therefore, the manufacturing of ghettos guarantees 'Hygiene', as defined by the movement in terms of education and health, in an insular way. The Hygienist model is the manifestation of the expression 'sweeping under the rug'. As long as urban insalubrity was not seen by elites in city centers, it would be as if it did not exist. In other words, it's as mature a system as a game of peek-a-boo. Since cities came to be, the conditions of urban insalubrity have been a class issue with disastrous environmental and human repercussions. In the article "The Hygienist Movement" on the history of private life in Brazil, Edivaldo Góis says that many of the hygienists saw "the lack of health and education of [Brazilian] people [as] responsible for our backwardness in relation to Europe." Being that numerous diseases, customs, and management models from Europe were responsible for this impropriety. A people that promotes class division does not accept the natural reality that the ecosystem does not respect social segregation. Sooner or later, the pollution of a portion of the ocean or of an urban body of water becomes pollution on prime beaches, and 18,000 liters of sewage per second in the Guanabara Bay is a worldwide problem. In the 1990s, 1 billion US dollars were spent on the Guanabara Bay Cleanup Program (PDBG) after alarming evidence of cases of Hepatitis A in children in Duque de Caxias. Even with massive funding from a global source, the results were horrifying. Sewage treatment centers were built but they were never functional, accountability and late payments pointed to poor financial management by the state, hundreds of millions of US dollars were wasted in interest rates, and this failure cannot be attributed to institutional stupidity alone. Now billions of reais are being spent again on infrastructure projects, which are already delayed, to solve this persistent pollution problem of the last century. Rio de Janeiro, entre 2015 e 2019. Sanitation in low-income regions is a challenge today because for more than a hundred years, the class divide fostered by the legacy of the Hygienist movement has disembodied these geographic spaces from "epidemiological surveillance activity" as well as individual provision of sanitation resources. The idea that what is private exists in symbiosis with the public, rather than resulting in the investment of public resources in improving the private environments of low-income individuals, has resulted in reactionary justifications for eugenics. That is why, instead of investing in improving the structures of family and individual homes in poor regions, they invest in a "belt" for collecting sewage around the bay. This means that the sewage that leaves these areas is captured and prevented from affecting noble areas, but the individual context of the residents remains the same. According to a "conceptual study" on this 'belt', the obstacle to "universal sanitation" is cost. The estimate in the report is 1900 reais per inhabitant, totaling more than 33 billion reais in Rio de Janeiro. Since the financing of 1 billion dollars in the 1990s was equivalent to just over 5 billion reais, the price "far exceeds the contribution of resources to the sector". However, 33 billion refers to the cost for the population of the whole state of Rio (not just the city), and the 1 billion dollar funding was specifically aimed at cleaning up the Guanabara Bay. The rivers that pollute the Guanabara Bay the most permeate the geography of the city of Duque de Caxias, called Sarapuí and Iguaçu. If 1900 reais per inhabitant is a reliable estimate, with less than 1.5 billion reais it would have been possible to bring sanitation to the entire population of Duque de Caxias, which between 1991 and 1994 was made up of less than 700 thousand people. But instead of proposing precise strategies, focusing on contextual and local needs, the report soon makes parallels with European and U.S. American models of sanitation. In doing so, it reveals itself to be a descendant of the Hygienist movement. The organization responsible for the report, FGV CERI, explicitly positions itself as interested in an infrastructural development centered on economic growth. For them, infrastructure regulation in the country, even when it involves the environment and public health, revolves around one objective only: "attracting investment". Thus, sustainability fosters the nation when it is economic and financial. Quantifying a socio-environmental problem such as pollution in the Guanabara Bay is not always easy. How many liters of sewage are being dumped illegally? How much does basic sanitation cost per person? How many children have become ill from polluted water bodies in their areas? In this case, the numbers are evident and the reality is inescapable. What is missing is the analysis of the historical and cultural, or genetic, context that leads to these alarming and persistent results. From the creation of the Hygienist movement in Rio de Janeiro, today we are at least the fifth generation to witness the disastrous development of the metropolis that leans over and suffocates this bay. It is necessary to know what was inherited from the DNA of this city, which was named after this magnificently unusual body of water – Guanabara. _ Text by Mirna Wabi-Sabi Photography by Fabio Teixeira

  • Separating organic waste can prevent leptospirosis and save lives

    By Mirna Wabi-Sabi and photos by Fabio Teixeira. Published at It can be said that producing less garbage helps to extend human life on the planet, because, among other things, it preserves natural resources on which we depend to survive. Organic waste, in particular, is responsible for the production of methane, considerably increasing humanity's greenhouse gas emissions. But it is possible that the separation of organic waste can save lives in a more immediate way: by preventing cases of leptospirosis. It is not news that food waste in the garbage attracts animals such as rats, and that the urine of these animals can cause leptospirosis in humans. According to the photojournalist Fabio Teixeira, author of the photographic series “Surviving Between Shadow and Light”, anonymous workers, who work in the outskirts of communities in Rio de Janeiro, are victims of racism, police violence, and suffer from diseases caused by the trash. “These unemployed people recycle garbage to find copper, iron, aluminum, and toys to repair and donate. According to information from the recyclers, two deaths were caused by contamination with leptospirosis in November and December of 2022.” 04/03/2023 – Fabio Teixeira – Manguinhos Favela This observation by Teixeira is supported by public health research, although the numbers are likely to be underreported. The community of workers in the recycling and garbage collection industry is described as being at constant risk in the 2017 article called 'Perception of Quality of Life of Collectors of Recyclable Materials', from the nursing journal of the Federal University of Pernambuco. The authors explain that “because this type of work requires permanent contact with agents that are harmful to health”, the “activity that handles garbage” is “unhealthy to the highest degree”. Such statements may sound obvious, but the issue of waste has the potential to affect the entire urban population, not just professionals who handle waste. The Radioagência Nacional, of the Brazilian public communications company, released an alert in March of this year about the increase in “cases and deaths” caused by leptospirosis. Heavy rains and floods exacerbate the problem, and expose a large contingent of the population, leading to 24 cases and 3 deaths recorded by the Rio de Janeiro Health Department in the first two months of 2023. Proposals to mitigate this danger so far have been: preventing children from playing in places with “accumulated water” or taking out the garbage at most one hour before the garbage truck comes by. But these solutions do not protect the population as a whole, since garbage is still taken to places where people come in contact with it and expose themselves to risks. Moreover, the recurrent potential for floods in urban areas makes it impossible to avoid accumulated water. Conscious consumption and disposal of waste is the most effective tool in the hands of individuals and requires a simple reconfiguration of home dynamics. "Don't Throw Your Conscience in the Trash" What constitutes conscious consumption are the practices that begin with the purchase of products. Better than recycling is to produce less garbage. For this, it is pertinent to give preference to products without packaging, such as vegetables and fruits. If there is packaging, opt for compostable packaging, such as paper, or reusable packaging, such as glass jars. When disposing of plastic, tetra pak and fabric, ensure that they are clean, with no food leftovers or smells. It is important that this garbage is free of residues or odors of organic matter because they serve as food for and attract rodents. Separating all food scraps from the garbage prevents the emission of methane into the atmosphere and prevents rats from being attracted by this residue. The question is what to do with this leftover food. Composting is the best way to turn these organic wastes into composted land without producing methane or attracting rodents. But not everyone is able to compost at home. Community gardens such as A Amiga da Planta, in the oceanic region of Niterói, receive and collect organic matter from neighboring residents to use in composting and provide guidance on how to separate these materials – e.g., avoid adding meat, and separate citrus peels in their own containers. The reconfiguration of the culture of consumption and waste disposal at home requires little time and space, but requires interest and awareness. 09/03/2023 – Fabio Teixeira – Manguinhos Favela Consider that someone will handle the garbage and the welfare of those people is of immense importance, as well as consider that this garbage exists for decades or centuries after we throw it away. It is beneficial for all of us that this waste can be separated, reused or recycled in a sustainable and healthy way, without polluting the land or oceans, and without causing deaths. The work of collecting and separating garbage is essential for the sustainability of consumption practices, for environmental protection, and for the preservation of natural resources such as clean water and fertile land. 2022 – Fabio Teixeira – RIO DE JANEIRO Dealing with Public Policy Failure Which actions and programs should be developed by the State to guarantee the well-being of the population? Leptospirosis is a disease caused by the failure of basic sanitation services, the overcrowding of municipalities in favor of the real estate market, and by inhuman levels of social inequality. “The improper disposal of solid waste is involved in determining the appearance of infectious diseases” (2017), and adequacy means not only an appropriate destination, but also adequate equipment and decent living conditions for workers. An intersectional analysis between labor rights, access to health and education, basic sanitation, sustainability and environmentalism allows for the development of a holistic solution to this problem. According to research by the nursing journal of the Federal University of Pernambuco, “the degradation of the natural environment and the generation of waste cause physical health impairments, psychological and psychiatric disorders, and social disintegration.” The well-being of the population depends on actions that consider the physical, psychological, and social spheres. Therefore, solutions such as waiting to take out the garbage or avoiding coming into contact with accumulated water do not fully address the public health problem of leptospirosis. This totality includes family consumption up to its disposal method, various public policy failures, sustainable community practices and an environmentalist perspective. The History of Leptospirosis Leptospirosis was brought to the Americas with the rodents present on European ships during colonization, and it is possible that it caused a massacre of indigenous populations. The article “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic Among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619” proposes that consideration should be given to “customs that may have been instrumental to the near annihilation of Native Americans, which facilitated successful colonization of the Massachusetts Bay area”. And that these “local customs continually exposed this population to hyperendemic leptospiral infection”. The academic journal ‘PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases’, dedicated to "infectious diseases that promote poverty", published an article on the "Global Burden of Leptospirosis" in 2015. In it, the researchers estimate that leptospirosis is a serious problem for resource-poor tropical countries, including countries in Africa, "due to diagnostic problems and lack of data." Data from Tanzania and the Amazon reveal that fever is a common symptom and malaria is over-diagnosed as a cause. This leads to substantial numbers of leptospirosis 'burden estimates' being misallocated to other infectious diseases such as malaria. Source for graph: SINAN-03/03/2023 According to data published by the Brazilian ‘Notifiable Diseases Information System’ (Sinan) on March 3, 2023, there was an increase in cases of leptospirosis in the country in 2022, or a more drastic than usual underreporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few days earlier, on March 1st, the Radioagência Nacional reported 3 deaths in 2023 that are not included in Sinan's figures. It is evident that the magnitude of the impact of leptospirosis in Brazil is not being precisely quantified. Sources of graphs: SINAN-01/03/2023 and SINAN-DOI Due to the population density in the regions of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, their numbers stand out, alongside Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Although Rio has a “prevalence rate lower than the national rate” per 100,000 inhabitants, outbreaks of leptospirosis in the city coincide with summer storms since the 1960s, and “areas with occurrence of floods have more cases”. These areas tend to be, as expected, of poor sanitary conditions, with low-income communities. In 2020, Mário Martins and Mary Spink published an article called “Human leptospirosis as a doubly neglected disease in Brazil”, where the following statement is made: "Our analysis shows [...] the arbitrariness of criteria for assigning health priorities, [and] the invisibility of the population profile of human leptospirosis in official data. [...] We conclude that [this is] related to the fact that human leptospirosis affects a population which the State has no interest in keeping alive.” Leptospirosis killed more Brazilians than dengue fever every year between 2000 and 2016 – 3 times more – but received nine times less medical investment. There are more cases of dengue fever, so the questioning is far from being a criticism of funding for its treatment and prevention. But academics have for years been pointing out the severe neglect with which leptospirosis is tackled institutionally, and the parallel with dengue fever highlights this. “Quantifying the magnitude of health loss” due to leptospirosis is difficult because of issues discussed in several academic articles, but there is no doubt that cases are underreported, misdiagnosed, and resources are not sufficiently allocated for research and prevention. Since the arrival of this disease on “slave ships”, it is still a racialized and impoverished population that is forced to live in unhealthy conditions, without appropriate resources and access to decent public policies. At the very least, this should encourage us to take action in our homes and communities to help prevent cases and deaths from this disease – actions such as refraining from adding organic matter to the garbage just as we refrain from pouring grease down the drain. Human beings and the environment can only benefit from the awareness of the population and public institutions of the causes and solutions to the problem of garbage as a risk to human and environmental health. _____ By Mirna Wabi-Sabi and photos by Fabio Teixeira.

  • 'Is it Fake?' The question AI inherited from Art

    Mirna Wabi-Sabi Tate Modern is the one museum people talk about when they discuss art in London. Never have I heard the Courtauld be mentioned in this context. To be fair, it’s really more of an institute or gallery, and the collection is less vast and diverse than Tate’s. But it has some major pieces on display, most notorious of them perhaps being Van Gogh’s self-portrait without the ear, and several pieces by Gauguin, who was somehow involved in the ear-cutting situation. The whole place is a succinct gathering of major artists like Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, and several Flemish, Medieval and Renaissance masters, in a fantastic building with embellished cantilevered stone stairs. Perhaps even more attention-grabbing than the pedigree of the collection in the classic limestone building is the exhibition that opened on the 17th of June. “Fakes from the Collection” Yes, fake as in forgery. The Art and Artifice expo explores not only several types of fake pieces but also different types of intent behind their production. Of course, some were produced for financial gain, such as those made to look old and expensive but containing paint pigments or nails which didn’t exist in the period they were claimed to be from. Nineteenth century forgeries of medieval paintings on wood, for instance, were uncovered because nails from the alleged date of the work were not produced in the size and standard shape revealed in the x-rays of the pieces. Others had fake signatures and were claimed to be from the “study” days of the artist. The most fun, though, are the ones with unexpected stories. Some pieces were created to fool Nazis, as was the case of the forger Han van Meegeren. He created fake Vermeers during the Second World War and sold it to elite members of the Nazi party. The one on display at the exhibition is a forgery of a painting by van Baburen, a piece featured on the background of two of Vermeer’s paintings. Van Meegeren was applauded for this scheme, not only because of its disruption of the notorious looting and mistreatment of fine art by the Nazis, but also because his forgeries became a valuable technique investigation tool for art students at the institute. Other pieces were just artists practicing their craft by replicating classics, which were never meant to deceive a buyer. And in some cases, researchers still don’t know the true authorship of the piece, as is the case of a Boitard drawing. The technology for producing smooth, grid-less paper wasn’t widely available until decades after his death, but it is possible, though unlikely, that he came across it in the last year of his life, around the time of the ‘revolutionary invention’. Attendees are invited to closely examine the paper with large hand-held magnifying glasses to identify the differences between each drawing. It’s hard to not see parallels with generative artificial intelligence today and its potentially deceitful images. Deceit is nothing new, in media or art, and whenever a new technology comes around, we must adapt our methods of interpretation and consumption of its content. If it’s a new paper-making method, paint pigment, nail type, or digital image-editing feature, innovation is unstoppable, and change is inevitable. How we handle the technological changes of our era, and our ability to keep up with them, defines whether innovation symbolizes the advancement or detriment of society. Earlier in June, just a few days before the opening of the Courtauld expo, NPR published an article with suggestions on how to identify if a digital image was fake; meaning, generated by AI. As a tool, we know that nowadays generative AI is unable to realistically portray hands, teeth, accessories such as jewelry, and complex backgrounds. Holding up a proverbial magnifying glass to these details can give away fake images with relative ease. Some of the images believed to be real and widely shared online, such as the one of the Pope wearing a large white puffy coat, could have easily been, and were, exposed as fakes, though not soon enough to prevent them from going viral. Looking at history, we see that the struggle to identify forgeries is not unprecedented in the realm of images made to deceive in high art or in mass media. The same way it is possible to be unsure of the veracity of a signature, we may be unsure of the source of a realistic-looking digital image. All this means is that we must keep up with technological advances and invest in a modernized education system. Anyone is bound to slip occasionally and fall for a fake. Some details might slip through the cracks, some days the vetting process might be sloppier than others, that’s natural. Not to mention that it’s just a matter of time until digital technology is updated to make AI better at portraying things like hands and we will be caught off guard once again. AI’s current inability to produce realistic images of hands it quite comical, considering hands may be the very first subject of human artistic expression. From ancient pictographs made 40 thousand years ago until classics of the 19th century, hands have been a major focus of human art, especially for painters. Even when they are hidden, hands stand out and become a source of speculation and conspicuous meaning. Da Vinci was notorious for his study of hands, and Michelangelo created one of the most reproduced pair of hands in Western history–in The Creation of Adam. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, when a wave of elite European portraits depicted men with hands hidden in their jackets, it was speculated that perhaps paintings were cheaper when the painter didn’t have to focus on drawing fingers. There is no evidence for that. The pose most likely symbolized power and status, as it was popular with people like Napoleon, for whom money was no obstacle. Either way, we were never expected to take art, and media, at face value. For hundreds of years, we’ve had to keep vetting processes and analyses up to date, we’ve had to learn to ask the right questions at the right time, and this just happens to still be as true now as ever. High-tech is not synonymous with high standards, and nothing corroborates this idea more than high art. Will a robot soon produce a perfect forgery, or perhaps its own masterpiece? If it does, this threat is possibly a tale as old as art itself. Trying to halt innovation will be futile, and expecting change to not meet any resistance is also unrealistic. We’ve known that art made without heart, made as nothing more than a replica, is not valuable. And perceiving value does take training. It takes a robust education that incentivizes critical analysis and requires resources. A better use of our time is learning how to hold up a magnifying glass, and not so much campaigning against technologies which may or may not be used for malignant deceit. +++ Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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