Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I arrive in Curitiba as dusk settles. There's a storm and the landing is very bumpy. I take a taxi at rip-off price to the eco-hostel I found that morning on the internet. The rain absolutely charges down, and lightening flashes intermittently. I'm glad I took the taxi as it's dark now and the hostel is way out in suburbia. On the way there we pass mile after mile of high riss, shops, advertisement hoardings and traffic, all identical to any developed city in the West. It depresses me. I did not think Curitiba would be like this. It's supposed to be green. That's why I've come her - to see what a self=proclaimed 'green' city in the developed world is like. I hadn't expected to find out of town shopping centres, Wal-Mart, McDonalds and even C&A and Burger Kings.

The hostel turns out to be an oasis of calm and green in the middle of an urban desert - more precisely a suburban desert. It has young trees, birdsong, a pool, and I have my own wooden cabin with two beds and a bathroom. There is no towel or glass for water. Luckily I have a glass with my capoierha kit! It's calm, and the internet is free in the reception/lounge area.

In the light of day I see the area is surrounded by gated communities - condominiums like fortresses, with high walls topped with razor wire and electric fences, and elecric gates manned by sentries. Inside, small houses have tiny gardens, and children can play safely. Stuff can be owned with less fear.

This is an eco-city?

A bus that stops outside takes me to the town centre, a square on the edge of the famed pedestrianised area. It's like Nottingham centre, or Birmingham. I do what I always do in a new city and find the modern art gallery - another place I always feel at home in. As it's Monday, it's closed. I walk. And walk. And walk. I get lost in the downtown historic area. I try to find the Oscar Niemeyer gallry, an iiconic piece of architecture shaped like a huge eye, but there are no maps or signs to say which bus to take. No one understands English. I feel a fool for having no Portuguese. I eventually find the Civic Centre and abandon a plan to ask for the Press Officer to get a view of City Hall on developments, for my lack of language.

So I jump on a bus at random and find myself taken on an eliptical trip around the city, lasting an hour and a quarter, on one of the renowned metro-buses. You access them by climbing first into a glass tube where a man sells your ticket through a turnstile - the ordinary buses always have a ticket-seller with a turnstile situated on the bus a third of the way down so you pay to get off. These metro-buses have a different network, and whereas the ordinary bus system lets you get off on the right side of the road (driving on the right), the metro-buses, faster and making fewer stops, let you descend on the left hand side. Thus, the two systems don't get in each others' way. The road network is mostly alternating one-way streets, as in American cities. The city was designed around this transit system, and it is this for which Curitiba is the most famous.

The bus races round miles of urban area. I start off by trying to follow it on my limited tourist map but soon we're off it. Past the Telecoms tower, and along suburban streets past shopping centres, miles of people. It's afternoon, and we don't encounter one single traffic jam. I think this is a smooth system. In the next couple of days however I do meet jams; they happen in the rush-hours just like everywhere else.

I buy a kind of fried cheese-in-pastry envelope (called pastillas) from a side stall and provisions from a supermarket. Exhausted I take the bus back to the hostel, longing for greenery and thinking about taking the old train journey to the coast the next day, giving up my mission to investigate the eco-credentials of Curitiba.

It was not to be. Messages abounded on my return, from a guy called Rafael, working for a local publisher Almaya, who wanted to show me around the next day and facilitate my detective work.

He collected me in a taxi at midday. He turned out to be wheelchair bound - a slight figure who ade up for his diminutive stature by his volubility and anxiety to communicate. We talked non-stop. On enquiry he revealed how his inability to control his wasted legs was caused by his prematurity: he was as premature as Dion, yet survived despite being born in a town outside Sao Paulo where specialist medical help in 1982 would have been scant. There was no midwife. He suffered respiratory infections, common at that age, which starved his brain of oxygen causing lesions which affected his development. I told him about Dion's exprience. I revealed how Dion had had no nipples at first and we had the privilege of watching them grow.

"I had four!" he replied.

"Still?" I said astonished.

"I don't know," he said, "I haven't looked lately. I'm very hairy."

I said, "Well, that's a good chat-up line for girls anyway - 'Want to see my four nipples?'"

"I never thought of that!" he said laughing.

We had lunch in a veggie restaurant. I had to push him everywhere, and it was an education in accessibility. We took the tourist bus, and they are all, including the metro bus, fully wheelchair accessible. The metros have a ramp that descends every time connecting the raised tube to the bus. This is evidence of sustainability mentality in the planners. All the time Rafael was on his mobile making arrangemets for us to meet people. It's short notice and hard to pin everyone down. It's a shame he didn't get the messages I'd sent to his employers the previous week, via Otacilia.

He told me the city is resting on its laurels. It won its reputation for sustainability in the '80s and '90s when many of the initiatives it is still renowned for were inaugurated. But now it's fallen behind the times - the rest of the world has caught up.

We alit at a place called Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente - the Free College of the Environment - Unilivre for short. We met the educational officer, Naiana Arruba and I pushed the wheelchair along a raised wooden platform over a stream up a dripping, plant-walled creek, emerging into a lake-filled quarry with swans, ducks, and Koi carp. Unilivre is nothing other than a version of CAT, set up in 1991 by Jaime Lerner the Mayor himself, to try and raise awareness and do research into environmental issues. Like CAT, it is in a disused quarry and it ran short courses that were free to the public.

However, Naiana said, it has fallen on hard times. The City stopped supporting it four years ago for political and personal reasons and other consultants have sprung up to offer training. It has to charge fees and people don't like this. Its offices, which resemble a large treehouse cum helter skelter constructed from old telegraph poles, eucalyptus and rammed earth, are empty. It still employs 20 people, who fear for their jobs. Unless they can secure more sponsorship they may close.

She also says the water in the lake is being polluted by an invasion in the land above the quarry.

"An invasion?" I ask. It sounds like aliens have landed.

"An invasion is what we call the beginning of a favela," she explains. A nearby favela has become full. Some of the inhabitants have decided to squat on some land up there. They are building shelters. There is no sanitation and so the watercourse is polluted.

It's an illegal occupation of land. "Cohab, the municipal housing agency, should turf them off," she said. But I say "It could be an opportunity". Has she not heard of reed beds? No she hasn't. I explain how they, like marshland everywhere, are the kidneys or liver of the world, removing pathogens and impurities from water. CAT has pioneered thmm. She shugs. No money. Not their business. The authorities must act. This doesn't sound sustainable either. Has everyone lost their way now Jaime is no longer Mayor?

An 'invasion' also sounds biological like the body being invaded by pathogens and microbes.

While we talked, seated on benches by the lake, visitors ambled around. Suddenly I spotted on the far side, two young men. They'd been using a hook and line and poached a large carp, which was flopping around on the bank. Quickly they stuffed it into a large transparent plastic bag. I nudged Naiana. She phoned the entrance while I photographed them. They smiled acros the water, flashing the V-for-victory sign, and ran off with thir prize. They didn't look like they really needed it - it's not as if they're from a favela.

On the way back, Rafael and I started to talk about the favelas. "They're hidden away," he said. "On the edges of the city. Curitiba is also surrounded by several 'sleepover cities". Commuter towns. There are favelas there. Curitiba is a victim of its own success. In the nineties, as it proclaimed how eco and successful it was, it attracted inhabitants from all over the country eager to share its fortune. It has exploded in size from a few thousand to 1.7 million. These people sort the rubbish. Only 3% of the waste is recyled by the City. The rest is collected by workers from fsavelas."

I've seen them everywhere. In Sao Paulo too. They pull large barrows by hand, laden with anything they find on the streets, from cardboard to old exhausts, abandonned white goods to plastic. It all gets hauled back to the favela where it is sorted, and sold to middlemen who sell it to the recyclers. The favelas also house the women who work as cleaners and nannies in the middle clsss homes.

"Isn't this a kind of aparheid?" I mused. "Is it Curitiba's dirty secret, that it would grind to a halt if not for the existence of these second class citizens hidden away from the eyes of visitors and 'nice' people, and the squeaky clean steets of the central areas and gated suburbs?" It sounds like a truly Ballardian set-up.

"Could be," agreed Rafael.

"We have to check it out, before we can publish this," I said.

Rafael got on his moble to make more phone calls. He was trying to get to speak to a senior secretary at City Hall.

Back at the hostel, I shared a meal with some French/Swiss people. The woman chain smoked and sipped red wine. Her boyfriend and 22 year old daughter did neither. She is voluble. Next day they are takng that train jorney I dreamt of and invite me along. Part of me would really like to get out of urban coccrete and go. But Rafael has made arrangements and I can't give up now.

Hr's late the next day - 8.30. The traffic is bad. We go to the HQ of SPVS, an NGO responsible for conservation where a director, Ricardo, explains their mission: to preserve the remaining 7% of the original 1.3 million square kilometers of forest cover that once covered 155 of BraziI when the Portuguese first came in 1500 and started denuding it for the valuable Brazilwood and its red dye which hosiers back in Europe needed for the fashion-conscious classes.

There are two types of biome - the Amazon (called this even this far south) and the Arucaria, named after the distinctive upside down Jweish-candelabra shaped tree that is seen everywhere. In Parana state, home of Curiiba, less thn 3% of the original is left, mostly in national parks The usual threats abound: logging, urbanisation, cattle and agriculture.

SPVS audited the Curitiba green areas and discovered that a City Hall claim that the city had over 50 square metres per person of greennspace wasn't exctly as green s it sounded. In fact much of this greenspace was actually just lawn; grass verges. As a result they began working in 2006 with the city to reclassify these so credit only goes to the truly biodiverse areas with native species. Ricardo says the City is broadly co-operative, in particular to pressurise the owners of larger gardens to conserve and restore their biodiversity. This includes the city's many parks - of which there are many, as I have already seen, more perhaps than Birmingham, a ciy of comparable size.

To avoid further deforetation, SPVS acts as a go-between in a carbon-offsetting scheme. Each hectare of forest costs $R2500 per year to protext. In Curitiba itself, there are two projects to protect green areas. The 'Condominio do bioversidade', with support from City Hall. works to educate people about the native species ad their value. 'Bio Cidade' aims to create officially protected areas. The City has signed up to the UN Convention on Biodiversity but Ricardo if not sure if this has had any efffect on th ground yet. Meanwhile, favelas are spreading into natural wetland areas.

Garbage is a big problem. So is flooding when there are flash floods. There are so many environmental technologies in Europe that hey haven't heard of here yet, which they could be implementing instead of 'wiring in' unsustainable infrastructure and habits. A short list would have to incude: sustainable urban drainage green rooves nd bioclamatic architecture to cool the city; solar water heating, micro-renewables, trains, even small water-saving tricks like fitting plugs in sinks and basins.

Ricardo givs us a package that includes examples of their environmental education work - a board game that explains climate change in which you lose or gain carbon credits depending on your knowledge and progress around a lotto/Monopoly style board. Very clever. I wonder if anyone's designed one back home.

We are still waiting for our meeting with someone from City Hall to put their side. We were supposed to have lunch with a senior guy called Castella from the State Administration, who might have been able to give us a more objective view of what the city is doing, but he was suddenly called to the bedside of his 89 year old grandmother. The secretary of the city environment chief keeps not calling back and Rafael is indefatigable in his pestering to get a result.

"The funny thing is," he confides, "I don't think I could do this on my own. It's only because you're here that this opens doors. They want to meet you to explain themselves." We spend a while discussing what it takes to be an environmental journalist. Rafael is grateful to be learning so much and I'm grateful to be helping him.

While waiting we ascend the nearby Telecom Tower and the panorama stretches twenty miles in all dirctions. On two sides are hills, the Serra del Mar being the largest range. I imagine the Swiss family's journey through it coast-wards.

The Tower takes no advantage of visitors to sell anything, no rotating tower-top cafe like in Berlin, so we lunch in a nearby restauarant at Rafael's employer's expense before taxi-ing to our second appointment - with an Empreendor Social (Social Entrprise) NGO that works at the other end of the scale, the favelas.

Lina Useche is a stunning Penelopw Cruz-lie Spanish 25-year old, who co-founded the NGO at age 18 and is now a director. She enthusastically describes their work with the women of the favelas, encouraging them to take training in crafts and sewing and business management, obtain micro-credit, via support from banks and Wal-Mart, and create co-operatives to make and market their work. The NGO finds outlets but thy must also find them themselves. It's mostly women because the men think it's not real man's work and they'd rather do nothing than this.

She explains how they work with the rubbish-collectors. The existing system replicates an arrangement as old as Brazil itself. In the days when sugar was worth its weight in gold, European traders leased the milling equipment to managers on the coast at extortione rates they could never pay back. Few lasted ore than a couple of years, it seems, before returning to Europe in exchange for some other sucker. Certainly the plantation workers never escaped poverty either. The enormous profits were all made by The Man in the Old Country.

The Man is still at it. The collectors lease the barrows they tug up and down the hills for $R10 a day, and they can barely earn that from what they collect and sell. So SE began a project called Avina in 2005 that obtains microcredit to buy the barrows and, by clubbing togther, they can acquire balers cheaply to package the sorted garbage and cut out the middle-men, selling direct to the top buyer for a better price. Anyone can invest in the business. Help comes from an ulikely source - the Wal-Mart Institute and the ABN Amro Foundation.

Lina shows us beauiful bags and wallets and other items mde from recycled materials. some of them are even sold in Wal-Mart. 97% of rubbish is recycled by the favelas. The City has realised that they need to help the collectors and have just given the Co-ops responsibility for the remaining 3%.

Later in the day Juliana from Aymara takes uss on a tour of a favela. It's not far off the bus route I took on the first day. Now this is how I pictured Curitba in my mind before I came: a tight hodgepodge of small homes cobbled together with bricks and other materials in rubbish strewn streets, a lively area owith its own economy of shops, barbers, cafes, but most of all warehouses where the rubbish is sorted into types for selling. For the first time I see barrows pulled by ponies and am reminded of the rag-and-bone men that used to come round the neighbourhood in my childhood in Nottingham with their cry of "ragsa'bo'", and who inspired the now archaic-seeming sitcom Steptoe and Son. It hits me: we're back fifty years. Fifty years from now will the favelas seem archaic? Will they ever go?

It's a question i'd already put to Ricardo - his answer waas to shrug his shoulders. It's as old as Brasil. "We have a saying which is untranslateable but something to do with applauding those who 'get away with pulling a fast one'- The little Brazilian way". Everyone's on the make, every man jack for themselves. There's no social security safety net.

So we see, in the middle of the favelas how some homes have been modernised: good materials, a fresh coat of paint, beautifully applied with style. These are no longer shanty town dwwllings but beginning to be respectable. As Lina had said, in answer to my question, "When people become richer, they don't leave the favelas - they improve them, and give employment to those around." The community bootstraps itself up.

But there's no trickledown. It's due to the work of these charities and to the funding from the City Hall for these typs of programme. Now I understand: I've seen the progression from an invasion to a favela to self-improvement. The City agency, Cohab, is charged with providing housing. "It's not well-structured," says Lina, "and there are political problems. Also, when people leave the favelas they have to pay taxes, watr and energy." Why should they want to?

Of course ES is only able to help small proportion of these people and more are arriving all the time. It is a drop in the ocean, and controversial. Some politicians oppose these measures because they may they attract the wrong sort of people from outside.

But it is a symbiotic relationship. unless the City completely changes its system of rubbish recycling they will always need the favelas. And the favelas need the rubbish. Bottom feeders - every ecology needs them. Fair? Not really, but fairer than other cities where the collectors are not even supported.

Lina descrbes how their recycling programme involves introducing the rubbish collector to each householder on ther route by name, so they form a personal relationship door to door. The householder is shown how to separate ther rubbish by example and how it benefits the collector. A specially-printed circular leaflet on recycled paper explains how and when the rubbish is collected and the name of the collector. This ensures maximum co-operation. I saw encouragement to recycle also printed on the sides of the council refuse lorries.

It's early evening. I'm taken to the publisher Almaya with Rafael. They are a medium-sized concern with three premises. The first is the Pedagogical Division. There one of the editors explains how they work directly with the authorities and schools to produce materials as part of a teaching programme. The show me carefully designed award-winning ring-bound publications. Some of them are huge, with very large print for the special needs children, and some are even in braille only. I suggest that I don't envy the prooof-reader of these.

The offices are brand new and light and airy, painted in well-designed primary colours. I'm introduced to everyone.

Then Juliana takes us to another premises, designed in the same style. This is the audi-visual division where videos are made. I see the editing suite and get shown an educational language video. There's a large use of green-screen, and the editing in Final Cut Pro is highly professional. It's all state-of-the-art. Downstairs the original garage is converted into a studio where the same actor I've just seen upstairs on the video is being filmed against the green-screen in another scene.

Now comes the pay-off. Almaya has been paying for my lnces andtaxi and Rafael's time withe me. In return I'm expected to record a video message for business students. The cmera and boom is setup and Rafeal, out of shot, spins questions at me about what is suatianability, why is it important, what shoud we be doing, what do I think of how Brazil is doing, what should it do, and what should the businesses of tomorrow do? They are so pleased with my responses that they want to shoot another video statement, this one about comics - my work with them and why or whether comics are useful in education. This is a little more out of my field and all I ca manage is o talk about the importance of catering for dfferent learning styles and the work I did on the title "How The World Works". They seem satisfied.

Goodbye Rafael. We've got to know each other pretty well these last two intense days. We'll stay in touch. I climb into my taxi back to the eco-hostel. It's 7pm - we never met the guy from City Hall, but we did a lot, and I can try to contact him by email later.

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