Once called the "valley of death" and the "most polluted place on earth," Cubatao, Brazil, is a symbol both of severe environmental degradation and how people can work together to clean up their environment .A determined effort to reduce pollution and restore the badly contaminated air and water in the past decade has had promising results. While not ideal by any means, Cubatao is no longer among the worst places in the world to live.
Cubatao is located in the state of São Paulo, near the Atlantic coastal city of Santos, just at the base of the high plateau on which São Paulo—Brazil's largest city—sprawls. Thirty years ago, Cubatao was an agreeable, well-situated town. Overlooking Santos Bay with forest-covered mountain slopes rising on three sides around it, Cubatao was well removed from the frantic hustle and bustle of São Paulo on the hills above. Several pleasant little rivers ran through the valley and down to the sea. When the rivers were dammed to generate electricity in the early 1970s, however, the situation changed.
Cheap energy and the good location between São Paulo and the port of Santos attracted industry to Cubatao. An oil refinery, a steel mill, a fertilizer plant, and several chemical factories crowded into the valley, while workers and job-seekers scrambled to build huts on the hillsides and the swampy lowlands between the factories. With almost no pollution control enforcement, industrial smokestacks belched clouds of dust and toxic effluents into the air while raw sewage and chemical waste poisoned the river. By 1981, the city had 80,000 inhabitants and accounted for 3% of Brazil's industrial output. It was called the most polluted place in the world. More than 1,000 tons of toxic gases were released into the air every day. The steaming rivers seethed with multi-hued chemical slicks, foamy suds, and debris. No birds flew in the air above, and the hills were covered with dying trees and the scars of erosion where rains washed dirt down into the valley.
Sulfur dioxide , which damages lungs, eats away building materials, and kills vegetation, was six times higher than World Health Organization guidelines. After a few hours exposure to sunlight and water vapor, sulfur oxides turn into sulfuric acid , a powerful and dangerous corrosive agent. Winter air inversions would trap the noxious gases in the valley for days on end. One quarter of all emergency medical calls were related to respiratory ailments. Miscarriages, stillbirths, and deformities rose dramatically. The town was practically uninhabitable.
The situation changed dramatically in the mid-1980s, however. Restoration of democracy allowed citizens to organize to bring about change. Governor Franco Montoro was elected on promises to do something about pollution, and his administration came through on campaign promises. Between 1983 and 1987, the government worked with industry to enforce pollution laws and to share the costs of clean-up. Backed by a World Bank loan of $100 million, the state and private industry invested more than $200 million for pollution control. By 1988, 250 out of 320 pollution sources were reduced or eliminated. Ammonia releases were lowered by 97%, particulate emissions were reduced 92%, and sulfur dioxide releases were cut 84%. Ozone-producing hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds dropped nearly 80%. The air was breathable again. Vegetation began to return to the hillsides around the valley, and birds were seen once more.
Water quality also improved. Dumping of trash and industrial wastes was cut from some 64 metric tons per day to less than 6 tons. Some 780,000 tons of sediment were dredged out of the river bottoms to remove toxic contaminants and to improve water flow. Fish returned to the rivers after a 20-year absence. Reforestation projects are replanting native trees on hillsides where mudslides threatened the town. The government of Brazil now points to Cubatao with pride as an illustration of its concern for environmental protection. This is a heartening example of what can be done to protect the environment, given knowledge, commitment, and cooperation.
[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]
"Cubatao: Brazil's Ecological Success." Financial Times (10 June 1988).
"Cubatao: New Life in the Valley of Death." World Resources 1990-91. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1991.