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BRAZIL: Floating House Made of Garbage – Art or Eyesore?

Fabiana Frayssinet* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 22 2007 (IPS) - In a fetid canal filled with garbage from this Brazilian city, a bricklayer built a floating house and turned it into a symbol of recycling, leaving the authorities by turns applauding or frowning.

Brick by brick – or rather, rubbish by rubbish – the home was made from material pulled from the otherwise beautiful Guanabara Bay, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro.

Once a paradise of white sands and transparent waters, dolphins and other marine species no longer venture here because it is one of the most polluted bays in Brazil, mostly as a result of contamination by heavy metals from industry.

Luiz Fernando Barreto de Queiroz Bispo, a 40-year-old construction worker, built his floating house on the Cunha canal, which carries sewage water to the bay from the Maré Complex, one of the most populous ‘favelas’ or shantytowns in the northern part of Rio.

“I was born in the Maré. I lived there nearly my whole life. When I was little, more than 30 years ago, the Maré was already a little dirty, but it was still possible to swim in these waters,” Bispo told Tierramérica.

“I learned to swim here, like all the other kids. It was the only diversion in the favela. I was very restless and even then I tried to build a raft with whatever I could find to cross to the other side of the canal, to play,” he added.

That childhood pastime ultimately led Bispo last year to build his house with the waste he found nearby. Obviously, there was no shortage of materials to be found here, or in most of the canals, lagoons, rivers and bays of Rio de Janeiro.

“I built my entire house using what others threw out with the garbage: iron bars, window frames, wood, cement discarded from construction sites. Even the main door came from the garbage. The only things I had to buy were the nails, the whitewash and the roofing,” he says.

Bispo, a father of two teenagers who is separated from his wife, lives alone, and gets by with temporary construction jobs and renting out housing in Maré. He says he is self-taught, a regular visitor to the National Library to “acquire knowledge of physics and mathematics.”

The house sits on a platform of 42 square metres. There are no details left unfinished, despite its second-hand origins. There are even two garages: one for a jet-ski that someone abandoned in a nearby dump, and one for his old Chevrolet Opala.

The interior shows the same eye for detail. With garbage from the canal, he has furnished the rooms with beds, chairs, a bathtub, a fan, flower vases, and even has a garden, in which plastic bottles make an effort to look like well-tended grass.

The idea came during a trip on the Amazon River, where he saw for the first time floating houses made of logs.

“Mine is made with plastic containers. Each one contains 2.5 litres of compressed air. By combining hundreds, thousands of them with Styrofoam (polystyrene), which also floats, you can make the base,” says Bispo.

“I had a float with a six by seven metre surface area, and one metre tall, enough to support a few tonnes,” he explains.

A lot of water had to flow beneath the house before the Rio authorities would accept the idea of allowing Bispo’s creation to remain.

The State Superintendent’s Office of Rivers and Lagoons (SERLA) threatened to expel him because, according to Rio de Janeiro state law, one may not occupy a river by living in a floating house.

“I built it under a bridge so they wouldn’t see it. That was in December 2006. When I moved it to a visible place in March, there was a big commotion. It was in the newspapers, in several articles,” says Bispo, adding that his example showed that people from the favelas “aren’t ignorant”.

Finally, the Environment Secretary Carlos Minc gave in, citing it as “an example of creativity and recycling,” and gave Bispo permission to keep his house anchored in the Cunha canal.

The Rio de Janeiro state government is concerned about the level of pollution of its bodies of water. Minc announced that 73 million dollars would be invested in cleaning up rivers, lakes and the coastline.

There are, nevertheless, some qualms about Bispo’s creation.

Although SERLA president Marilene Ramos in a conversation with Tierramérica praised the floating house for its creativity “in the re-use of the enormous quantity of material dumped in the rivers, canals and lagoons,” she ruled out the idea of turning it into a fieldtrip destination for schoolchildren to visit, “for safety reasons”.

Bispo defends his project. “When Minc said my house was an environmental museum piece, he recognised it as a work of art. As such, the artist can do what he wants with his work. Nobody else. The laws guarantee the right to housing and there are places in this country where people live on the water,” he says.

Amidst the debate, Bispo never stops thinking of improvements. The next step is to add a pool. But the house already seems small. “I want to plant berries all along the coast and set up a cooperative with the people from her, to generate employment and purify the air, which is really bad,” he says.

“I want to show people that those of us who live in the favelas are not ignorant. We are citizens with as many rights as those in the southern district,” where Rio’s middle and upper class neighbourhoods are.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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