Recovering a river in Brazil: Startup aims to breathe life into polluted area

Pinheiros was straightened and stripped of its original vegetation between 1940 and 1950 during the industrialization in São Paulo. (Photo by Eugenia Álvares Affonso/BU News Service)

By Eugenia Álvares Affonso
BU News Service

SAO PAULO — Traffic lines, honking cars  and a polluted Pinheiros River that lacks any sign of life are routine sights for the more than 1 million people who drive daily through the Pinheiros Expressway.

But this scenario is about to change. At least partially.

Legado das Águas (Legacy of the Waters), a startup owned by the Votorantim Group, was appointed last December by the Secretariat of the Environment of the State of Sao Paulo to join Projeto Pomar Urbano (Urban Orchard Project) to help recover the Pinheiros River’s riparian vegetation using only native species of the Atlantic Forest.

“People nowadays live in cities,” said João Francisco Whitaker Gonçalves Dias, coordinator of sustainability at Legado das Águas. “We must bring native vegetation back to Sao Paulo to raise awareness about the importance of protecting green areas.”

Projeto Pomar Urbano, which was created in 1999 as Projeto Pomar (Orchard Project), assigned small areas across the Pinheiros’ riverbank to private companies that would fund the plantings and, in return, use the areas for advertising. Thirty four companies were a part of the project originally.

Projeto Pomar “went through ups and downs” until it was “completely abandoned” in 2017 due to lack of agreement between private companies and the government, according to Dias.

“It’s complicated for a private initiative to understand the government’s agenda,” Dias said. “Private companies work much faster, they want everything done as soon as possible but that’s not how the government works.”

In an attempt to get the project back on track, the Secretariat of the Environment held a public contest in 2018 to assign the west riverbank to a new private partner. Legado das Águas, or simply Legado, presented the winning landscaping project by botanist Ricardo Cardim, an associate of the startup since 2014.

Under the responsibility of Legado, the new Projeto Pomar Urbano will be different in two aspects.

First, government won’t have to deal directly with companies anymore. Legado will negotiate partnerships with private companies that will fund the planting of 0.6-mile-areas in exchange for publicity. Then, it will pass what was agreed on to government.

Second, the project will use only native species of the Atlantic Forest. According to Dias, a preliminary study of the area was conducted to identify species that were there prior to 1940, when Pinheiros was straightened and lost its riparian vegetation for the sake of Sao Paulo’s industrialization. Seedlings of more than 300 species will be provided by Legado’s reserve, in Miracatu, 125 miles from Sao Paulo.

“The original project [from 1999] didn’t take into account what species were ideal for that environment,” said Dias. “Their concerns were merely aesthetic and many exotic species cultivated there are negatively impacting that area.”

According to Ricardo Cardim, 90% of the vegetation in Brazilian cities nowadays is composed of exotic species.

“That’s absurd considering that Brazil has the biggest biodiversity on the planet,” Cardim said. “People don’t get the chance to understand the beauty and the benefits of native species, they are seen as simply disposable.”

The species cultivated along the 16 miles of the Pinheiros’ riverbank will connect with other remaining areas of the Atlantic Forest in Sao Paulo, such as the Villa Lobos, Alfredo Volpi and Burle Marx parks. This will create an ecological corridor whose large genetic flow will re-balance the city’s environment, Cardim said.

Legado das Águas’ contract with the Secretariat of the Environment expires in 2023. Until then, it hopes provide Sao Paulo with a reforested Pinheiros’ riverbank, where people can stroll and have picnics like they used to 80 years ago, Cardim said.

River Infographic

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