How about landfilling the Lagoon?


How about landfilling the Lagoon?

Recently launched by Cidade Viva publishers, the book Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – Uma discussão cententária (Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon – A hundred-year old discussion) brings together already-proposed gaudy solutions to the problem of one of Rio’s main postcards. Among them, the project to completely landfill the lagoon due to the risk represented by the space to public health, and the idea of building wind mills to pump sea water into the geographic accident.


The Lagoon is one of the prettiest places in Rio. However, its environment originally hostile to occupation inspired extravagant ideas over time – including of completely landfilling the area. This is what is revealed in the book which was launched last month. In the book, engineer and ex-president of the State Foundation of Enviromental Engineering Victor Coelho tackles the characteristics, history and studies involving the area in the Zona Sul.

The proposal to end the Lagoon is from 1905. Its author is doctor Saturnino Nicolau Cardoso. For him, the measure was justified due to the location representing a large risk to public health, due to the immense consentration of mosquitos – among other reasons. “Landfilling is easier and more economic than treating the problem, but it is definitively not a solution”, comments Victor. Another unusual project forsaw the construction of 40 wind mills with the aim of pumping sea water into the Lagoon. Suggested by Baron of Tefé in 1880, the initiative also didn’t leave the planning stage. “There was a great bother with the so-called miasmas, which are gases eminating from the Lagoon”, said Victor.

Behind the ideas that cause a strange feeling today, is the challenge represented by the natural dynamic of the Lagoon. To exist, the body of water depends on constant exchanges with the sea. They guarantee the oxygenation and other factors that interfere in the balance of the ecosystem. Without the salty water, the number of algae in the location is growing quickly. The launch of untreated sewage stimulates even more growth, which has negative consequences. The algae consume oxygen to decompose and end up creating a dead layer at the bottom of the Lagoon. When a strong wind or another phenomenon moves the water, the level of oxygen also falls on the surface, killing fish and generating the so-called fish kill. That’s why it’s important to maintain the Lagoon in contact with the ocean.

From rowing to stand up paddle

With close to 2 km squared, the Lagoon is relatively shallow. It’s deepest points only go down 4 meters. “One of them is around the Calombo curve”, reveals Victor. However, the location brings together close to 6 million cubic meters of water. Today, a population of 160,000 people live around the geographic accident. Inhabited by capybaras, egrets and monkeys, the region is one of the cariocas most preferred areas to practice sports. They go from rowing, which starts at 5:30AM, to stand up paddling. Different from beaches, the Lagoon isn’t (and never was) a place to take baths. “This happens because, when it rains, it receives water contaminated by animal feces and other remains”, explains Victor.


In the image from Fon-fon magazine in 1922, construction near the Lagoon

As one may know, the Lagoon was not landfilled. But other less drastic works were done with the aim of facilitating the occupation of its surroundings. The biggest of them dates from the start of the 1920s. Taken up by the firm Lafayette, Siqueira & C, the intervention starting in April 1921 used close to 300,000 cubic meters of stone and more than 2 million cubic meters of landfill to give life to avenue Epitácio Pessoa and a system created to guarantee the circulation of salty water in the Lagoon. Through the project of engineer Saturnino de Brito, the sea currents would enter the body of water by means of a channel on avenue Delfim Moreira, from where they would follow a path that crosses the streets General Garzon and Visconde de Albuquerque. “The idea was that the flux re-encounters the ocean in Leblon, around where Vidigal is. But it didn’t work because the system entrance is constantly clogged by sand”, says Victor.


The channel on avenue Delfim Moreira is already done. It’s all made of reinforced concrete, with powerful steel locks. Vidigal beach is also in full construction, and the respective works are well advanced (…) Thanks to these artificial communications, which man is opening up, the unhealthiness of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon disappears completely, whose waters, no longer being a permanent foci of diseases, will always be renewed by the ocean (Gazeta de Notícias, 07/03/1923)


Research shows that the first indigenous groupings in the Lagoa region arose in the 6th century. However, the beginning of the colonization of the area only happened in 1575, with the creation of the D’El Rei Mill in place of the current Botanical Garden. The name Rodrigo de Freitas is a tribute to the husband of Petronilha Fagundes, who married the heir of the lands in 1702. Among the illustrious visitors that the Lagoon has received, is the English scientist Charles Darwin. On June 25, 1832, he described in his diary the charm with the “waters stained purple by the last rays of the twilight.” Some decades later, in 1889, the Wool and Corcovado Fabrics Company factory settled in the surroundings of the body of water, beginning its industrialization. “The Lagoon has already concentrated a large number of laboratories, industries and favelas on its banks,” recalls Victor.

Recent times


Aerial view of the Lagoon from Leblon beach

The current configuration of space begins to emerge in the 1950s, with the closure of factories that existed in the region. In the late 1960s, Praia do Pinto, Ilha das Dragas and other favelas were removed, anticipating the boom in the next decade. In the book, Victor reveals that the construction of the buildings that exist today at the edge of the Lagoon often involved the landfill of sites without the authorization of the city hall. The result was the loss of almost half of the original area of the body of water. “In recent years, pumps and tunnels have been built that have improved water quality,” he says. In addition, the engineer highlights the creation of a control center by Cedae and the daily monitoring of temperature and other indicators by the city as positive measures.

Since the problem of the internal balance of the Lagoon has not yet been resolved, new proposals continue to emerge. One of them foresees the extension of the Garden of Alá canal to the sea, with the deepening of its outline. Another is the installation of four pipes of more than 3 meters in diameter in the same region. The two projects have an objective in common: to inject salt water into the body of water. “Today, investments in this are stagnant. We have to wait for better times for new experiences,” says Victor. Without doing away with the Lagoon, any solution is valid so that Rio has an even more beautiful postcard in the future. – Source (PT)

(One year ago, I was researching the entire past of the Lagoon for a longform article I hoped to have published in a big newspaper, but I only ended up with lots of research and several paragraphs before something more pressing took priority. I look forward to reading this book.)

Cariocas kissing in cars – 1935


Going through the 1930s archives of Careta magazine, I found the short article below which struck me for the image of Carioca couples freely sitting in their cars at lookout points in Rio for some face time. Since air-conditioning didn’t exist, I imagine they did this with their windows down and not, ahem, paying much attention to their surroundings.

Throughout the years I’ve spent studying historical Rio, I’ve always sort of wondered when the city became violent, and my instinct has always told me this happened around the 1950s onward (I’m not alone, by the way).

In the image above, one can get an idea of what kind of cars the author might have been talking about. As a bonus, here’s a racing site (and its PDF backup) showing images of the popular races that took place at the same time as the story below was being written (the Volta da Gávea was one of Brazil’s most popular race tracks). Take special note on the racing site of French woman Hellé Nice, one of the pioneer female race car drivers who was also said to have been the first woman to wear a bikini on the beaches of Rio (though that might have just been a rumor since German Miriam Etz is credited for this in 1948 — a post I’ve been meaning to publish for a while now).

A Smile for All...

“In the sentimental geography of the city, ‘territories of love’ are numerous and very well-known. Even without a compass and a “baedecker” (travel guidebook), any clever tourist will be able to discover them. But Mr. Henrique Pongetti (writer & dramaturge), with a gratuitous and praiseworthy wisdom, made himself the loveable “ciceroni” (tour guide) of sentiments, to happily teach us, not without a certain malice, the roads which in Rio lead to the territories of love. Pointing out to us, with an ironic but serviceable hand, these galant routes, the illustrious writer of chronicles declared that the automobile circuits of Carioca love, the “Volta da Gávea” and the “Volta da Tijuca”, were the everyday greatest testaments.

The Paraizo road, for them starts at the granite throat of Avenida Niemeyer, which seems like the Alighierian gate of Malebolge (eighth gate of hell), but allows — sweet clandestinity decorated in green! — the first fearless kiss from the tongue of the world. I wish to add to the geographic tips of Mr. Henrique Pongetti one more automobile circuit of Carioca love: the “Volta da Lagoa”. With the Avenida Epitacio Pessoa being my daily route into the city, I can give my testimony with authority and conviction: that territory is for love, as well…

Facing the placid mirror of the lake, the green shade of the mountain, in that beautiful landscape that starts at the Fonte da Saudade and ends at the court of Cantagalo — there are many idyllic carefree and happy people, every day! Sometimes, the sun has barely leaned over the green mane of Cantagalo hill to illuminate the lake, and already the cars slip in there, matinal-like, driven by happy couples in love…At midday, when I pass by for lunch, there are cars stopped, in whose cushions, the couples get cozy and kiss assured. Some of them, shy and cautious, hide their faces behind the windshield, in fear of being surprised in the criminal act of happiness. Naive ones! as if love were a sin…

At night, when the first stars jump from the sky to dive into the calm waters of the lake, mysterious cars, with headlights turned off, tranquilly stop in the middle of the deserted and seductive landscape, for a moment of privacy and silence…All these couples that pass by or stop there, from when the sun goes up til the stars come out, are courageous champions of a brilliant automobile circuit of love — of the “Volta da Lagoa”.

It is just a question of Mr Pongetti officializing, in the sentimental tourism guide of the Automobile Club, this new and adorable circuit. I consider it as important and as preferred as the “Volta da Gavea” and the “Volta da Tijuca”… And being that love, in Rio, is a sport for steering wheels, it is legitimate to point out this new route of happiness to lovers of automobilism…”

Rio’s Last Lagoon



“The area around Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon was initially inhabited by the Tamoio indians, who called it one of three names: Praguá (which means “fish cove”), Sacopenapã (“road of herons”) and Capôpenypau (“lagoon of shallow roots”). With the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers, the governor and Captain-General of the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy, António Salema, intended to install a sugarcane mill on the edges of the lake. To free it of the unwanted presence of the indians, he had clothes previously used by people with smallpox spread around the lake’s edges, resulting in the indians wearing them and subsequently dying. Thus began the sugarcane planting and the setting up of the d’El-Rey Mill, where today one finds the Visitor’s Center of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden.

Later, these lands were acquired by the alderman Amorim Soares, with the lake being referred to as the “Lagoa de Amorim Soares”. With his expulsion from the city in 1609, the lands were sold to his son-in-law, Sebastião Fagundes Varela, with the consequent name-changing to “Lagoa do Fagundes”. This landowner, by acquisition and invasion, expanded his ownership of the region, and by 1620, he was already the owner of all the land that goes from modern-day Humaitá to Leblon.

In 1702, his great-grandaughter, Petronilha Fagundes, then 35 years old, married the young Portuguese calvary officer, Rodrigo de Freitas de Carvalho, then just 18 years old, and who would give his name to the lake. Widowed, Rodrigo de Freitas returned to Portugal in 1717, where he died in 1748…

Fonte da Saudade


The Fonte da Saudade, near the Praia de Piaçava [1]. Towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, Portuguese laundry women who worked for rich families in Botafogo would get together around the fountain, washing clothes and sharing stories of missing their homeland.


The region stayed in the hands of the tenants without great fanfare until the beginning of the 19th century. Then, in 1808, the Portuguese Royal Family arrived during the transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil. The Prince Regent appropriated the Engenho da Lagoa (Lagoon Mill) to build a powder factory and construct the Real Horto Botânico (Royal Botanical Garden)—today’s Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden.

During the 19th century many diverse solutions were thought of for the problem of stagnated water—until, in 1922, the Bureau of Rural Sanitation presented a project to “…clean up and beautify the Capital for the Independence Centennial festivities.” That project involved dredging a canal to reconnect the lagoon to the sea, and deepen the land bar. The soil removed to build the canal formed the island of Caiçara, seat of today’s club of the same name.

In a short time, embankments formed on its edges, which gradually reduced its surface area, providing land for the Jockey Club Brasileiro, the Jardim de Alá, and the sport seat of the Clube Naval on the island of Piraquê. The dredged channel is now called the Jardim de Alá Channel.” [Wiki]


1173791992_fSee the delineation over time

At the start of the 1970s, the most agressive form of real estate speculation ocurred in the area, which was invaded by construction companies that started landfilling the Lagoa even without government authorization, in order to build residential buildings. The Lagoa had already been enduring landfills since 1808 and had lost almost half of its original size. Many residents and arquitects protested, including Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, demanding that the Lagoa be declared historic heritage.

This only came to happen in 1975 during the Marcos Tamoyo administration, who also approved a decree for the alignment of its edges. It was forbidden to alter the outline of the reflection pool. [2]

The Last of its Kind

The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon is the last lagoon within Rio’s city limits. The others – Desterro (Rua dos Arcos), Santo Antônio (Largo do Carioca), Boqueirão (in front of Lapa Aqueduct), Lampadosa (Praça Tiradentes) and Sentinela (near Catumbi) – were, at one time or another, landfilled to create new urban spaces. Being the only one left, and taking into consideration its history and the historical what-ifs below, one can imagine it might have looked quite different today.

1 – In the 1920s, for a short time, residents protested for the complete landfilling of the Lagoa. 2 – If the lagoon wasn’t partially landfilled over the centuries, it would be between one-third to one-half larger. 3 – Several favelas that have since been wiped from existence could have surrounded the lagoon. 4 – A maritime complex called Lagocean (#7) could have transformed the area between the lagoon and the sea.

The Disappearing Favelas

favela-catacumba-baixa-620-size-598(Catacumba favela, in Lagoa)

“Those who pass by the Catacumba Park today, in Lagoa, the Selva de Pedra apartment complex, in Leblon, or by UERJ, in Tijuca, won’t find any sign that, less than 30 years prior, they housed the three largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro: Catacumba, Praia do Pinto and Esqueleto, respectively. The three communities were destroyed during the removal frenzy of the 1960s and their residents transfered to housing projects in the suburbs or in the Zona Oeste. From 1968 to 1975, at least 50,000 needy families were forced to leave their homes. “In the beginning I didn’t believe it, I thought it was a lie, but soon after they started the registrations. It was all very quick”, remembers the retiree Ismael Silva, raised in the Catacumba favela, in Lagoa, and a 30-year resident of Brás de Pina.

Of all the removed favelas of the 60s, the most controversial was that of Praia do Pinto, in Leblon. The residents found out about the plans of the Mayor’s Office for doing away with the community in the 1950s, and they strongly resisted. According to data from the 1949 Favela Census, at least 20,000 people lived in the location. The removal was only concluded after the fire, in 1969, during the governor Negrão de Lima’s term in office. “A lot of people didn’t want to leave. In spite of the problems, they prefered to continue living in the Zona Sul. The fire made everyone leave”, affirms Maria Rosa de Souza Noronha, 62 years old, ex-resident of Praia do Pinto, and later removed to Complexo da Maré.

Pracitcally all the shacks at Praia do Pinto were destroyed by the fire. On the following day, police tore down the few remaining houses that were still standing. Until today, no one can confirm if it was an accident or the Government’s last ditch effort to toss out the residents. But all indications point towards a forced removal.

praia-do-pinto(Praia do Pinto, in Leblon)

The ex-governor of Rio and current minister of Action and Social Promotion, Benedita da Silva, was born in Praia do Pinto and lived there until her family moved to Chapéu Mangueira, in Leme, years before the devastating fire. At the time, Praia do Pinto was the largest horizontal favela in Rio and used to be visited constantly by Zona Sul residents, among them, the poet Vinícius de Morães, who, according to accounts, had the idea of writing the play “Orfeu da Conceição” during one of the favela’s dance nights. On the sensuality of the Afro-Brazilians, Vinícius had said: “They seem like Greeks. Greeks before Greek culture”.

“It was a political plot by Lacerda”

Another extinct community of large proportions in the 60s was the Esqueleto favela, in Tijuca, that came to encompass close to 4,000 shacks and close to 12,000 inhabitants. The first residents settled in the area in the 50s. The houses were built with remains from the University of Brazil’s Clinical Hospital. The construction of which was interupted and never again retaken. “The whole removal process was done very quickly. Registered families were taken to housing projects and the shacks were destroyed. I thought it was all too quick, but there was no disrespect”, remembers Dilmo Emídio Ferreira, ex-resident of the Esqueleto favela, destroyed to make room for the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and a stretch of Avenida Radial Oeste.

faveladoesqueletoatualu(Esqueleto favela, in Tijuca)

The last 495 shacks of the Esqueleto favela were demolished in 1965. The ex-residents still believe it was politically-motivated. “It was a political plot by Lacerda because he wanted to be elected president. My whole family went to Vila Kennedy”, says Dilmo, who prefered to remain in Mangueira because of its samba roots. A little more than 4 decades after the removal he fondly remembers his friends, who were spread throughout the city. “I never saw many people ever again. At the time, drug trafficking was still in its early years, there was the swindler, capoeira, but no one in the favela knew about cocaine. The atmosphere was very chill”, he says.

“If they made a Favela-Neighborhood, I come back running”

Located on the divide between Ipanema and Copacabana, in a strategic area of high real estate worth, the Catacumba favela was gone by 1970. With a privildeged view of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the community had 2,320 shacks and close to 15,000 inhabitants. Adetrudes Justino de Souza, or Mr. Souza, 72 years old, was president of the resident’s association and assisted the State in the registration process of the families that were to be removed. Thirty-three years later, he still commemorates the achievement of having a land title but disagrees with who the process was conducted. “It was all too quick, people had to be prepared. They were thrown into housing projects”, affirms Mr. Souza, who lived for 23 years in Catacumba.

In spite of the distance to the city center, the forced separation from neighbors and the mostly arbitrary manner in which the government conducted the removals, for some ex-residents of the demolished favelas the move also had its positive points. Among pros and contras, they emphasize the achievement of land titles and the minimal systems of infrastructure, like sewage and water treatment. “This was the good part. But, in reality, we didn’t have a choice”, says Ismael, who took a long time to get used to the distance from his friends. “If they made a Favela-Neighborhood, I come back running”, he resumes.”

Source: Favela Tem Memoria