Churches and communities join forces to clean up polluted waters in Brazil

Community EmpowermentEnvironment and climate change

The residents of communities around the Tejipió River in north-east Brazil suffer from regular floods. The factors that cause such floods are well known: rising sea levels caused by climate change and inefficient public policies focused on water resources. Added to this, a tide of plastic waste only makes the floods worse, bringing pollution and disease.

River Tejipio and plastic pollution in Recife, Brazil. Photo: Moises Lopes
River Tejipio and plastic pollution in Recife, Brazil. Photo: Moises Lopes

Facing frequent floods  

Given the disastrous effects of the frequent floods – often hitting hardest those housed in precarious conditions along the riverside – a group of churches and community leaders decided to take action. They set up the Clear River, Healthy Town project which has monitored and assisted families affected by the floods over the past four years. In that time, it has benefited more than 10,000 people who have suffered from direct or indirect problems caused by the floods. 

Key objectives of the project are to raise the level of effective involvement of churches and community-based organisations in local social and environmental causes and advocacy, and to reduce the effects of floods on the Tejipió River communities. 

Community action 

After years of flooding, local people were keen to take the initiative. Churches and community-based institutions mobilised to advocate for the preservation of the Tejipió River and the right to housing. Street protests, public meetings and awareness campaigns took place. People were also trained in and equipped for good environmental practices and prepared to prevent and respond to disasters. Local communities are now keen to establish a network of entrepreneurs who can make an income from collecting the waste and turning it into products they can sell. 

An Emergency Plan for Fighting Floods was prepared and put into practice during the rainy season in 2017. It had already brought significant results in the floods of the previous year. When the plan was activated by a flood warning, it took just over 30 minutes to bring together all the competent bodies and churches participating in the plan. As a result, the civil defence, the energy company and the fire department came together promptly to address problems and help the population.

A street flooded with water from the Tejipió. The floods are caused in part by the huge amount of plastic pollution in the river. Photo: Moises Lopes
A street flooded with water from the Tejipió. The floods are caused in part by the huge amount of plastic pollution in the river. Photo: Moises Lopes

This project helps people to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Carlos Matheus Lima

‘The most important action was the training provided by Tearfund on disasters,’ says Crispim Figueirêdo, a member of the local pastors’ and leaders’ council. ‘Soon after that we had a flood, and with the place full of water, people began to act. They worked all night. This mobilised pastors to open churches and people brought groceries, food and clothes for others.’ 

Important role of the church 

As a result of their practical engagement, churches have become better acquainted with the realities of the community. This has resulted in an approach that goes beyond religious matters, and has raised interest in focusing on the sort of structural problems that bring about poverty and misery. By overcoming these problems, the quality of life of these people will improve significantly. This situation has encouraged people to recognise the important role the church has in the community, broadening the purely spiritual profile it has had historically. 

‘I believe Clear River, Healthy Town is a project of God,’ says Carlos Matheus Lima, a member of the local youth monitoring committee, ‘because it came as a bridge to relieve these people from their suffering. These people lost their land, their homes, and their business because of this pollution. So it’s a project that helps them to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.’ 

Priscilla Souza
Priscilla Souza is Project Officer for Tearfund in Brazil. Email: priscilla.souza@tearfund.org