In 2012, Carlos Minc, then the Secretary of the Environment for the state of Rio de Janeiro, announced the closing of the illegal dumping ground in Jardim Gramacho (Gramacho Gardens), a neighborhood in the city of Duque de Caxias – the largest such dumpsite in Latin America.
Minc promised that, by the end of 2014, all 72 illegal dumps in his jurisdiction would be closed. "The state will be the first in Brazil without any illegal dumps," he proclaimed.
Four years later and on the eve of hosting the Olympic Games, the state of Rio, already facing a flood of criticism for not having sufficiently cleaned up the water of Guanabara Bay where the sailing competitions will be held, has actually seen an increase in the number of illegal dump sites.
Most are on the outskirts of Gramacho, which was never fully cleaned and is now largely controlled by drug traffickers. Animal carcasses and skeleton frames of rusted automobiles can be found in the area. Coal plants add smoke to the neighborhood's pollution.
"There is no use closing [dump sites] without addressing the socioeconomic conditions for the people in the area, who are very poor," sociologist Gabriela Santos told Fox News Latino, "or without controlling the crime. You close one, and another one appears."
According to the Coordinated Combat Against Environmental Crime (CICCA in its Portuguese acronym), traffickers control five illegal dumps in the area, charging around 40 reais (a little more than $12) per ton.
"Most of the residents of the neighborhood live off the garbage. With the closure of Gramacho, it created a large illegal trade around it, with truck drivers and businesses that don't want to take their special waste to the legal sanitary landfill and pay 60 reais per ton," CICCA chief José Mauricio Padrone told FNL.
About 42 percent of all Brazilian garbage – nearly 30 million tons of trash – is dumped in unregulated places such as these, according to the latest available data. In the State of Rio, 19 officially sanctioned dumps continue to operate.
According to the local newspaper, O Dia, drug-dealers from Mangueirinha Complex – a cluster of favelas or slums – control at least two illegal dumpsites around Jardim Gramacho.
A lot of the refuse originates at hospitals and chemical plants and contains material that should be disposed in authorized locations, which are generally further away and more expensive to use than dumps close to the city.
When household and commercial trash are deposited together with the industrial and hospital wastes, the resulting uncontrolled decomposition can be highly toxic.
"The consequences are soil contamination, water contamination, air pollution – because of fires," biologist Mario Moscatelli said. "Mangroves are grounded, soil and water contaminated by leachate – the liquid that comes from waste decomposition and everything else that is released without any care for the environment. Where the slurry goes, everything dies, and, of course, this contamination reaches [Guanabara] Bay."
The irregular dumping also poses a safety risk for tourists and athletes. Gramacho is only three miles from at Tom Jobim International Airport, and the vultures that are drawn to the trash can get caught in jet turbines and causing airplane accidents.
"It may take a Boeing plane crash to kick the authorities into acting about the environment," Moscatelli said. "There is a lack of interest, even from the public, which does not see garbage disposal as a top priority."
The dumping compromises the health and safety of families living in the dumps, many of whom survive on what they can find in the middle of the waste – because of the medical and industrial origin, that often includes used syringes and broken glass – but also of the residents of nearby communities.
Duque de Caxias is a fairly affluent city of nearly a million people in one of the richest states in Brazil, and residents of the areas adjacent to Gramacho complain about the increase of mosquitoes and diseases caused by poor sanitation.
Ilka Moreira, who has lived in the favela of Chatuba for about 12 years, said that her two children already have respiratory problems and near-constant diarrhea. "I'm sure it's because of the dirty water, contaminated by the dump, and because of the soil – which is dirty, has rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes," she said. "Everything bad grows there and arrives at our house."
Moscatelli told FNL, "When you look at this place, you might believe it's in another country. It is a small piece of Haiti within the second richest city of Rio."