Rolling Stone – January 9, 1997

1  The Anthill

The future of the planet straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, perched atop the Brazilian coastal escarpment at an elevation of 2,700 feet, 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is called Greater Sao Paulo, home to an estimated 18 mil­lion people and still growing.

Megacities like São Paulo are the way much of our species will soon live. The world’s population has almost tripled in the last 30 years, and half of all humans now live in cities. In 1900, only one human in 40 did. In 1960, New York was the only city in the world with more than 10 million in­habitants and was dubbed a “megacity” by demographers. Tokyo, now the world’s largest megacity, joined it 10 years later. São Paulo, now the second-largest, joined in the decade after that. By 2015, there will be 33 megacities, mostly in the Third World, and unprecedented density will be the rule.

It has already been that way for a while in São Paulo. Here, sprawled across the upper Tietê river basin, immediately west of the mountains of the Serra do Mar and east of the broad plan alto of the South American interior, there are virtually no trees, and the urban core is sometimes 50 degrees warmer than the remnants of forest on its outskirts. The horizon is always near­by, and entering this place from the air­port feels a bit like being swallowed whole. The road in runs along the River Tietê, a slow-moving sludge of turds, laundry detergent and battery acid.

“Some city you got here,” I said to my taxi driver.

He answered in Portuguese, and I fumbled around for my dictionary. “Welcome to the anthill,” is what I think he said.

2  Looking Down on the Megacity

All the world’s megacities are different from one another: Only São Paulo, Beijing and Mexico City are not seaports. All mega­cities are economic centers, but New York and Tokyo are far wealthier than São Paulo, which is better off than Buenos Aires, Argentina. São Paulo cannot match the squalor of Calcutta, India, but it comes dose, and while it is better built than Jakarta, Indonesia; Cairo, Egypt; and Manila, Philippines; it has none of the civic nobility of Paris or even Los Angeles. Like most megacities, São Paulo’s air is often foul, but that of Shanghai, China, and Mexico City is even worse. São Paulo is growing at more than twice the rate of nearby Rio de Janeiro, but far more slow­ly than either Karachi, Pakistan, or Lagos, Nigeria. Sao Paulo is a megaci­ty easily described as either the best of the worst or the worst of the best.

And it doesn’t reveal itself easily at ground level, where it mostly makes a noise like a buzz saw and stinks like a hot engine block. I never quite got what the place was about until I looked down on it.

The helicopter I hired took off in the afternoon, while an unsea­sonal rain blew off to the northwest. We flew to the city edge, then wheeled and made a run back from the outside in. First, the tatters of the Mata Atlantica forest give way to a sudden baldness full of four- and six-story housing projects flanked by two-room houses built out of cinder block. Squatter colonies living on red dirt and under tin sheets dot the watercourses that weave among the 12-story stucco rectangles painted to resemble fast-food cartons. Then the 16- and 24-story bare concrete towers appear, with tiny porches and metal window frames, many of which drip tongues of rust down the walls toward the asphalt. All of it lays out like a train wreck, each fragment at an obscure angle to the next, an arrangement of random eruptions rather than the footprint of a choreographed advance. Above Greater São Paulo’s core, over the Avenue Paulista where much of Brazil plugs into the global economy, in every direction I looked, the city was all bristling stalagmites.

And it was suddenly obvious that like all anthills, the 5,000 square miles of habi­tat below me acted like one enormous organism rather than 18 million tiny ones.

3  This is Brazil

Greater São Paulo is marked most by how quickly it has grown. Thirty years ago, it was a quarter of its current size. The city’s engorgement was triggered when a revolution in Brazilian agriculture re­placed small tenant farms with mecha­nized agribusiness, forcing the rural peas­antry, still a majority of Brazil’s population in the early 1960s, off the land and into an enormous exodus. Today, Brazil is 90 per­cent urban. Much of that transformation happened in a stampede out of Brazil’s im­poverished northeast and into São Paulo, where an influx of foreign capital was building the mightiest engine on the continent and the economy was growing at 9 percent a year. Sao Paulo’s population grew 5 percent a year for the better part of two decades before shrinking to its current rate of about 2 percent. It soon became a joke among Paulistas that the only two things that never stop growing are cancer and their hometown.

São Paulo’s inflation into a megacity was a land rush. The desperate, the poor, the unemployed and the ambitious de­scended on the city in droves, carrying their lives in bundles or ancient suitcases on cross-country buses, unloading at the Terminal Rodoviario do Tietê or one of four other stations. At times, Greater Sao Paulo added a new population the size of Seattle to its rolls every year. People found places to live wherever they could. Settlement was relentless, spreading outward from the municipality of São Paulo into the 38 surrounding municipalities that make up the “greater” area with such speed that neighborhoods were sometimes overpopulated before they were even named. The farther from downtown these locations were, the larger the likelihood that their residents were either poor or newcomers or both.

São Paulo had a master plan, zoning regulations and a planning commission, but none of this seemed to make much difference against such a tide. Now, Domingos Theodoro de Azevedo Netto, director of the municipality of São Paulo’s planning secretariat, estimates that at least two-thirds of all the construction done during Sao Paulo’s 30-year boom was completed without official permission. If forced to, the builders dealt with permits after the fact, but most often, not at all. There were even instances of developers erecting apartment buildings, selling the apartments and disappearing without ever holding legal title to the land upon which the apartment buildings stood. Connection to city services was rare or haphazard. It was common for structures to be erected with indoor plumbing that emptied sewage onto a nearby hillside. Vacant land in the patchwork of São Paulo’s growth – mostly the lowlands along the river basin’s creek banks, flood plains or public watersheds was invaded by the impoverished, who erected illegal squatter towns known as favelas in Portuguese, most of which used open latrines or the watercourse itself to handle the sewage. By the early 1970s, only 1 percent of São Paulo’s population lived in such squalor. Now there are almost 2,000, housing some 8 percent of the population.

De Azevedo Netto provided me with that summary of Greater São Paulo’s metamorphosis in his downtown office. He was dressed for the Brazilian winter in a sweater and tweeds. Mostly he spoke Portuguese to my interpreter, but sometimes he switched to English and spoke directly to me. When he said that two-thirds of São Paulo had been built outside of any planning structure whatsoever, my eyebrows lifted. I pointed out that this is an exceptional statistic by all the standards that prevail in the United States.

He compressed his lips and turned his palms toward the ceiling. When he spoke, it was in English.

“This is not the United States,” he said. “This is Brazil.”

4  Megacity From the Top to Bottom

Like all megacities and like the rest of Brazil, São Paulo has a small top and a large bottom. Almost 2 million of the city’s 18 mi lion people live in First World circumstances. They are card holders the global economy that stations 1,200 branch banks and the outposts , major multinational corporations in office towers on either side of the eight-lane Avenue Paulista. They work on laptops, fly in jets, talk on cellular phones, attend universities, watch cable television and shop at Benneton. They may patronize one of Greater São Paulo’s 80 or so McDonald’s franchises, where a Big Mac costs the equivalent of $5.10, or or of its more than 2,000 pizza parlors, including a spate of Pizza Huts. They like to shop in American-style shopping malls, some featuring elabora indoor amusement parks. On Saturday afternoons at the larger malls they find parking spaces with difficulty, often cruising the lot for as long as a half-hour. They live near the city’s hub where the commute is short mostly in high-rise apartments featuring security perimeters, and they think in dollars rather than cents.

For Greater São Paulo’s remaining 16 million, life is decidedly Third World. There are more poor people here than reside in all of either Haiti or Somalia. Most of them walk to work when they have it, sometimes taking as long as three hours to get there. The upper reaches of this Third World have found jobs in the factories where automobili are built for Fiat, Volkswagen and General Motors. Theirs is a small change economy, largely unskilled. The staples of life are still often at issue for them, but thanks to television, they have learned to aspire the consumption promoted by advertising agencies and credit-card companies. This world’s bottom feeders camp in the garbage dumps, sniff glue late at night among the lesser side streets downtown or have no homes at all, sleeping under freeway bridges and in doorways.

I met several of these people at a Sun­day morning outdoor prayer service under a freeway overpass, where the sermon was delivered in Portuguese by a Korean Methodist minister. Then everyone who sat or stood through it was given a chit that could be redeemed for a cup of café au lait and a white-bread roll the size of a small mango. One of those in line spoke English. He said he’d gone to a university in Lisbon, Portugal, lived in New York at one time, and confessed to having been headed downhill for a while.

“I tell ya,” he said, “this place is a motherfucker to be on the bot­tom of.”

The next two rungs up Greater São Paulo’s ladder are only a little better. These are the favelas and the cortiços. Cortiço literally means “beehive” and is the name given to Greater São Paulo’s tenements, home to some 2 million Paulistas. Many cortiços are aging grand houses or apartment buildings that have been divided into the tiniest market­able spaces and rented. Some landlords even rent a space with barely enough room for one person to lie down to three different people, who occupy it in eight-hour shifts. More typically, a family of four or more occupies a 6-by-10 space, the size of a maximum-security cell in one of America’s older penitentiaries. In the favelas, the best of the dwellings has rudimentary cinder-block corner posts supporting a tin roof with a rough concrete slab for flooring. Though they have no legal standing, few of these squatter settlements are ever destroyed. The most notorious such eviction occurred at a settlement of some 10,000 residents, where the “official” order was supplied by resident gangsters. Over the years, an air of permanen­cy has settled on the favelas, though at least a third of the homes in them are smaller than 30 square feet.

In Morumbi, one of São Paulo’s richest districts, luxury high rises share a hill with a favela that is home to some 6oo families. From squatter level at the bottom of the slope, you can see a high-rise condo far­ther up that features swimming pools built into the balconies. One morning, my driver took a shortcut on the dirt road that ran along one edge of that Morumbi slum on our way to see the building with the stacked layers of swimming pools. For a moment, we were halted by two residents of the squatter town who were digging a trench to the city’s water line to make an illegal connection. While one of the men moved their tools out of our path, the other made conversation.

He wanted to know where we were going, and my driver said we were headed up to get a look at the building with all the swimming pools.

“Oh,” the favela man said with a grin, “the birdbath.”

5  Will This Place Last? And if so, How?

Another morning, I interviewed Pedro Roberto Jacobi, a so­cial scientist at the Centro de Estudos de Cultura Contemporânea who had recently published a study under the auspices of the Stockholm Institute that surveyed the way Paulistas live and their impact on the envi­ronment. Jacobi is a regular visitor to New York and like most Paulistas, expressed a considerable attachment to his hometown.

“Will São Paulo survive its own growth?” I asked.

“São Paulo will most certainly survive,” he answered. “We just may end up wishing it hadn’t.”

Indeed: The ratio of open green space to residents in Greater São Paulo is less than a third of the World Health Organ­ization’s recommended minimum. Half the megacity’s residents’ water supply is rationed and available only once every two or three days. Until just a year ago, its poorest neighborhoods received water only once every eight days. During June, July and August, the dry months of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, atmos­pheric inversions over São Paulo’s core trap enough ozone and carbon monoxide west of the Serra do Mar to make the air unfit to breathe. The 18 million people with little choice but to breathe it anyway also produce some 20,000 tons of domestic and industrial garbage for daily inter­ment in dozens of official and unofficial landfills. The unmeasured remainder of Sao Paulo’s trash is mostly thrown in the Tietê or one of its dozens of tributaries. The same is true for excrement: 40 per­cent of Greater São Paulo’s sewage is de­posited out in the open, 65 percent is col­lected in the public sewers, less than 26 percent is actually treated, and all of it ends up back in the Tietê, sooner or later. Of the river’s normal turgid flow, some 40 percent is raw human effluent laced with factory sludge, industrial chemicals and heavy metals. The River Tietê is al­ready dead before it is halfway through town, devoid of sufficient dissolved oxy­gen to support even the most rudimenta­ry forms of aquatic life. It stays that way for at least a hundred miles downstream.

Judging by São Paulo, the megacity is a species for which the most dangerous predator is itself.

6  What Makes a Megacity Can Unmake it as Well

When Brazil set off to join the global economy in a major way, it pursued an American model. The national transportation infrastructure was built for automobiles, most of which would be manufactured in Greater São Paulo. Now the city exports buses and heavy trucks to North America and Europe, and sedans to all over South America.

And Greater São Paulo itself is a town on wheels. Its automobile population is now some 6 million and rising at a rate of perhaps 1,000 a day. At least 420 cars a day must be added to account for those stolen during the same period. 

Not surprisingly, traffic dominates São Paulo’s daily life. During 1992, the daily average total rush-hour backup was 23 miles; during 1993, 33 miles; during 1994, 58. Once, traffic backed up for 17 miles at a single tollbooth. A Friday evening with three simultaneous accidents at three separate points in traffic flow raised the backup record to 110 miles, until an accident involving four big rigs on a main artery stacked up 153 miles of automobiles stalled end to end, belching exhaust to be recycled throughout the metropolis as part of the air that Greater São Paulo breathes.

As megacities go, São Paulo’s air pollution is hardly the worst. In Mexico City the smog includes dried fecal dust as well as the usual chemicals, and in Shanghai it is often impossible to see the street from a fourth-story win­dow. In São Paulo, the horizon shortens to several blocks away during much of smog season, and everyone coughs a lot. Vehicles driven by internal com­bustion engines excrete some 5,000 tons a day of carbon monoxide into the surrounding atmosphere, some 900 tons a day of hydrocarbons and slight­ly less than that of nitrogen oxides. In dry, colder months, when there are no rainstorms passing over the Serra do Mar on winds out of the south or southeast, and the calm is marked by heavy cold air sitting atop the city’s own heat in a classic inversion, the exhaust lingers and lingers, making for at least a month’s worth of very bad air days every winter and close to the same every fall.

One obvious alternative is, of course, to use railed mass transit, but the city has been remarkably inept at it. São Paulo launched its metropolitan train system in 1968. So far it has constructed barely 27 miles of track. Montreal, which has completed its Metro, has laid far more track and at a cost of $48.3 million a mile. São Paulo’s has cost $322 million a mile.

I first heard that price comparison from three executives at Logos En­genharia S.A., an engineering company that is a major player in the city’s infrastructure construction and management.

“How do you account for that enormous discrepancy?” I asked.

The firm’s vice president, Ladi Beizus, lifted his palms and shrugged his shoulders. “This is Brazil,” he said.

7  The Downside of Prosperity

Greater São Paulo is one of the Third World’s success stories, a place where there was once never enough to go around, and where now there is that much, plus a lot left over to throw away. Not surprisingly, the issue that haunts São Paulo is where to throw it.

Some 8o percent of Greater São Paulo’s estimated 14,000 daily tons of municipal solid waste and 6,500 tons of industrial sol­id waste are collected by a public system, with the municipality of São Paulo collect­ing the most. Most of the area’s potentially toxic medical waste is disposed of by being burned in one of two aging incinerators, both of which have become so inefficient that they are major sources of airborne di­oxins. The rest of the city’s solid-waste col­lection is driven to landfills for burial.

Like New York, São Paulo is running out of such burial plots. The current Brazilian statutes require municipalities to in­ter their garbage inside the municipality’s own borders, and the municipality of São Paulo has run out of potential landfill sites. Faced with the same problem for its 22,000 tons a day, Tokyo has begun building is­lands out of its garbage at various loca­tions in Tokyo Bay. In Sao Paulo, the city government has finally committed itself to replacing the landfills and current incinerators with a garbage-separation program that will produce commercial com­post from organic waste, and two new, huge, state-of-the-art incinerators that can burn the remaining garbage and generate electricity to add to the city’s power grid. The plan’s detractors paint out that the North Americans have put a hold on such incinerators, citing air-pollution risks, and it hardly seems appropriate for São Paulo to add even more bad air to its mix. At this point, the separation program has begun, but it is handling only 7 percent of the dai­ly garbage and has found no stable market for its raw compost, and the contracts to build the incinerators have not yet even been bid.

Meanwhile, of course, the landfills continue to grow. Last year, São Paulo au­thorities were investigating the possibili­ty that one of them had even started to shift at its base, where the refuse had de­composed into a viscous jelly, and threat­ened to slide onto the nearby neighborhood. Bandeirantes, the city’s largest landfill, is literally a mountain of garbage, and though it is well engineered, like all landfills it produces methane gas and something called leachate. Leachate is the liquid that is continually generated when rainfall is absorbed into the landfill and filtered through the accumulated layers of decomposing garbage. It is collected and dumped into the sewer sys­tem. At night, the methane is often flared off, producing spears of flame that can be seen for miles.

8  What Will the Megacity Drink?

Water supply is a critical issue for São Paulo, as it is for most megacities. That such is the case here, however, is par­ticularly telling. The watersheds sur­rounding São Paulo receive an average of 87 inches of rain a year, comparable in vol­ume to some of the rain forests of the United States’ Pacific Northwest.

The foundation of this modern megacity’s increasingly inadequate water system was laid in the early decades of the 20th century when the British company that held the license to devel­op the water resources designed the city’s waterworks. Its principal features were two reservoirs. The first and larger of the two, Billings, was named for the designing engineer and is formed by a dam across the Rio Pinheiros, one of the Tietê’s  tributaries. It goes on for miles in four major fingers, covering what were once valleys under the green blanket of the Mata Atlantica. Built to generate hydroelectric power primarily for industrial development, Bil­lings ensured that Greater São Paulo was the only site in Brazil equipped for 20th-century development when it came. The second reservoir Billings built is called Guara­piranga, after the river that feeds it. Guarapir­anga has always been re­served for the public water supply.

This water system now includes some 26,000 miles of pipe, roughly enough to circle the earth at the equator, and about 45 percent of the daily shipment is lost to either leakage or theft. Leakage is so bad that at least a half-dozen sources volun­teered independently of one another that the wells in the downtown area draw chlorinated water straight out of the ground. Even as rattletrap as it is, however, the delivery system is far from the most significant threat to Greater São Paulo’s water supply. That designation belongs back up the line at the water’s source and, of course, in the surrounding sprawl of Greater São Paulo itself.

To begin with, a full half of the megacity’s supply is now brought in from the nearby city of Campinas, which is growing steadily, demanding that water for itself, which it may indeed prove to have rights to under Brazilian law. A relatively remote part of Billings is cur­rently tapped to supply water to the industrial suburbs housing the auto industry. Large parts of Billings are too foul to be usable – thanks to a program ended in the late 1980s in which water from the Pinheiros near its intersection with the Tietê was pumped back up to the reservoir to add to the flow over the escarpment. A plant on the Tietê upstream from the metropolis accounts for 20 per­cent of the supply, and the rest is pumped out of Guarapiranga, the systern’s senior source. And Guarapiranga is threatened as well. Now, there are fav­elas and less-than-legal housing estab­lished on or near perhaps half of its total shoreline, many of them unconnected to any sewage system at all, making the entire metropolis’s grip on its necessities even more vulnerable.

Water shortages are forecast for Greater São Paulo in the 21st century.

9  The River Tietê

In the perverse ecolo­gy of megacities, water pumped into São Paulo’s pipes every second is bal­anced by the raw sewage that is dumped back into the myriad brooks, streams, trickles and canals that feed the River Tietê. That trans­lates into some 800 tons a day of domestic sewage, 370 tons a day of industrial sewage and five tons a day of industrial inorgan­ic waste, chemicals and heavy metals.

In 1977, São Paulo began construction on a sewage plant that would be the first step in a 10-year cam­paign to clean up the Tietê. In fact, it took more than 10 years just to complete that plant, and it brought the amount of sewage being treated up to only 11 percent. In 1991, the surrounding state of São Paulo, which has jurisdiction over the river, announced another program to clean the Tietê in its entirety, this time by 1994. The first stage of that campaign involved construction of a plant that would increase the amount of treated sewage to 18 percent. That plant is now scheduled to be finished by 1998. There is a second stage of the plan that will raise the treatment to 30 percent. Antonio Marsiglia Netto, a vice president at SABESP, the state water and sewage monopoly, told me Stage 2 would be finished sometime early in the next century if, of course, everything stayed on schedule in a way I already knew full well it never yet had.

“What takes so long?” I asked.

He shrugged. “This is Brazil,” he said.

By then, the explanation was familiar, if frustrating. And it was hardly the last time I would hear it.

The actual last time was in an interview with Professor Ladislau Dowbor, an adviser to a former mayor who was seeking office again. Dowbor, now on the faculty at the Universidade de Catolica de São Paulo, was describing the ongoing failure of the city to provide infrastructure to service all its growth. “This is Brazil,” he said, lifting his palms toward the ceiling.

“Just what do you mean by that?” I pressed.

“I mean, this is Brazil,” he repeated. “We want to stop being poor before we have to clean up after ourselves, so we have done little. And what we do manage to do is trapped in a kind of collusion of interests among the state companies, the contractors, the developers and the political parties. All that is done is done in their inter­ests or usually not at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s a megacity. That’s just part of the way this place works.”

“Or doesn’t work,” I commented. “Or doesn’t work,” he agreed.

It is perhaps São Paulo’s crowning irony that, while on the verge of shortage and unable to guarantee continuous water service to more than half its residents, it spends four months of the year with more water than it can hope to han­dle. During the Southern Hemisphere’s spring and summer, the Upper Tietê basin is pelted with torrential storms. Some longtime residents think the region’s rains used to be considerably less fierce, and some even argue that the megacity, by providing both the updraft of heat and high atmospheric particle count necessary to milk rain out of the clouds blowing in off the South Atlantic, is in effect making its own weather. In any case, there is no disputing how hard it rains. One storm in 1991 dropped at the rate of almost five inches an hour, leaving behind 150 million tons of water in a 12-hour period.

When it rains, sheets of water splatter onto the asphalt and in moments, gutters are awash and puddles expand­ing. The runoff rushes down the slopes, along the asphalt and concrete, into the storm drains and over the road shoul­ders. During the first half-hour of a new storm, more pollution is washed off the city’s surface and into the River Tietê than is carried by an entire day’s worth of sewage. Not enough water drains into the earth, so it heads down· hill and into a man-made drainage web whose strands are usually clogged with garbage, silt and sewage. The overflow floods land that is either occupied by squatters or impermeable because it is covered by concrete or asphalt. When the wall of runoff reaches the Tietê , this sow of a river is clotted with foam sometime overflows its own canalized banks. Throughout the city, some 436 different locations have been identified as subject to chronic flooding. The São Paulo evening news has run footage of pedestrians, hip deep in water, holding onto power poles to keep from being carried off their feet, and of automo­biles being swept broadside down São Paulo’s major avenues. Rumors abound that people have been sucked into open manholes, but no such fates have been substantiated. Perhaps the greatest dan­ger is from disease spread either by sewage inundation or by rodents flushed from their usual haunts. The newspapers advise people caught out in a flood in their car and unable to get to high ground to pull onto a side street, climb onto the car’s roof and wait for help to come.

10  The End of the World

One morning, I accompanied photogra­pher Sebastião Salgado and his assistant Carlos out to a small municipal garbage dump in São Vicente.

We parked off the dirt track leading into the place and advanced on foot, walking into the sunrise. Vultures flapped away at our approach, and pi­geons exploded off the ground in a host of wing beats. Several horses were graz­ing on the garbage piles, pawing through the packaging to unearth the castoff tomato slop and orange peels. Beyond them, the piles of garbage were smolder­ing, and an acrid smoke drifted every­where. Trucks soon began arriving with their morning loads, and the proprietor fired up his tractor while a dozen garbage pickers mauled through the fresher mounds, each working with a 3-foot steel rod that had a short right angle bent into the end, pushing aside the slop and extracting plastic soda bottles and alu­minum cans. They worked at a constant pace, stooped, prodding, eyeballing everything. One man wearing a hat with a McDonald’s logo found something in­teresting while I watched, chewed on it for a bit and then threw it back in the pile. Most of the pickers live here, in a cluster of huts made from discards and located off to one edge of the dump.

Carlos and I went over to the hut be­longing to a man who had built off by himself, away from the rest, in the main body of the garbage field. He had erected a structure out of a couple of old doors, a discarded piece of fiberboard, a couch, a car seat, several other sticks and two or three abandoned tarps. He kept his pet blackbird in someone’s old woven basket with a cardboard lid. When we approached, he quite eagerly produced a number of the treasures he’d extracted from the dump. Among them were a flashlight, which also made a siren sound when you threw one of its switches, and a tube of toothpaste.

When Carlos and I walked back through the wafting stink, the vultures were perched on a nearby transmission tower. Carlos stopped next to me and took in the panorama. He made an ex­pansive gesture with his arms, embrac­ing it all and shaking his head.

Fin del mundo,” he exclaimed. The end of the world.

Without waiting for a translation, I knew exactly what he meant.

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