By Andressa Collet
The Brazilians in this article are similar to the fishermen of San Benedetto del Tronto whom the Pope mentioned during the General Audience this past September 2. The Pontiff recalled the group of workers he had received a few months earlier, referring to how they had succeeded in removing “24 tonnes of waste out of the see, half of which was plastic”. “These people have the spirit to catch fish”, the Pope added, “but also the refuse”, taking it “out” of the water to “clean up the sea”. On that occasion, Pope Francis had once again begun to hold the Wednesday audiences in the presence of the faithful, after the public audiences had been suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That catechesis on solidarity with the earth and the safeguarding of our common home had already been adopted more than a decade ago in Brazil by some people who had organized a group of volunteers to clean the Paranapanema River. “The Paranapanema is a river that is not yet polluted, thanks be to God. So, why are we trying to clean it? To sensitize the population regarding the importance of having a river with clean water for our survival, for sport fishing and for aquatic sports”, states Almir Fernando Zanforlin Minozi, the leader of this cleaning effort. He is also a Laudato si’ Animator with the Global Catholic Climate Movement, as well as a member of the Missionary Community of Villaregia, founded in Italy and present today in many African and Latin American countries.
Almir has been trying to mobilize his community since 2009, uniting colleagues from work, regional fishermen and collaborators from various churches to clean the banks and the river itself, gathering trash that has accumulated and sending the material to a recycling Cooperative in the small city of Timburi that numbers about 3,000 inhabitants, in the State of São Paulo.
From Timburi, a global awareness dawns
Located 364 km (about 225 miles) from São Paulo, the state capital, Timburi lies between the region’s two most important rivers, the Itarararé and the Paranapanema. Precisely because there is so much water, throughout the years, the city has hosted the “Open Water Marathon”, one of the most important of sporting event of its type in Latin American. In addition to professional fishing and sports, the natural beauty of the surroundings also attracts tourism and leisure activities. The Paranapanema basin comprises more than 200 towns.
“For us, the Paranapanema River is very important because it begins here at the border between the state of São Paulo and Paraná, then it goes toward the Plata Basin in Uruguay. So, it is a very long river and is very important for our region”.
The river, therefore, creates a natural division between states. Its name derives from the now extinct Tupi language which was spoken by the tribes that used to live along the country’s coast in the 16th century, and then spread during the colonial era. Paranapanema means “bad or unlucky river”, since it is composed of "paraná", which means river, and "panema" which means contaminated, unhealthy, unlucky. Yet, this waterway seems to be most fortunate because it is the least polluted river in the state of São Paulo. The river runs the length of 929 km (577 miles), generates energy through 11 dams along its banks, and flows into the Paraná River where the three states of Paraná, São Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul meet.
To conserve this environmental patrimony, every June, the volunteers meet in Timburi to clean the river. This year, however, due to covid-related restrictions, they met in September, the month in which the international Coastal Cleanup Day occurs, during the Season of Creation and on the occasion of the celebration of the 5th anniversary of Pope Francis’s Laudato si’. They used 10 boats and covered a 3 km (almost 2 miles) radius, in proximity to a municipal field, cleaning along the banks of the river up to the borders of other towns.
This work responds to Pope Francis’s invitation to think about the needs of others and of our common home, even in a moment of crisis, reawakening – as he reminded his audience present for the General Audience of September 2nd – “solidarity guided by faith” allows us to translate God’s love, “by interweaving communities and sustaining processes of growth that are truly human and solid”. A solidarity, which the Pontiff spoke of during the extraordinary Moment of Prayer on March 27 during the pandemic, capable of “giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering”.
Pollution of the waters
The heroes of this adventurous cleaning effort succeeded in collecting a huge variety of material and industrial waste, such as plastic containers, bottles made of PET, tin cans, things made of styrofoam, tires, even shoes, toilets and stoves. “We go out in a few boats, each one with two or three persons, that travel along a stretch of land to hunt down every pollutant that is in the water. Then we bring it all to a certain place and there a recycling truck comes and hauls it all away. We often offer lessons or demonstrations for environmental education. We have been doing this work for several years, sometimes in collaboration with the evangelical church in our city”.
In addition to the cleaning task force that collected around 500 kg (about 1,000 lbs), a second thing the group does in the area of environmental education, is that of planting saplings. Reforestation seeks to conserve the local Atlantic Forest and contribute to the biodiversity and ecological balance.
The relationship in Timburi between the Christians and the environment is tight in Timburi, as well as respect for the care of creation. Cleaning the river is one important way to protect the people and the planet. According to the official report of the Season of Creation 2020, of the 71% of earth’s surface that is covered by water, the pollution and the trash in it can have a devastating effect on many species – including human beings – who depend on clean water.
According to Almir, even a local effort can have a global impact because “we are all responsible”. “To be aware of the importance of conserving the Amazon” is fundamental, even though it is over 2,000 km (about 1,242 miles) from Timburi, for it “safeguards the environment in which we live”.
Everything is connected, the Laudato si’ Animator repeats once again, citing Pope Francis’s Encyclical. “The ecological crisis,” he highlights, “is also an ethical and social crisis, the fruit of our style of life” – consumeristic – that affects the poor and the vulnerable above all. They are the ones “who need our waters to survive”.