Sanitation for whom?



The Baixada Fluminense is made up of densely populated territories next to silted, dirty channels, despite continuous public sanitation policies.

In June 2023, going from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, I crossed stretches of Baixada Fluminense by bus. It was about 15 pm; we were in a hurry, my son and I, to get to the wake of my brother who had just died. The emotion of that day did not prevent me from being attentive to what I saw as the bus moved slowly due to traffic.

Knowledge, from the geographer I was one day, from the anthropologist I am today, and living as a carioca, came to my mind. I urgently needed all of this, as I was in São Paulo studying the album with photographs of my father, the engineer Luiz Fernando Berla de Niemeyer (1913-1974), of his work at Sanitation Directorate of the Baixada Fluminense (1937 to 1939).[I]

He was passionate about photography; his compositions focused on technical actions, at the same time he did not hesitate to register the beauty of some landscapes; he was also a researcher, as the photographs were fixed by angle brackets in the album, numbered in sequence, as the facts, created by the machines and agents responsible for sanitation, unfolded.

Taking notes with white pencil on the pages and, sometimes, with pen on the edge and back of the photos, he described the events related to the removal and cleaning of the canals and rivers of the Baixada Fluminense, aiming to ward off the malaria that ravaged the region and free the land for different uses. Therefore, he made a visual and graphic chronicle from within, that is, not addressed to a higher body to which he would have to be accountable. Different from the official report written by Hidelbrando de Araújo Góes, at the time head of the Baixada Fluminense Sanitation Board. This report had the symbolic and practical effect of exalting the achievements of the Vargas government.[ii]

I comment on two facts recorded in photographs by Luiz Fernando B. de Niemeyer that came to my mind when I saw parts of the Baixada Fluminense from the bus window. The first concerns the sequence of photos showing rivers and channels silted up and then cleared after the action of the main agents of the work, which were, according to him, the machines, engineers and workers.

The second refers to the notes he made on the back of some photographs: just like the engineers; workers are identified with first and last name; therefore gain the dignity of subjects. And, just as important, they are inscribed in history, because during the time of slavery in the Baixada Fluminense region, it was the slaves, from whom many of them descended, who manually cleared the canals and rivers.

Would the Baixada Fluminense be less unhealthy now, with rivers and canals running through it clean?

Well, what I saw from the window confirmed the recent denouncements about the region: densely populated territories next to silted, dirty canals, despite continuous public sanitation policies. The working class segment, which lives in the suburbs of Baixada Fluminense, has to live with organized crime, with the racism of police agents, with the unhealthy conditions of rivers and canals, therefore, with the constant threat of disease; hence the title of this text, Sanitation for whom?

Back in São Paulo, I resumed studying Luiz Fernando Berla de Niemeyer's Photo Album in his work Sanitation Directorate of the Baixada Fluminense (1937 to 1939), with answers to a question that worried me: how would a daughter have the competence to study my father's album with distance?

Part of my family history that I became aware of during the days I stayed in Rio helped me find one of the answers I was looking for. I saw the continuation in my family of the values ​​of my father, who always respected the workers, during the works where he worked throughout his life.[iii]

The arrest, followed by torture, of my brother, Luiz Flávio de Niemeyer (1944-2023), for his political activity, without taking up arms, during the military dictatorship in Brazil, had serious consequences for his life.

It was evident that Luiz Fernando Berla de Niemeyer and Luiz Flávio de Niemeyer tried to help the country's history by defending the oppressed people.

The disastrous conditions in the stretches of the Baixada Fluminense that I observed, combined with the denunciations of the press, of researchers, and of popular organizations, about the indifference of the authorities in relation to the dramatic situation of the population that lives there, made clear the conditions that I consider anthropologist, specialist in the study of images and graphics, researcher of slums and racism in public schools (Financing / FAPESP), to study that historic photographic album with distance.

*Ana Maria de Niemeyer is a retired professor at the Department of Anthropology at Unicamp.


[I] Cataloging and digitalization of the album by Gisele Ottoboni:

[ii] Accessible at:

[iii] According to this report by the engineer who worked on the Rebouças/RJ/1965 tunnel (Carlos Lacerda government): “[…] arrived at the work, the company manager and the Secretary of Works, Dr. Mark Tamoio. As it was a very political work, the Secretary asked Dr. Niemeyer to start giving two fires a day instead of just one, as he needed the work to be inaugurated as quickly as possible. Without changing, Dr. Niemeyer replied to the secretary 'that there was only one possibility of this happening and this way was for him, the secretary, to take his place in the work, because, as long as he was the resident engineer and responsible for the work, he would never put the lives of his employees at risk. , mostly because of politics. ' Everyone can imagine the repercussions of this response. The company, even considering the vast experience and suitability of Dr. Niemeyer, had to take action [...] and invited him to work in São Paulo, the only way found to get him out of the work. ” (José Luiz SALGADO, Stories of a pawn or hands-on engineer. Rio de Janeiro. the first cycle. S/d: p. 74)

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