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Bispo the bricklayer in his floating house.
Credit: Renzo Gostoli
Accents
Floating House Made of Garbage - Art or Eyesore?
By Fabiana Frayssinet

The Rio de Janeiro authorities have wavered on whether to ban a floating house made of garbage pulled from Guanabara Bay or to declare it a museum.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 18 (Tierramérica).- In a fetid canal, filled with garbage from this famed Brazilian city, a bricklayer built his floating house and made it into a symbol of recycling, leaving the authorities by turns applauding or frowning.

Brick by brick -- or rather, rubbish by rubbish -- the home was made from material pulled from the otherwise beautiful Guanabara Bay, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro.

Once a paradise of white sands and transparent waters, dolphins and other marine species no longer venture here because it is one of the most contaminated bays in Brazil, mostly with heavy metals from industry.

Luiz Fernando Barreto de Queiroz Bispo, a 40-year-old bricklayer, built his floating house on the Cunha canal, which carries sewage water to the bay from the Maré Complex, one of the most populous 'favelas' (slum neighborhoods) in the northern part of Rio.

"I was born in the Maré. I lived there nearly my whole life. When I was little, more than 30 years ago, the Maré was already a little dirty, but it was still possible to swim in these waters," Bispo told Tierramérica.

"I learned to swim there, like all the other kids. It was the only diversion in the favela. I was very restless and even then I tried to build a raft with whatever I could find to cross to the other side of the canal, to play," he added.

That childhood pastime ultimately led Bispo last year to build his house with the waste he found nearby. Obviously, there was no shortage of materials to be found there, or in most of the canals, lagoons, rivers and bays of Rio de Janeiro.

"I built my entire house using what others threw out with the garbage: iron bars, window frames, wood, cement discarded from construction sites. Even the main door came from the garbage. The only things I had to buy were the nails, the whitewash and the roofing," says the bricklayer.

Bispo, father of two teenagers and separated from his wife, lives alone, and gets by with temporary bricklaying jobs and from rents of some homes in Maré. He says he is self-taught, a regular visitor to the National Library to "acquire knowledge of physics and mathematics."

The house sits on a platform of 42 square meters. There are no details left unfinished, despite its second-hand origins. There are even two garages: one for a jet-ski that someone abandoned in a nearby dump, and one for his old Chevrolet Opala.

The interior shows the same eye for detail. With garbage from the canal, he has furnished the rooms with beds, chairs, a bathtub, a fan, flower vases, and even has a garden, in which plastic bottles make an effort to look like well-tended grass.

The idea came during a trip on the Amazon River, where he saw for the first time floating houses made of logs.

"Mine is made with plastic containers. Each one contains 2.5 liters of compressed air. By combining hundreds, thousands of them with styrofoam (polystyrene), which also floats, you can make the base," says Bispo.

"I had a float of six by seven meter surface area, and one meter tall, enough to support a few tons," he explains.

A lot of water had to flow beneath the house before the Rio authorities would accept the idea of allowing Bispo's creation to remain.

The State Superintendent's Office of Rivers and Lagoons (SERLA) threatened to expel him because, according to the law, one may not occupy a river by living in a floating house.

"I built it under a bridge so they wouldn't see it. That was in December 2006. When I moved it to a visible place in March, there was a commotion. It was in the newspapers, in several reports," says Bispo, adding that his example showed that inhabitants of the favelas "aren't ignorant".

Finally, the Environment Secretary Carlos Minc gave in, citing it as "an example of creativity and recycling", and authorized Bispo to maintain his house anchored in the Cunha canal.

The Rio de Janeiro state government is concerned about the level of contamination of its bodies of water. Minc announced that 73 million dollars would be invested in cleaning up rivers, lakes and the coastline.

There are, nevertheless, some qualms about Bispo's creation.

Although SERLA president Marilene Ramos in a conversation with Tierramérica praised the floating house for its creativity "in the re-use of the enormous quantity of material dumped in the rivers, canals and lagoons," she ruled out the idea of turning it into a fieldtrip destination for schoolchildren to visit, "for safety reasons".

Bispo defends his project. "When Minc said my house was an environmental museum piece, he recognized it as a work of art. As such, the artist can do what he wants with his work. Nobody else. The laws guarantee the right to housing and there are places in this country where people live on the water," he says.

Amidst the debate, Bispo never stops thinking about improvements. The next step is to add a pool. But the house already seems small. "I want to plant berries all along the coast and set up a cooperative with the people from her, to generate employment and purify the air, which is really bad," he says with enthusiasm.

"I want to show people that those of us who live in the favelas are not ignorant. We are citizens with as many rights as those in the southern district," where Rio's middle and upper class neighborhoods are.

* Fabiana Frayssinet is an IPS contributor.

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