Atafona, a district of RJ that has been swallowed by the sea, serves as a warning for coastal erosion

If the divers imagined by Chico Buarque explored the Atafona sea, there they would find fragments of letters, poems, lies, portraits and traces of a civilization that, in part, ceased to exist. As well as the submerged city narrated in the song “Futuros Amantes”, the district of São João da Barra, in the North of Rio de Janeiro, and its memories have been swallowed by the water.

Since the decade of 1970, the advance of the sea has already caused the destruction of more than 77 houses, displacing hundreds of families. Tens of blocks went to the bottom of the ocean.

Clinging to Atafona, many residents have changed residence a few times to escape the sea, without ever leaving the small community. For them, affective losses are more painful than material ones: there are places that have marked their lives to which they will never be able to return.

Coastal erosion is explained by a number of reasons, but the main one is the siltation of the Paraíba do Sul river, which has its delta (type of mouth where the river flows into the sea through several channels) in Atafona.

With about 7 .000 inhabitants, the district is a kind of laboratory of the consequences of human intervention in an ecosystem. This is because the siltation of the river was caused especially by water diversion for domestic, industrial and agricultural supply in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

With less volume, Paraíba do Sul cannot facing the sea and transporting sediment in sufficient quantity to stop the advance of water in Atafona. Natural conditions, such as the dynamics of ocean currents and strong winds in the locality, also contribute to the process.

Atafona is just one among many coastal regions that suffer from coastal erosion all over the world . Faced with climate change and the rise in ocean levels, the scenario could worsen in the coming decades.

Geographer Eduardo Bulhões, professor at UFF (Fluminense Federal University), recalls that a survey identified that only 4% of all coastal regions in the world erode at rates greater than five meters per year. Atafona is one of those places. In the most critical areas, the sea advances about six meters per year. In some periods, the advance reached nine meters.

“Erosion only becomes a problem when there is an installed city. In this context, Atafona is perhaps the main point of the country”, he says .

The severe erosion process that takes place there contrasts with the tranquility of the place, where life unfolds at a slower pace, buildings are not seen and horns are not heard. It is common for residents to know each other. That’s how the report arrived at the home of retired Sonia Ferreira, 77, a reference in the community.

Accustomed to passing on summers in Atafona, Sonia and her family bought a house there at the end of the decade 1970. At the time, a few blocks separated the construction from the beach. Today, the residence faces the sea.

In front of Sonia’s house are the ruins of the well-known Julinho building, the only one in the region, knocked down by the waves in 2008. “It was a very big impact. We always have that hope that it won’t make it to our house”, he says.

When the sea destroyed his wall, in2019, Sonia accepted that she needed to move. The retired woman decided to move to a small house at the back of the land and, little by little, she has been removing her belongings.

“Atafona was a place for vacations, walks, joy. Losing this is difficult. You have your little corners in the house that remind you of loved ones. These little corners are lost in your history.”

The Julinho building is also cited as one of the best memories of businesswoman Camila Hissa, 31, daughter of the founders of Ricardinho restaurant, the most famous in Atafona. “It was an iconic place, there was a bar that sold a delicious pie with a peculiar smell. It’s the summary of childhood”, he says.​

His parents founded the restaurant in

and had to move it three times to escape the advancing sea. “Those who are from here learned to live together. It’s not something you get angry and drop everything, go away.”

Camila reports that restaurants and fishermen were greatly impacted by the difficulties of navigation with the siltation of the river. About three years ago there was such a critical period that the boats were unable to land the fish in Atafona.

The fisherman Valcinei Bento, 52, remember that at that time, boats only worked at high tide. “It was hell. We arrived at the edge of the slaughterhouses and it was a ghost zone”, he says.

Despite the financial losses, Camila says that the emotional losses are the worst. “That story was simply erased. It was a time when photography was very expensive. Photos are rare,” he says.

At the beginning of the year, an interactive project known as the Walking Museum took to the streets a huge bicycle with old photographs of Atafona. The collection and the initiative were developed by the artistic residency CasaDuna, founded by the philosopher Julia Naidin and the artist Fernando Codeço.

Codeço says that the reaction of the community was impressive and that many residents identified themselves in the photos, when they were still children. “People were immediately moved, they wanted to tell stories”, he says.

He says that CasaDuna wants to contribute to the production of local memory and also to discuss the predatory way we deal with the environment. “Talking about Atafona is talking about this Brazil that is crumbling and about a civilizing process that needs to change.” by the advance of the sea. Over the decades, the fishing families who lived there were forced to leave the place, where no one lives today.

One of the last to leave the island, in September 1978, Jamira Pedra Gomes, 77, resisted for decades, even after losing two houses. She remembers that on the day she left, she woke up at dawn with the sea lapping at the walls. “I said ‘help me, God’. Hope to cool my legs, I’m not going to put my warm legs under the blanket in this cold water”, he says.

From 1 am to 8 am, Jamira carried it alone all your belongings. The next day, the walls collapsed. His sister, Janira Pedra Monteiro, 60, moved from the island years before. When the sea entered her house, she let everything go. “We get tired. The sea had taken four of my houses,” he says.

Decades after the move, the sisters returned by boat to the island accompanied by the report. Janira says she misses going canoeing, fishing for manjuba, catching crabs and making fishing nets. “I think , I hardly sleep at night. That night I thought so much about that place, about the people who left.”

Jamira gets even more emotional—arriving on the island, she cried and pointed to the place where she had owned a bar. “Me I wanted to grow old there. I like it so much that I want to stay,” she says.

She says that the longing turned into depression. “I live off work. I like to be walking with people, talking, to distract myself.”

Psychic disorders are cited by psychologist Leandro Viana as one of the consequences of the erosive process in the lives of residents.

Finishing a doctoral thesis at Uenf (Northern Fluminense State University) on Atafona, he says that many report feeling anguish and anxiety because they are always alert to the movement of the sea. for a solution.

“The fishermen talk a lot about Ilha da Convivência, a place of great exchange and solidarity. By losing this place, that was also lost”, he says.

In the last six years, hearings were held to address the issue with civil society, the Federal Public Ministry and the Public Defender’s Office Three solutions were presented, but none came out of the paper.

The resolution collides with at least three points: the lack of articulation between the municipal, state and federal powers, the cost of the works and insecurity about its environmental effects. First, it is necessary to obtain a license from Inea (State Institute of the Environment).

“The Union, states and municipalities are responsible for ensuring beach ecosystem. As responsibilities and interest are diffuse, no one feels obliged to resolve. On the other hand, any work to increase the beach strip takes time”, says geographer Eduardo Bulhões, author of one of the projects.

Bulhões’ proposal involves artificially fattening the beach to to reverse the sand deficit. He believes that any solution that is proposed as definitive, with the use of rigid structures such as spikes, is misleading.

“Everywhere protections were created with structures, additional problems were generated, and all the works have a useful life time”, he says.

The geographer says that one of the options that can be adopted is to do nothing, but that even so, there needs to be planning and information from the population. “I think that in Atafona there was this option, of several governments, and this is not communicated efficiently.”

The professor at Unifesp (Federal University of São Paulo) Gilberto Pessanha, who has been studying the case of Atafona for years 20, says that even artificial fattening requires monitoring of waves and winds. This involves technology, personnel and more resources.

“There is a doubt because there are places where there was an initiative to fatten the beach and the erosive process has returned”, he says.

Secretary for the Environment of São João da Barra, Marcela Toledo says that the impact of the works has not yet been widely studied. She says that Inea indicated, in 2020, that none of the projects have proven effectiveness. In fact, the agency mentioned issues to be worked on, but none of them were negatively evaluated.

In September of this year, a Technical Chamber was created with the City Hall and society entities to continue discussing the situation and think of possible solutions. Toledo also defends that the actions must pass through the Federal Government, which, according to the Federal Constitution, owns the beaches.

In a note sent to Folha , the Secretariat for Coordination and Governance of the Union’s Heritage states that the necessary referrals are the responsibility of the municipal administration. The federal government argues that the Statute of Cities gave municipalities the legal capacity to manage the surfaces of cities.

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