The Tubarão river basin

The region of the Tubarão river basin and lake system in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil (the Basin’s region hereafter), comprises 22 municipalities with a population of about 300.000. Notwithstanding the importance of this watershed, it is gravely affected by pollution and is considered to be among the ten most contaminated river basins in Brazil. Nevertheless, there is a strong historical relationship between the population and the river, and the region largely depends on it for its current livelihoods and continuous development.


The pollution is caused by various sources, the primary ones being the:

  • extraction, upgrading and transport of coal;
  • intensive use of agrotoxins in local agriculture;
  • (direct) discharging/disposal of:
    • pig farming waste (manure);
    • municipal and industrial wastewater;
    • municipal and industrial solid waste ;
    • pollutants from the regional ceramic industry;
  • use of water for cooling in Brazil’s largest coal-firing plant.

The waters in the river basin also hold significantly heightened concentrations of iron, nickel and cadmium.

The south-region of the state has large coal-mining operations that historically have played, and still play, a sizable role in the basins’ environmental degradation.

The quality of life of the basins’ inhabitants is a direct function of the quality of its ecosystems. Therefore there is an urgent requirement for initiatives that can prevent the basins’ further degradation, ideally also generating participatory incentives for its population. One of the methodologies more appropriate in the Brazilian context is PES – Payment of Ecosystem Services – as it creates incentives through rewarding (the participation in) the conservation, restoration and regeneration of the natural environment at large.

Interventions to date

The district water-board (Comitê da Bacia do Rio Tubarão e Complexo Lagunar) has developed projects for the preservation of the basin over the last few years. One of the existing projects was responsible for recuperating some springs in the area and survey them, other projects entailed donating seedlings and effecting their planting. Besides these initiatives by the water-board, other projects and proposals were conceived by different organizations and institutions, but have failed due to their incidental and isolated nature.

That is why the interventions to date are not sufficient to revitalize the river: no project has contributed in substantially recovering the basins’ ecosystems’ integrity, setting out along an integrated sustainability approach to conclusively halt and remediate its continued degradation. Such an approach, even though wished for, was not developed due to potentially high costs and the complexity involved with its development, requiring advanced expertise, technologies and methodologies.



The Tubarão Mission – Embracing the Basin campaign – mTAB hereafter – proposes to formulate an integrated approach for the basin’s systemic regeneration, its sustainable economic development and future conservation through developing multi-stakeholder participatory mechanisms and a transsectoral approach based on public-private initiatives and partnerships. As such, mTAB sets out to lay the groundwork towards developing a regional roadmap by which all aspects involving the gradual regeneration of the basins’ ecosystems are dovetailed with the prerequisites for the regions socio-economic development.

In order to do so, mTAB proposes a number of developmental methodologies that are well equipped to tackle the main hurdles along the way.

Developmental Methodologies

These methodologies are proposed to form an integral part of the regional approach for the basins’ regeneration and conservation. Firstly it has to be considered that this endeavor supersedes the mere environmental and technological aspects: the social and economic factors need to be at the basis of understanding the current dynamics at play in the basins’ continued degradation: pollution needs to be tackled ‘upstream’, rather then remediated ‘downstream’. For this, a detailed mapping is required of (the invested interests in) the current land-use expressed in the agricultural, industrial and municipal activities that are degrading the regions’ ecosystems quality and integrity.

Payment of Ecosystem Services – PES in Brazil

Payment for Environmental Services (PES) is a mechanism that pays or rewards those who preserve nature. It is a means of pricing environmental assets, goods and services incentivizing conservation and regeneration of the natural environments’ quality and integrity. Within PES, the services are expressed in payments, that is, the costs of maintaining and increasing environmental quality and integrity. PES can be translated into sellable units (PES credits or PES certificates), representing monetary value. 
As such, PES constitutes a market for offsetting environmental degradation as a result of industrial, commercial and infrastructural activity: PES is a means of compensating environmental impact as well as a payment for a guaranteed and continued supply of the natural resources extracted from the natural environment.

PES was introduced in Brazil in 2006. Ever since, there has been a virtual explosion of the number of PES projects, varying greatly in scale and scope: from the direct payment of ecosystem services, to trading PES certificates in the voluntary market, ranging from micro-watershed areas to entire states. However, legislation and directives pertaining to PES and its trade is utterly heterogeneous in Brazil: there are different mechanisms by which PES can be generated through different types of projects varying per state. In 2014, the Santa Catarina state-law pertaining to PES-trade was revised, allowing for more flexible approaches in generating PES and for direct trade in PES certificates.

This is an important step in making PES more popular as a means of compensation by industry and commerce as well as in expanding the number of PES initiatives and their implementation. This makes Santa Catarina the ideal state for the development of a platform for the commercialization of PES.


In 2015, the Biosfera Foundation developed TUPIX in order to address the heterogeneity of the current Brazilian mechanisms to quantify PES into monetary values and the many steps involving the certification and accreditation of PES certificates. As every step in the process of PES certification costs money, a large part of the budget (sometimes up to 65%) that could be made available for PES is lost to intermediate agencies and ‘middlemen’. Tupix functions according to supply and demand, cutting out most of these intermediate steps by automating PES calculi and algorithms, facilitating direct trade in PES certificates and credits without the intervention of 3rd party assessors. Thus a larger volume of PES credits is generated for trading, when compared with the mechanisms currently used in Brazil by the public sector to fund PES.

Local Compensation

Post-Paris-COP21 there will be an increased demand and obligation globally for industry and commerce to compensate their environmental impacts. Brazil has made significant pledges to this end (reducing emissions between 36,1% to 38,9% until 2020) that will reflect on the means by which the private sectors’ environmental impact will be accounted for and remediated. As the Brazilian ratification of the climate deal is imminent, it may be a good moment to align regional requirements with the national and international trend.

The need and will to compensate becomes stronger and more concrete, the more this compensation is allowed to take place ‘close to home’. The connection and involvement with ones own living environment is inherently stronger then with far away places and projects: Compensating locally improves ones quality of life in a direct manner and increases ones connection with the natural environment one is inserted in through creating a direct feedback-loop that makes results, or the lack thereof, visible and tangible.

Preventive remediation

By establishing a direct correlation between the polluter/degrader and the immediate environment the degradation and pollution takes place in, compensating the degradation becomes linked to the degrading activity and the infrastructure associated with that degradation: Rather than financing the remediation and regeneration of affected water bodies and riparian/aquatic ecosystems, downstream of the pollution, it makes much more sense to collect and process pollutants before they are introduced into the natural environment. A factory that discharges either directly or indirectly untreated or partially treated wastewater into the groundwater or river should compensate by means of investing in decentralized wastewater treatment rather than compensating through remediating the degradation of riparian ecosystems as a result of that pollution. Normally, investments in environmental technology cannot be written of as PES, or as compensation proper, but it is exactly that what TUPIX proposes: creating incentives for industry and farmers by allowing them to write-off investments in environmental technology from their obligatory environmental compensation. Companies and farmers also are more inclined to comply with the requirements for compensation if, at least in part, this compensation constitutes investment in their own operation and infrastructure, rather than simply compensating through a ‘funds-out’ mechanism by means of taxation and fines. Preventive remediation creates a more lasting sustainability with respect to halting polluting and degrading activities in a conclusive manner.

Differentiating the technology suite

The manner in which sectors are organized, and the manner in which compensation can be financed, calls for different approaches per sector. For the Basin’s region, it is necessary to differentiate between the industrial, agricultural and municipal sectors, in terms of the way accountability for negative environmental impacts is constituted and the means of compensation that can be deployed. Therefore the types of technologies and methodologies to remediate pollution and degradation need to address this differentiation.


More often than not, the budgets available for implementing new systems and technologies for upgrading the sustainability of municipal utilities are limited.

Especially in the field of sewage collection, wastewater treatment and municipal waste collection and processing there are several possibilities to improve the current state of affairs in terms of environmental sustainability. There are many low-cost, small-scale technologies that can be implemented as community projects. Such participatory projects lead to community-ownership of (partial) infrastructure, unburdening municipal resources and manpower. This may be prefered over outsourcing such endeavors to the private sector, as in many cases the profit-driven approach of private companies operating under municipal concession does not lead to reducing environmental impacts.

There where the municipal context is not suitable for participatory projects, and where there is a demand for more advanced technologies, municipalities can create public-private partnerships with market-parties based on (advanced) environmental technologies that are well outfitted to generate a quick return on investment and a subsequent profitable operation.


Apart from spreading the costs of technological interventions in the agricultural practice along the productive- and value chain, as under ‘Leveling the Productive Chain’ above, there are additional mechanisms to be considered that can make the reduction of pollution and contamination, degrading the river basins’ ecosystems cost-efficient, for example:


In the context of pig farming, the manure can be processed in biodigesters in order to produce biogas. There are several technologies developed that involve mobile units in which this process takes place. The advantage of this is that the process can be outsourced to companies that have the production and distribution of biogas (for mobility, cooking, power generation etc. depending on the volumes produced) as their core-business, whereas pig farmers can use this service in a cooperative manner. Similarly, there where the mobile solution is not an option, for instance due to lack of sufficient volume of manure, pig farmers can organize themselves in cooperatives, jointly investing in stationary biodigestors producing sufficient biogas to serve the local need for power-generation, (industrial) heating etc. This applies equally to other forms of intensive animal farming, and the cooperatives can consist out of multiple livestock sources. Along the same line, manure and other agricultural waste can be processed into biofertilizers with relatively low-cost technologies, such as pyrolysis, producing biochar.

The productive and regenerative approach

The use of productive and regenerative species as additional and/or alternative crops (such as native bamboo, native fruit-tree species, vetiver, arundo donax etc.) can help to remediate soil and groundwater pollution, increase soil fertility, crop-yields and decrease environmental degradation of adjacent ecosystems through diminishing run-off and hence erosion and contamination with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. A more rational design, planning and maintenance of legal reserves (reservas legais – 20%) in combination with organic agriculture and horticulture will increase both the environmental integrity of APP’s (areas of permanent protection) and APA’s (area’s of environmental protection) and farmers revenues. This approach is low-cost and can be set-up in a bottom-up manner, constituting an important showcase-function for creating awareness and purposes of training and education.

There are good examples of this methodology in Brazil, and, with a comprehensive (spatial) planning in the agricultural areas of the basin, this approach can secure a lasting reduction of environmental impacts whilst diversifying agricultural business models through creating new livelihoods and strengthening the regional food-security.

Water-use reduction and water re-use

As the degradation of the riparian- and aquatic ecosystems in the basins’ territory is a continued reality, leading to dwindling volumes of water produced by these very ecosystems, it is important to unburden the springs, wells and aquifers as much as possible whilst initiating their recovery. Low-cost systems such as drip-irrigation can reduce the volume of water extracted directly or indirectly from the hydrological system for irrigation. Another proposed method is the decentralized treatment of wastewater. This can be done through different technologies depending on the context of the agricultural practice and the area it takes place in. Wetland technologies offer a low-cost solution to treat water sufficiently for irrigation purposes, and are relatively low-cost, especially when implemented through agricultural cooperatives. This method also has the added advantage that it improves the quality of the ecosystem itself. Technologies for distributive wastewater treatment (see Municipal above) can also supply irrigation water for agriculture, provided the treatment installations are not geographically removed (too far) from where there is the demand fro irrigation.

Next to that, the productive and regenerative approach above will also lead to a reduced requirement for irrigation, as this methodology increases soil-water conductivity and reduces water run-off through increasing the soil’s capability for water retention.


There is a wide range of technological solutions for remediating the industrial environmental impacts, depending on the nature and scale of any given industrial operation. Looking at the regions’ industrial landscape the following examples are considered:

The coal productive chain

The Tractebel plant in Capivari de Baixo, South Americas’ largest coal-fired thermal power plant, constitutes the most sizable industrial activity in the region. Of course it is hard to completely remediate the over-all environmental impact of the whole productive chain (extraction of coal, logistics, processing and the combustion for power generation), but there certainly are available technologies and methodologies that can contribute in mitigating this environmental impact. First and foremost it is important to establish a regime in the mining sites towards using cleaner coal extraction and upgrading techniques, deploying the best environmental control technologies, reducing water and energy use, using waste and other low-environmental impact feedstock as an alternative to coal and reducing the amount of waste produced through process re-engineering and improved mine-waste management planning.

Undoubtedly the most rational trajectory from a sustainability point of view is phasing out the use of fossil fuels for power generation in favor of renewables such as biopower, wind, solar, tidal and small hydro. Tractebel, the company operating the Capivari de Baixo plant already engages in studies into the implementation of renewables, and as a multinational it has sufficient expertise in biomass co-firing, applicable to the Capivari de Baixo plant.

mTAB proposes to look into mechanisms that can accelerate the process of phasing out coal as a feedstock and that can reduce the environmental impacts of the current operation throughout its productive chain. For instance the use biomass for co-firing of regenerative and productive species such as native bamboo, vetiver grass, arundo donax etc., deployed in phase 1 landscape restoration projects is one of the proposed methodologies to reduce the degradation of the basins’ ecosystems whilst regenerating parts thereof. This includes technologies for advanced biomass preprocessing such as wet-torrefaction, increasing the calorific value of the feedstock.

Other proposed systems entail distributive power generation technologies such as small biopower installations, waste-to-energy systems with municipal, agricultural and industrial solid waste and organic waste out of wastewater as primary feedstock, small solar, wind and hydro for the urban, rural and industrial contexts alike. By reducing the range of the energy distribution through the grid, the dependency on large, centralized plants such as in Capivari de Baixo can be gradually reduced, enhancing regional and local energy self-sufficiency and security, significantly reducing environmental impacts and in many cases also the cost of electricity.

The ceramic industry

The environmental impact of the ceramic industry is largely twofold:

  • The impact of sizable pine and eucalypt plantations to provide the feedstock for incineration for the required heat in the industrial process;
  • The emissions of the open-incineration are substantial, when compared with closed-incineration.

The industry would thus be best served with technological solutions that can tackle both issues simultaneously.

Alternative feedstock

There are several native and non-native species that can be used as a biomass-feedstock for producing heat through incineration or otherwise. Some of these species, as stipulated above, can be deployed as agents in the remediation and regeneration projects of degraded and polluted land, soil and groundwater. Native bamboo, vetiver and aruno donax have a higher annual yield/ha and similar calorific values when compared with pine and eucalypt and therefore constitute economically viable alternatives, especially when planted in the context of compensating negative environmental impacts.

Producing heat alternatively

The gasification of biomass feedstock has a significantly lower level of emissions than combustion/incineration, especially ‘open’ combustion/incineration. Also, the capacity per m3 of feedstock is much higher in a closed gasification installation than simply burning the feedstock for heat, as is still the practice in part of the region’s ceramic industry.

Switching to natural gas for heat-production is a trend gaining momentum in Brazilian industry and certainly makes sense from both an economic and environmental point of view. The Brazil-Bolivia natural gas grid facilitates access for this purpose, but another source for gas-for-heat is biogas; with a simple upgrading process, biogas from agriculture, municipal solid waste and wastewater treatment can be used in the same way as natural gas, The distribution of biogas can be accomplished through either feeding it into the existing grid, by means of an additional distribution grid or by stationary gas-tanks at the ceramic industrial plants.


As becomes apparent in the above, the technological differentiation per sector has many overlaps and crossovers. mTAB proposes an integrated approach in which when- and where ever possible, the metabolic loops – the circulation of water, energy, feedstock and waste in the region – are closed. This entails the creation of an added dimension to the deployed technologies and methodologies as a wholesystem: biogas produced from pig-manure, agricultural waste and solid municipal waste through biodigestion can be used as a fuel for heating in the ceramic industry; in turn, (pre)treated wastewater from industry (for instance cooling-water) and municipal waste water can be re-used for agricultural irrigation. There are many of these potential closed metabolic loops that can be capitalized upon in the region.

This requires an intersectoral approach from within the private sector in which the regions’ municipalities can cooperate in terms of a regional spatial planning, regional directives and incentives in order to overcome both legislative and physical constraints and barriers.

mTAB aims to facilitate the platform from which this process can be initiated, facilitating the required know-how and expertise in attaining a viable roadmap in which the environmental objectives of the regeneration and conservation of the basins’ ecosystems quality and integrity can be set-off against the regions’ economic development in a sustainable, rational and practicable manner.



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