“The environmental cause has a negative message, which is often pessimistic and defeatist. I have always claimed that no one mobilizes for what no longer exists. If nature is over, it's over, what are we going to do? This demobilizes people. We need uplifting messages and examples that worked. Bad news can be helpful to open our eyes to the problem, but if people don’t feel they can be helpful, they will divert their attention to something else. I always try to instigate by making this question because we have to believe that we are strong enough and capable of changing.”
Axel Schmidt Grael carries one of the noblest surnames of Brazilian sport. The Grael family has more Olympic medals than many countries: two were given to Lars (bronze in 1988 and 1996), and five to Torben (two bronzes in 1988 and 2000, one silver in 1984, two golds in 1996 and 2004). Also a sailor, Axel, the medalists’ brother, shares his passion for the sport to this day. He puts his boat on the water, at least, twice a month. Nevertheless, Axel chose another path to follow: the struggle for environmental preservation.
The oldest of the Grael brothers was born 60 years ago in São Paulo, but Niteroi is in his heart because that’s where he lived most of his life. He was elected vice-mayor in 2012 and is currently the Municipal Executive Secretary. The Grael Project also has its headquarters in Niteroi. The Project is a mansion on the shores of Guanabara Bay, and its goal is to "offer young people educational and socialization opportunities through the nautical experience", according to their statute. Founded in 1998, the project has already enrolled over 16,000 young people in its environmental and nautical program.
This is not Axel's first initiative in the quest for a better world. At 20, he graduated as a forestry engineer drawn to environmental issues. "This was in the 1970s, when no one spoke much about the subject," he points out. But his action as an environmental activist speeded up for a rather peculiar reason: sardine oil.
At the time, there were three factories of canned sardines close to Guanabara Bay, where Axel used to sail. The problem is that, every day, when he picked up his boat, he saw the hull smeared with oil, due to the incorrect disposal of company waste. "I tried everything to solve the problem: to dialogue with companies, to complain to the public agency... soon I realized that I couldn’t assign that action to others, I had to do it," he recalls. "I organized a demonstration regatta that was broadcasted by Fantastico, the TV program. From that, some people got together to form an environmental group," he adds.
Thus, the Ecological Resistance Movement (MORE, from the Portuguese initials) was born, an association with over 5,000 members registered. The movement defended the Guanabara Bay, but it got bigger and started gathering efforts to clean up lagoons and adopt bicycle paths, among other standards. "At the time, we lived in an exception regime in Brazil and the environmental issue was not understood: we were labeled as communists and subversives," says Axel.
Environmental protection, yesterday and today
"Today, the issue is on the agenda, and the festival Virada Sustentável [in which Axel was a panel speaker about water] is an example. But the environmental and sustainability causes raise the bar as they advance," he says. For him, in areas such as chemical pollution, heavy metals, oils and greases, we improved; still, there are pressing problems with organic load and sewage.
For Axel, today's environmental movement has moved backwards in relation to the 1980s.
"Today we are more aware, we have media and education, and the present generation has this information in schools already. However, as a movement, I feel it has moved backwards. Back then, community engagement was strong. It exists today, but it doesn’t have the same impact, coherence and reach as before", he points out.
Axel also makes a critical analysis of the social organization processes and mentions movements like the Arab Spring or US's Occupy Wall Street. "The organization does not come from traditional structures, but from an amorphous place, it has dispersed leadership. The problem: processes had the strength to overthrow regimes, but what next? They are fleeting: they mobilize, but they do not remain," says Axel. "Now, as an environmental movement, we are still learning from this."
Whether as a politician or as a proponent, Axel is always learning and keeps up with the same motivation that drove him to the environmental struggle: to propose alternatives to actions harmful to the environment. In the meantime, he enjoys the pleasures nature provides him, like putting his boat on the water and feeling the wind carrying him.