Pimp My Rio Sustainability Olympics!


Pity Brazil. It could be about to get the “Bird’s Nest Stadium” treatment.

It happened in Beijing in 2008 when China built its monstrous signature Olympic stadium, which acted as a lightning rod for the anger of environmentalists and human rights campaigners.

And even though Rio de Janeiro won’t host the real Olympics for another four years, lightning is about to strike in the host city of the “Sustainability Olympics” which will be held in June 2012.

Let me explain: If you were pimping up your home to throw a party for 50,000 visitors, wouldn’t there be some stuff you’d try to sweep under the carpet in the hopes nobody would notice? But somehow visitors always find the really embarrassing stuff.

Remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics and that pitiful photo of a single defiant householder defending his little home inside a vast building site close to what later became the Bird’s Nest stadium? Remember those images of a million people being displaced to make way for the monstrous Three Gorges hydrodam? Remember the toxic grey shroud that hung over the Chinese capital during the Olympics, because of the country’s advanced environmental degradation?

Of course, every mega-event inflicts collateral damage in environmental and social terms, and in a few years China got over it. Now it’s Brazil’s turn to take a hit, as the country prepares to host the first of three mammoth parties over the next four years.

First in June 2012 comes the UN Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Then in 2014 the World Cup. Then in 2016 the Olympic Games themselves.

An estimated 50,000 diplomats, journalists, environmental activists, scientists, businessmen – and over 130 heads of state – will arrive for the conference June 20th-22nd, which comes exactly 20 years after the great cycle of UN-sponsored environmental conferences was kicked off in the same city in 1992.

The issues are more pressing and the stakes even higher than they were in 1992, or at the UN’s 2002 follow-up event in South Africa. So too are the prospects for yet one more frustrating non-event in which key decisions are booted into the long grass due to a failure of global governance.

In Rio, do-gooders and noisy critics from green NGOs will be looking under the carpet for something troublesome. They won’t need to look far.

Displaying a catastrophic sense of timing for a nation about to host the Rio+20 “Sustainability Olympics,” Brazil’s politicians in April decided to relax the laws that so far have stopped farmers from chopping down more than about 18% – 20% of the Amazon rainforest. The upper house of Congress approved revisions to the Forestry Code that determines what proportion of land farmers must leave as untouched woodland. The issue has become a political hot potato and the first major political challenge for President Dilma Rousseff’s administration.

These changes, if finally allowed to become law, would have meant significantly enhanced clear-cutting by farmers, especially in the Amazon region. The CNA farmers’ group say the law would bring to an end widespread violations and even bring some reforestation.  Environmentalists say what Brazil needs is not a Forestry Code, but a Biodiversity Code. They say the changes will mean that Brazil, which hosts 18% of all the planet’s biodiversity, can expect a dramatic reduction of its pristine habitats.

For Brazilians, the issue now completely dominates conservation politics. Media savvy local activists such as Gota d’Agua have launched appeals against the controversial new law. On May 25th, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issued a partial veto of the legislation. It was also a partial response to public opinion and  the “Veta Dilma” petition that had collected more than 2 million signatures. International pressure groups including Greenpeace, WWF International, and Avaaz had joined the movement, promising to globalise the protest.

Although the partial veto announced May 25th has taken some heat out of the forestry debate, it pleased nobody. The principle of farmers’ right to cut more forest  was enshrined – even if a retrospective amnesty that would have allowed them to escape fines for past illegal logging, was rejected. The president also  maintained protection for riparian habitats.  The bill now goes back to Congress, and both sides were left moderately dissatisfied. Greens, farmers, and movie industry celebrities were all left unhappy.

So the issue could still come to the boil during Rio+20. In the middle of a green economy summit, Brazil could be badly embarrassed.

Secondly, the long-simmering feud between environmentalists and the Brazilian government over the massive R$30 billion (US$ 15 billion) Belo Monte hydrodam project in Amazonia, threatens to spill over. Although campaigners finally lost their 20-year battle to stop relocation of 24,000 residents to build the world’s third largest dam on the Xingu River, the main construction will begin soon – and so will the protests.

Thirdly, a massive urban makeover designed to transform Rio de Janeiro into a fit host city for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, is also raising the hackles of some human rights activists.

At issue are the 1,000 hilltop urban slums located in land invasions where around 1 million people or almost 20% of the city’s population live. Their property rights have mostly been forgotten in the rush to sanitise Rio.

Films like City of God and Elite Squad made the drug-fuelled violence of Rio’s favelas internationally familiar. Yet everything has changed since 2009, when Rio’s city and state administrations launched pacification programs backed by funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. Key favelas now have 100-strong police garrisons and the dealers have mostly fled.

Not all residents are happy with plans to sanitise their Olympic city: some favelas are being forcibly cleared and residents moved to neighbourhoods distant from their livelihoods. Favela do Metrô, located close to the Maracanã stadium where the World Cup final will be held, will reportedly become a car park for FIFA’s VIP guests.  Across other Rio slums, Human rights campaigners are fastening onto the issue, and the topic has raised concerns in United Nations committees dealing with human rights.

In other favelas, chaotic housing has been torn down and replaced by bright new government funded apartments – which have quickly become attractive to young foreigners and middle class tenants, forcing out the original residents. Community activists say Rio’s newly-peaceful favelas are undergoing a process of rapid gentrification. This will eventually mean they are homogenized by big real-estate interests.

Soon the locations that produced Brazil’s famed carnaval, samba and football, will disappear. Comparisons with other Olympic city clean-ups are making headlines internationally.

Inevitably, many Rio+20 visitors will shun the air-conditioned conference rooms to climb the hillsides for a day in the favelas. Many more will sign petitions concerning Rousseff’s partial veto of the Forestry Code, or agonize over Belo Monte.

All in all, this should be a great time for Brazil, as it prepares to lay out the red – or rather green – carpet for its eco-visitors and for 137 heads of state to celebrate sustainable development in Rio. But these three issues threaten to  tarnish its halo.

That’s a pity not just for Brazil, but for the whole sustainability process. There’s a significant danger of Rio+20 becoming side-tracked by mistimed attacks on host-country Brazil’s own sustainability performance. There’s plenty for enthusiastic activists to criticize because they’re unable to see the bigger picture – but now is not the right time.

Such actions could undermine what’s seen as a unique breakthrough in the run-up to the Rio+20 talks: the long-delayed recognition that decisions about the earth’s future should now be based on science, rather than on national or business interest. Scientists, finally, are claiming their seats at the top policymakers’ table. Their presence is urgently needed:  policymakers are  getting more interested in the ‘Green Economy” and  generic sustainability talk than the hard science (and therefore hard politics) issues of climate change and biodiversity.

After two decades of bitter controversy between policymakers about the causes of human-induced climate change, the  Rio+20 Zero Draft calls for “the scientific basis for decision-making to be strengthened … and the interface between science and policymaking should be enhanced.”

Recognizing this, UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon recently announced the appointment of a chief scientific advisor and a specialist panel for sustainability. will that be enough to stop the “climate fatigue”?

In preparatory events for Rio+20, pressure is building that scientists use their research muscle to guide decisions. At the Planet under Pressure conference attended by 3,000 scientists in London this March, the final declaration warned that “Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action,” and said “the international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions.”

At the Forum on Science Technology and Innovation to be held in Rio 11th-15th June on the eve of the main UN conference, being sponsored by the International Council on Science (ICSU) and UNESCO, scientists will try and further ratchet up the pressure on policymakers.

Instead of picking on the host country and its particular problems, let’s think about a host planet. Participants and policymakers must keep their eye on the bigger prize: delivering on goals for sustainable development and a greener economy based on science, not opinion.

And let’s celebrate Rio too: after decades of  neglect, the city is booming, blooming, and on a roll. Everyone’s loving it.  As France’s Le Figaro newspaper said: “they’re inventing the future in Rio.” So let’s stop complaining and let the policymakers get on with preparing the groundwork for Rio+40!

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