The Brazilian government is sponsoring one of the main sideline events, the People’s Summit. In an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of Woodstock, activities have played out along Copacabana beach where a replica of the Statue of Liberty with smoke belching from its torch and a plaque that reads “Freedom to pollute’’ has been built. There’s also a faux favela — a reminder to keep the poor in focus during conference debates.
“You have the poor living in areas that are very polluted, like the favela of Mandela,’’ says Pastor Antônio Carlos Costa, president of Rio de Paz, a human rights and protest movement. The Mandela favela recently made headlines when pictures of kids swimming in a river contaminated with fecal matter were published.
So maxed out are the city’s hotels that some 15,000 people are sleeping on cushions in public schools, Flamengo Park and at the Sambódromo, where the city’s famed samba parades take place during Carnaval.
Brazil itself is a microcosm of the tensions and contradictions in trying to forge a viable sustainable development policy and the tug of war between progress and environmental protection.
To its credit, it has moved 40 million people into the middleclass in less than a decade and Rio is trying to tackle public transportation problems with a subway extension and a newly inaugurated Bus Rapid Transit line.
But one of the most beautiful cities in the world is marred by polluted Guanabara Bay. Oranges, pieces of plastic and other debris floated in the bay near the berth of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior last week. Greenpeace has been an ardent foe of Brazil’s plan to develop its pre-salt deepwater oil fields. Greenpeace says consumption of oil from the pre-salt layer will result in 35 billion tons of additional CO2 in the atmosphere over 40 years.
While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called on all countries to commit to an accord in Rio that addresses the most pressing global environmental and social problems, she has taken some criticism at home.
“In the Dilma government, we are seeing the largest environmental setbacks,’’ says Pedro Ivo Batista, an aide to Marina Silva, a former environmental minister who ran against Rousseff for the presidency.
Perhaps the single issue that has provoked the most ire among Brazilian activists is the country’s push to develop hydroelectric power plants throughout its northern and Amazon regions.
Work has already begun on the Belo Monte project in the state of Pará. When completed, Belo Monte will be the third largest hydroelectric project in the world, but damming the Xingu River is expected to displace more than 20,000 people, and flood 230 square miles of rainforest. Activists say the arrival of tens of thousands of workers also will contribute to deforestation.