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Rio +20: What does it augur for the 2016 Olympics?

The UN's global conference underscored just how much ground Rio de Janeiro itself has to cover when it comes to environmental sustainability. It also showed what a long way the city has to go to prepare for the 2014 World Cup games and the 2016 Olympics.

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / June 24, 2012

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the closing ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 22.

Andre Penner/AP

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Rio de Janeiro

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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Rio +20 and Rio, like Carnival with less trash. And less music, and more traffic, and what seemed like the entire Brazilian Navy sailing up and down the coast. There were also no costumes, unless you count people like the Brazilian Indian in full regalia who aimed a bow and arrow at BNDES security personnel …

Actually the only way the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was like Carnival, is that Rio de Janeiro was invaded by visitors, anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 people. In the South Zone, everywhere you turned there was someone with a dangling identity card.

The traffic jams occurred not because blocos of people were dancing and drinking in the streets, but because of demonstrations, and the hordes of unsustainable vehicles hogging the road. Escorted by sirening motorcycle cops and hovering helicopters, dignitaries from 190 countries came from and went to the Riocentro convention center in the West Zone in exact opposition to the times and directions of the carioca rush hour. To ease the way, city hall suspended the normal morning lane reversals, gave students three days off from class, shut down municipal agencies, and told people to either stay home or use public transportation.

Many visitors criticized the lack of organization and poor service they encountered. Thousands slept in makeshift camps at the Sambadrome and in a park, because Rio didn’t have enough hotel rooms. A Japanese delegation on the way to a sewage treatment plant took a wrong turn and came face to face with armed men in a Caju favela.

Maurie Carr, project coordinator for the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, a Washington DC-based non-profit, stayed a week at a retreat a short drive up into the mountains from Duque de Caxias, a poor bedroom community neighboring Rio de Janeiro. Some mornings it took her three hours to reach the convention center. “It was a lesson learning to just let it go,” she said, adding that despite everything she intends to return. “I told my mother to put Rio on the list,” she said, having managed to sneak in some hiking, plus visits to Leblon, Ipanema, Rocinha, and Vidigal.

The conference also underscored just how much ground Rio de Janeiro itself has to cover when it comes to environmental sustainability. A minuscule amount of trash is recycled, and Guanabara Bay, for example, is horrendously polluted despite millions of dollars having been devoted to a cleanup. At least Eike Batista’s  Grupo EBX has been taking 250 kilos of trash out of the Rodrigo de Freitas lake every day.

All in all, much of Rio + 20 didn’t augur well for the Pope’s visit next year, the 2014 World Cup games in Rio, nor the 2016 Olympics. But the situation could change when new mass transportation options are to come online, in addition to the Transoeste articulated bus lane that opened earlier this month.

The conference results were also disappointing, as most people expected they would be. “Governments are useless,” says Clayton Ferrara, who traveled from Florida to Rio representing the youth-led IDEAS for Us movement. “Every day in the plenary session, representatives of all the different countries got up and went on and on about what they were doing for sustainability,” he says, noting that attendance thinned out as the days wore on.

But for Rio de Janeiro there were three positive aspects of the conference.

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