Rio+20: Rio's dry run for the Olympics and World Cup

Rio+20 comes at a time when more and more events are being held in Rio, and will serve as an important test for the city's ability to accommodate and transport visitors, writes Rachel Glickhouse.

Felipe Dana/AP
The Christ the Redeemer statue stands back dropped by Sugar Loaf mountain, right, as the sun sets in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday, May 10.

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

Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, begins in Rio de Janeiro on June 20, a little over a month away. While the topics up for discussion are undoubtedly important, all signs point to the possibility that no binding resolution will result and it will be a lot of talking and little action. (For perspective, at one of the New York Rio+20 negotiations that lasted two weeks, the big decision to come out of it was to have more negotiations at the end of the month.) The likely more critical outcome will be a test of how Rio will handle a non-Carnival mega-event before the World Cup and Olympics, and as one of its first big events to turn the spotlight on Rio during the city's so-called renaissance.

On the one hand, Rio+20 comes at a time when more and more events are being held in Rio. According to International Congress and Convention Association, Rio surpassed São Paulo for the number of events held in the city last year. Rio now has a massive "smart city" operations center to monitor the city in real-time, which has aided the city in its day-to-day but will be especially helpful during large events. The Brazilian army is setting up a cybercrimes defense center in Rio in June right before the conference as a test before the World Cup and Olympics. The police are building their own operations center set to launch next month, also before the conference, and as RioReal Blog notes, people are losing sleep as the city faces deadlines and new goals set by city residents.

At the same time, Rio+20 will be an important test for two of Rio's biggest challenges for upcoming mega-events: accommodations and transportation. An estimated 50,000 people are expected to pour into the city for the conference, though the city only has around 26,000 hotel rooms. Everyone knew that hotels were charging obscenely exorbitant prices for the Rio+20 week, and the government reserved most rooms ahead of time. Several people have asked me about finding apartments, though those are also hard to come by.

However, when the European Parliament canceled its Rio+20 delegation this week–citing high costs at around 600 euros a night per room–suddenly more people started to pay attention. Reuters found that hotels are charging around 5 times the normal price. Now, President Dilma Rousseff along with federal congressmen are asking the Rio government to intervene and find a solution to the price gouging. It's an important lesson before 2014 and 2016, because inevitably the same thing will happen, even if Rio expands its hotel capacity by then.

As for transportation, Rio is working on extending the metro system, improving and expanding highways, and building the TransCarioca, a bus rapid transit system to connect Rio's international airport to Barra da Tijuca in the city's West Zone. But the metro hasn't reached Barra yet and the TransCarioca isn't finished, but the conference will take place at Riocentro, the city's convention center–located in Barra. That means that the large majority of attendees will likely be staying in Zona Sul or downtown and will have to get to Barra by bus or cab, which will undoubtedly lead to some major traffic jams. But Barra is already a nightmare to get to on a normal day: Cariocas [a nickname for people from Rio] complain that commuting to or from Barra to other parts of the city can take up two hours or more during rush hour. Since traffic is pretty much inevitable, it may help to put more pressure on the city to work faster on critical infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, the Cachoeira corruption scandal brewing in Brasília is threatening to get closer to Rio every day. Rio's governor was caught in photos of European jaunts with the former head of Delta, the construction company at the heart of the scandal. Delta is one of the largest construction companies in Brazil, but 99 percent–yes, 99 percent–of its contracts are with the government. It was the company responsible for reforming Maracanã and for helping build the TransCarioca, but since the scandal broke, the company removed itself from both projects. Now, the company is being taken over J&F, the controlling shareholder of JBS, Brazil and the world's largest meatpacking company. Interestingly, BNDES, Brazil's government-run development bank that funds infrastructure projects across Brazil, has a 31.4 percent stake in JBS.

Crime is unlikely to be an issue, though it may be the top worry for many visitors. The city tends to go on lockdown during large events and is actually a time when crime overall seems to drop. In the end, Rio+20 should help identify remaining challenges for the upcoming mega-events, even if the thousands of delegates at the conference fail to agree on anything.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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