Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The open ceremony for the Olympics was beautifully choreographed: athletes placing tree seeds for their respective countries in black receptacles that eventually transformed themselves into various halos of palm plastic tree wreaths representing the emblematic Olympic registered logo.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

These seeds will be sowed in the suburban neighborhood of Deodoro, where the new skate “Radical Park” is located. While the pretty lights and fireworks display gave an inspiring message of hope to Brazil and the world about the importance of protecting biodiversity and forests, this is not what is actually taking place on the very visible terra firma inside the city limits of Rio.

Residents watched their neighborhood parks be turned upside down for the construction of new metro stations for the Olympics. Centenarian trees were cut down only to be replaced by palm trees and a heavy bombardment of metal light posts.

Palms trees do a poor job of providing shade, wind cover and nesting spaces for birds. They also lack the carbon and particulate matter absorption potential of normal trees, capturing according to some specialist only one-tenth of the airborne contaminants in comparison to their hardwood counterparts.

Although some hardwoods are not fit to be planted in urban areas, endemic trees like Ipês and Pau Brasil (Brazilian wood), to name a few, don’t cause extensive damage to underground infrastructure and their canopy provides the secret element for beautiful plazas and parks.

Not to tree-shame palm enthusiast, but the city’s promise was to plant hardwood trees, in fact millions of them, and you cant even find an endemic Atlantic Forest Juçara palm in the cities new urban planning zones. Juçara is an endangered palm specie whose super fruits are just as nutritious as the world renowned açai palm fruit.

The reorganized public spaces that are showcases for Brazilian urban landscape design are becoming just as homogenous as the deplorable Bossa Nova cover songs played on repeat mode in your typical international hotel chain.

The high density of metal light and camera poles that have replaced existing trees bring to light two questions: where are your captured images going to and how are your taxes being spent? Each pole costs exuberantly more than planting a young tree and really – just look around the city, Cariocas!

Does the city hall have a phallic complex or are they just rubbing elbows with private companies for the next slush fund political candidacy piggybank, better known as “caixa dois” in Brazil?

The political transparency regarding the ridiculous dissemination of generic palm trees and metal poles is certainly opaque, no matter how darken some areas of Rio are, like the Aterro de Flamengo Park were a third of the trees species originally planted by Burle Marx are dead.

You can rest assured light posts will go up by the thousands in this landscape work of art, and the poor birds will get very little sleep. So how many politicians does it take to screw in a new LED light bulb in a perfectly working light socket?

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, an MBE from COPPE-UFRJ in Rio de Janeiro and a BA from Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Alfonso lives in Rio, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

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