Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Putting the pilgrims and God aside, the organizational component of the World Youth Day (WYD) became a total fiasco after the original place of the vigil was changed last minute to Copacabana beach due to flooding. Signs where everywhere pointing that the Campus Fidei (Field of Faith), where the WYD weekend vigil was originally planned for, might not have been the best choice for the closing mass.
The 13 kilometer pilgrimage to the podium in Guaratiba, in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, ran serious risks of being inundated with water. In Tupi-Guarani, a pre-Colombian Native American language, Guaratiba means the gathering of scarlet ibis. Ibis are a type of waterfowl found in marshy wetlands. Not to mention that an ibis was one of the first animals released by Noah after the Great Flood, in respect to biblical sources. Undisclosed sources claim alligators also had to be removed from the grounds, ruining their chance of a last supper meal.
According to Rita Montezuma, a geography professor from UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense) speaking to the journal Folha de São Paulo, this area has extensive mangroves and is classified and mapped by the City Hall’s own Pereira Passos Institute as a flood zone.
The Pedra Branca range, one of the three mountain ranges in the Greater Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan area, is adjacent to the chosen site and drains its freshwater to that exact location, which ecologically functions very much like an estuary.
Moreover, the Campus Fidei is located below the medium littoral ocean level, making it an ideal ecosystem for mangroves that work as natural ecological barriers that help protect other inland ecosystems from high tides and meteorological ocean phenomena such as storm surges. There is no wonder why the main culinary expertise of restaurants in Guaratiba is march crabs, among other detritus eating crustaceans.
Despite all these geomorphological features, why did the organizational committee literally put themselves in this quagmire?
Guaratiba has recently experienced real state market speculation after a tunnel was dug into Grota Funda mountain, shortening the distance between that neighborhood and Barra da Tijuca considerably.
According to O Globo, the chosen land belongs to Jacob Barata, one of biggest bus lords in Rio’s well known corrupt bus transportation system who is one of the main protagonist in the ongoing corruption scandals that helped spark last month’s protests in Rio.
If all those signs where not enough, Mr. Barata’s last name means waterbug in Portuguese, and the mucky deal between him and the City Hall is dubious at best.
The lots encompass an area the size of Ipanema, classified as Areas of Permanent Protection under INEA, Rio de Janeiro’s State environmental agency. Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes allowed the project to go forward and invested an undisclosed amount of money in infrastructure such as roads and flooding barriers, making the once inaccessible areas accessible to delivery trucks, water tanks and porta potties. Mangroves and other trees species were cut down at the expense of the project, and vast amounts of dirt were brought in to make the embankments.
It is speculated that the real intention behind the project was to use public funds to build the necessary infrastructure for future real estate speculation. In a turn of events, the Mayor has recently announced that this flood prone plain zone will actually be used for housing projects for low-income citizens. Like water turned to wine, this area is now planned to become habitable for the needy.
If the WYD committee did not take into account the environmental aspects and zoning of this location, now it will succumb to a housing project that will experience the same flooding issues, repeating the city’s history of inadequate urban planning. Making the flood prone zones habitable will require expensive and intelligent engineering, in addition to pumping stations and outfall pipes to keep the natural flow of water out. Will the City Hall be able to afford this engineering feat for subsidized housing in Guaratiba?
To some, the event that took place in Copacabana smelled like teen spirits, but to others the actual event planning smelled like good old fashioned corruption.
Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.