Rio+20 from the other side

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro on Monday June 11th at midnight was very exciting. I knew that soon the entire world would have its eyes on this city following the U.N Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20. Few cars were on the streets as I left the airport and the highway was wide and nicely paved reminding me of the roads leaving JFK in New York.

Soon however instead of heading to the beautifully developed and famous regions of Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon I found  myself heading west towards a neighborhood called Engenho Novo in the heart of the city. I had arranged with a family friend to stay with them prior to the actual summit so that I can experience Rio from a local perspective.

In the poor evening light and with the haze of confusion that comes with been in a new place i could not quite realize where I was. The next morning it hit me, I was actually staying a block away from the Favela Morro de Sao Joao.  I was concerned but not worried considering I was staying with trusted people that would help me navigate and learn about the city.

Long traffic jams in hot overcrowded buses with wild drivers is a normal occurrence in this city. Huge amounts of people commute from our neighborhood mainly to the ‘centro” or downtown and to locations such as Riocentro where the summit was to be held.
I had to learn the complicated bus system and the street smarts needed in this part of the city in preparation for the Rio+20 prepcom meetings starting on Wednesday June 13th at Riocentro.

Some street smarts required to navigate neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro:

  1. Never walk alone after dark
  2. Do not wear any jewelry or shiny objects when walking or in the bus
  3. When in the bus, close the bottom window so that no random outside hand can reach in a take your belongings (it happened to a lady on the bus I was in)
  4. Be ready to pay a lot more for a taxi if you do not
  1. speak the language
  2. speak the language with a Carioca accent (Rio accent)

To get from our house to Riocentro we had to walk 30 minutes to grab the bus #368 arriving at the venue as its final destination. The trip in its entirety takes about 2.5 hours each way and is a commute that many people take everyday. Thankfully the local bus station was in the venue itself. After dark the bus #613 would take me to a popular mall called “Shopp de Nova America” where I would then take a taxi home to avoid walking alone in the dark. I had figured out the way to and from Rio+20!

Day two of the prepcom brought complications in the transport. The conveniently located bus station had been removed without notice. About 15 of the Rio+20 local volunteers and I wondered the streets looking for the newly established and unlabeled bus stop. An atmosphere of social inequality and indignation was immediately felt amongst those whose commute was just made longer and more complicated without so much as a simple sign of information.

Each day at bus stop conversations were generated about the difficulty in getting to riocentro. Each morning as the conference proceeded the working crowd on the bus grew larger and the frequency of the buses grew smaller due to traffic jams. The U.N shuttles provide a nice solution for getting to the venue but as noted by those in the local bus the shuttles only work if you live in the extremely expensive tourist areas but not in the adjacent neighborhoods.

Meanwhile at home the family gathered to watch the news and the short updates on Rio+20 before the novelas. This week’s news theme was Rio+20. Each short and extremely vague segment on the actual process was followed by a longer segment on a different animal in the amazon or an animal rehabilitation clinic somewhere. Although the animals were adorable it did not distract the family and friends watching from the 20 deaths that occurred the weekend before due to a bus accident at an overcrowded bus stop in a nearby neighborhood.

To the the family i was staying with and the locals at the June Celebrations (weekend local celebrations for the saints during this month) Rio+20 was a way to distract the people of their problems without providing the full information of what exactly was been decided there on their behalf. Most people see Rio+20 as an environmental platform alone as advertised in the news and on the plethora of signs around the city. The essence of the process is not yet reaching the poor neighborhoods far away from the beach where the rich live and where parallel events were taking place such as the “people’s summit” which I will expand on in my next blog entry.

Rio+20 from the other side seems to contradict the the social inclusion ideals at the local level. Perhaps things will change as the conference progresses.