Environment-Brazil: Red Card for Porto Alegre?

From IPS News,

By Clarinha Glock* – IPS/IFEJ:

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jul 18 (IPS) – The southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a pioneer in participatory budgets and environmental policies, and habitual host of the enormous World Social Forum, has returned to the international stage.

Pontal Project

Pontal Project


Chosen as one of the 12 sites for the 2014 football World Cup, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, with a population of 1.4 million, faces a dilemma.

In August, local residents will vote on whether to allow the construction of apartment buildings in the Ponta do Melo zone on the banks of the Guaíba River. The referendum will take place in a context of major plans, including sports stadium expansion and road construction, to better receive fans for the football championship.

But some of the projects are facing legal challenges because of their potential for harming the environment. The Porto Alegre Fundamental Law establishes that the areas along the Guaíba River – actually an estuary and also referred to as a lake – are permanent protected zones.

Ponta do Melo, situated between the central and southern parts of Porto Alegre, was at one time a shipping port of national security interest. From 1952 to the early 1990s the shipbuilder Estaleiro Só operated there. In 1976, the city exempted the company from paying for the land it occupied: 60,000 square metres.

Once Estaleiro Só went out of business, the court ordered an auction to pay off its labour debts. In 2005, the land was auctioned by the SVB Participações Empreendimentos company, which transferred it to BMPar Empreendimentos.

At the time, Municipal Statute 470/2002 authorised only construction of commercial buildings, with several urban development restrictions.

In 2008, BMPar interested a group of city councillors in the idea of a major economic project, saying that a mixed commercial and residential site would improve security in the area.

The city council reformed Statute 470 to allow construction of residential buildings at the site, which then took the name Pontal do Estaleiro.

That’s when the protests began. “The project did not respect the participation of society,” argued city councillor Beto Moesch, who had voted against Statute 470 in 2002 and opposed its reform last year.

At several public hearings, company representatives were seen embracing city council members, while residents shouted “sellouts!” The attorney general opened an investigation into charges that councillors were bribed to vote in favour of the reform, but the case was shelved.

The reform of Law 470 was approved in a tense session in February of this year.

Given the public reaction, Mayor José Fogaça vetoed the project and submitted a different one to the city council, which included an amendment stating that citizens should have a say. Meanwhile, another amendment was approved, which expanded the construction-free strip of land between the Guaíba and the buildings from 30 to 60 metres wide.

As a result, BMPar declared that it would not build anything at the Pontal site. Even so, the city council voted to amend Statute 470 and set a 120-day period to convene a referendum.

According to the Movement in Defence of the Guaíba Waterfront, a “yes” at the ballot box for the residential buildings would set a dangerous precedent for the city’s areas along the river.

Ricardo Gothe, head of the Porto Alegre city government’s special office for the 2014 World Cup, responded for this article that “it is already a privately-owned area, and will have appeal, special qualifications and protection.” According to Gothe, if the land is not occupied it will end up destroyed.

Environmentalists point out that originally the Pontal was granted by the city to the shipbuilding company for a specific purpose. Once that ended, it was to return to public use.

Architect and urban planner Nestor Ibrahim Nadruz said in an interview that the project would cause traffic problems in the area and damage the shoreline.

The other lots in the area will lose the breezes and natural light from the waterway, there will be an increase in sewage and garbage, and the population will be deprived of the famous sunset over the Guaíba.

While the future of Ponta do Melo is being decided, there is a citizen effort under way to prevent potential harm to other areas designated for permanent protection.

A petition filed by environmentalists asks for an immediate suspension of the January permits to expand the stadiums of two football clubs, the Sport Club Internacional and the Grêmio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense.

The petition states that the project calls for construction that is higher than allowed under the city’s codes, as well as a greater concentration of buildings per square metre, which would negatively affect the urban landscape, the environment and air safety.

The Beira-Rio complex of the Internacional club, in addition to a roof for the stadium, includes apartment towers, parking ramps and roads through a park, which are not among the requests of FIFA, the global football governing body, admitted the club’s directors before the Municipal Environment Council.

Gothe said he had not yet received from FIFA the list of city obligations for sports installations, infrastructure and services. But the special office has released some initiatives, presented as essential, for receiving the crowds in 2014.

“They are projects that have been on paper for 30 years and, taking advantage of an event with the magnitude of the World Cup, will obtain the financing they need,” argued Gothe. The waterfront will be revitalised, and will attract tourism and bring progress, he said.

That perspective puts Porto Alegre in the sights of major real estate companies. “It’s possible that Goldsztein Cyrela is going to operate” in Ponta do Melo, stated a lawyer for the construction company that is part of the Cyrela Brazil Realty firm, the largest dedicated to residential real estate.

At the base of the discussions is the Guaíba itself, although it has not been determined if it is to be treated as a river or a lake.

Federal Law 4771/65 establishes that buildings may not be less than 500 metres from riverbanks, to ensure preservation of water resources. But if the Guaíba is declared a lake, the area of protection is reduced to 30 metres.

According to city statute, changes like those planned for the World Cup can only be decided with participation and approval of the citizens.

Local environmentalists have learned from previous experiences. In 2007, at a public hearing to study changes to the city’s codes, the Municipal Environment Council denounced that residents from other towns had been bussed in to fill the hall and prevent participation by local residents and activists.

If not for pressure from the Municipal Environment Council and the non-governmental Fórum de Entidades, say the environmentalists, the changes would have been approved, attending only to the interests of the construction companies.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org). (END/2009)

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