Merkel's U.S. Visit Could Turn Testy | WYPR

Merkel's U.S. Visit Could Turn Testy

Feb 8, 2015
Originally published on February 8, 2015 11:41 am
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The city of Rio de Janeiro is rushing to get everything done before next summer's Olympics. But there is local opposition to how some projects are being managed, in particular, the construction of an Olympic golf course while the country faces a water crisis. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Sitting under the shade of a tree on a hot, cloudless summer day, a group of young protesters have set up camp across from what will be the Olympic golf course in Rio. Up until recently, the area was a kind of informal nature reserve, undeveloped and populated with animals in a part of the city crowded with gated communities and high-rise buildings. The group, which call themselves Occupy Golf, say the massive Olympic golf course has taken away the public area.

LUCAS DURAES: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lucas Duraes is 18. "Rio City Hall is basically killing this reserve," he says. "Expelling alligator species, snakes and birds," he says. He says there's another golf course in the city that could've been used. Flavia Resende complains that the massive amount of water needed to keep the course green is coming at the expense of the residents.

FLAVIA RESENDE: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I live nearby, at Recreio, and residents are revolted," she says; "because while they keep watering the grass here, people don't have water where we live," she says. There's a massive drought affecting coastal Brazil right now. Residents suspect water meant for them is being diverted. Golf courses drink hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day. And this course is being built from scratch. But this isn't only a fight over a golf course. Think about it. The World Cup lasted a month. The Olympics lasts only 16 days. The people who live in the host cities have to deal with the run-up, which can last years, and the aftermath, which lasts a lifetime. Both the World Cup, which was hosted by Brazil last year, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia were marked by massive expenditure and little lasting legacy beyond white elephant stadiums. The city of Rio vows this won't happen.

JOAQUIM MONTEIRO: The message that we want to spread to the world is how to use the gains to benefit the city, how to use the gains to serve the city. How can we transform the city using the Olympics?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joaquim Monteiro is the president of the Municipal Olympic Committee. He points to the new infrastructure, like roads and bus lanes that they've put in place, which has increased the number of people who use public transport in the city. They say that more than half the venues are being repurposed from existing buildings. Others will only be temporary because, Monteiro says, it's often the cost of maintaining unused venues that strains city budgets. But the main way they're planning to make all this cost effective is through something called private-public partnerships, or PPPs. In principle, it means that private companies foot the cost of certain projects.

MONTEIRO: Sixty percent of the budgets come from the private sector. So we are saving public money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Things like the Olympic athletes' village is being paid for with private money. And also, so is the golf course. Monteiro says far from being a wild area, there was an illegal operation dredging sand for concrete operating in a part of the park that will become the golf course.

MONTEIRO: The area of the golf course was an empty area. There was nothing there. There was complete abandonment. Now the area now is completely green, the golf course.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Monteiro defends the PPP model, which he says will bring jobs and tourism to many areas of the city.

MONTEIRO: There is no philanthropy here. So the private sector, they invest in the city because they will have return.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In principle, that sounds fair. But critics say it's anything but.

ORLANDO SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Orlando Santos is a professor of urban planning and management at Rio de Janeiro's Federal University. He says the PPP model transfers public land into private hands. "It's a scandal" he says. "It's a process of benefiting private enterprise. For example, the golf course is being turned into a luxury development after the games," he says. "The golf course itself will be public in the sense that you don't have to be a member to play there, but you will have to pay for access."

SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Orlando Santos says, "the golf course scheme is just one more project that is imposed on the society here without any discussion and with no transparency," he says. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.