Rio de Janeiro 20yrs on

In the early 1990s, few people could have predicted the shift of global power and wealth that has propelled once-struggling nations like Brazil to prominence. In just two decades, Brazil has gone from an economic no-hoper to a serious player on the world stage

That includes its tourism sector, which is at an all time high, and events such as this year’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, promise to raise the profile of the country and host city, Rio de Janeiro, even further.

The first major international event to be hosted in Brazil’s second largest city is Rio+20, which takes place 20-22 June 2012. Two decades after Rio hosted the 1992 UNCSD conference, known as the Earth Summit, this year’s gathering aims to secure a renewed political commitment for sustainable development. It will also shine the spotlight on the progress Brazil and Rio have made on the path to sustainability since 1992.

Rio in 1992
Ariane Janer, ecotourism and sustainable development specialist and technical coordinator at NGO Instituto EcoBrasil, remembers the issues facing the country two decades ago. “It was a very negative year for Brazil in 1992,” she says. “The country was in crisis, and Rio was part of that. Tourism was at a low, the country had a violent reputation, and the favelas [shanty towns] were getting out of control.”

In rural Brazil, Amazon deforestation and desertification in the semi-arid ecosystems of the country’s north-east had caught the world’s attention.

In Rio and other Brazilian cities, lack of basic sanitation was a major problem, coastlines and waterways were seriously polluted, and levels of air pollution rivalled or exceeded those of more developed cities.

Moreover, Brazil was grappling with external debts of U$123bn and rampant inflation was strangling any hopes of economic and social advancement. With nearly 18% of Brazilians living in extreme poverty, on less than US$1.25 per day, Brazilian politics was focused on economic survival.

Rio in 2012
Fast forward to the present day and, thanks to some decisive economic reforms in 1994, including the introduction of a new currency, and the discovery of vast offshore oil reserves in 2007, Brazil has turned its financial fortunes around, ranking today as the world’s sixth-biggest economy.

Grassroots action
There have been significant reductions in crime and poverty, too, and tourism has surged. Brazil’s official tourism bureau, Embratur, registered a record influx of 5.4 million tourists in 2011, 31% of them to Rio, the country’s top tourist destination. A further 5.76 million are expected this year, and 7.21 million in 2014, according to a recent government report, Turismo no Brasil 2011-2014.

However, there is concern that Brazil’s environmental challenges still remain much as they were 20 years ago, despite a complex suite of environmental laws, policies and government agencies that have evolved since the late 1980s.

Ariane Janer explains that air pollution in Rio de Janeiro continues to be a problem as car ownership increases to reflect the country’s growing prosperity. Less than 6% of Rio’s waste is recycled (many European cities enjoy recycling rates of between 40-60%), and despite a US$793m plan conceived in the mid-1990s to clean up the city’s iconic Guanabara Bay, the waters are still fetid with raw sewage.

A country report by the US Library of Congress attributes the problem, in part, to “the traditional separation between official rhetoric and actual practice in Brazil”.

Janer explains: “Brazil has feet of clay, because of its bureaucracy and because it has a very complex political system. Getting things moving takes a long time.”

Latest environmental developments
Yet the future hosting of so many high-profile international events has sparked a burst of eco-activity in Rio over the past few years. As host of the upcoming Rio+20, the city is gearing up to report on its key economic, social and environmental impacts. If it does so, it will be the first city in the world to meet Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines.

According to the municipal government’s strategic plan for 2009–2012, its 10-year vision is to see Rio become the “national benchmark for sustainability and environmental preservation”. One of its principal goals will be to clean up Rio’s polluted atmosphere, coastline and waterways.



The document outlines intermediary goals to be achieved by 2012, including expanding the sewer system by 30% and doubling the city’s cycle network. A separate climate change policy also details emissions reduction targets of up to 8% by 2012, up to 16% by 2016 and up to 20% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

To achieve these goals, a number of initiatives have been launched, including two clean-up projects designed to tackle water pollution and sanitation issues. The Sena Limpa project will see six of Rio’s most popular beaches, including the famous Ipanema and Copacabana, cleaned up over a two-year period. The US$28m Lagoa Limpa scheme will involve a huge clean up of one of the city’s famous landmarks, Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.

Since the principle source of contamination to Rio’s coastline and lagoon is the dumping of sewage, part of the strategy will involve expanding the sewer system and redirecting it to treatment plants or out to sea, beyond the reach of inbound currents.

Rio already leads the way for urban cycling in South America, with around 150km of bike lanes and a successful, low-cost “Bike Rio” rental system. The municipal government’s Rio Bicycle Capital scheme plans to double the cycle path network in coming years.

What about the hospitality sector?
Rio’s hotel industry is under considerable pressure to expand to accommodate the growth of visitors expected. The city currently has 29,000 available rooms, according to figures from the Brazilian Association of Hotels in Rio (ABIH-RJ), and hotels already run at average occupancy rates of around 90% during the high season.

The Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) is offering US$581m worth of credit for new-build hotels and hotel refurbishments ahead of the World Cup through a scheme called ProCopa Turismo. And the bank is providing extended repayment periods of up to 15 years, the longest-ever terms offered by BNDES, for energy-efficient and other sustainable hotel building projects.

The Brazilian Federation of Hospitality and Food has its own energy-efficiency programme, called Pro Hoteís, which offers equipment, advice and finance at reduced rates to hotels prepared to upgrade their facilities to energy-efficient alternatives.

In 2006, the Brazilian Sustainable Tourism Standard (ABNT NBR 15.401) was also developed. It audits key indicators, such as consumption of water and energy per guest per night, staff training and development, and customer satisfaction, as well as publishing best-practice manuals and offering training programmes. However, uptake has been slow. According to the Instituto EcoBrasil, by the end of 2011, only three hotels in Brazil had been certified, and none in Rio.

Examples of best practice
Nevertheless, some Rio hotels are leading the way with their own green programmes. Take the recently opened luxury posada, Quinta Azul, which is housed in a refurbished colonial mansion in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. Owners Yewweng Ho and Gordon Lewis were keen to preserve the building’s history in a city where much original architecture has been destroyed. “Santa Teresa is special because it has many surviving colonial buildings,” Lewis says. “These historical parts of the city are very important to Rio and are generating lots of business in terms of tourism.”

Planning regulations stipulate that the external facade of historic buildings must be preserved, and Ho and Lewis employed traditional carpenters and stone masons to source materials and reconstruct the outer walls to be as close to the original as possible. “The exterior has to be kept the same and any changes are scrutinised very carefully, if they are allowed at all. The interiors are much less important, unless there are specific finishes very unique or special to the period,” he says.


The hotel has also installed energy-saving light bulbs and it is recycling waste water. In addition, an extensive system of rainwater collection tanks means water can be collected during the rainy season to use on the garden in the dry season, which is key in a country where utilities are very expensive.

Angelo Vivacqua, speaking on behalf of the ABIH-RJ, explains that the water tariff structure increases the unit value per cubic metre of water according to consumption: “The more one consumes, the more expensive the unit value. This penalty [encourages] consumers to install features to reduce water consumption.”

Although Rio receives plenty of rain, water supply in the metropolitan area can sometimes be an issue due to high demand and inefficiency in the supply chain. “CEDAE [the state’s water and sewage company] loses something like 40% through leaks and illegal connections. Power failures and pump failures also play a role,” explains Ariane Janer.

The Sheraton Barra Hotel & Suites, part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, has its own dedicated Green Committee, which guides its sustainability policies. Hotel spokesperson, Rosângela Lopes, says it has supported global initiatives, including Clean-Up the World and WWF’s Earth Hour, as well as running an internal recycling programme which last year collected almost two tonnes of waste. Hotel staff also participated in a “blitz” litter-pick at Barra beach as part of the UN’s World Environment Day 2011, and the property hosts an annual conference called “Barra Sustainable” to bring together key figures from the local community to discuss how best to promote sustainable practices, such as recycling and beach clean-ups, in the Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood, where the hotel is located.

Other environmental practices at the Sheraton hotel include the installation of water-conserving fixtures, energy-efficient lighting, elimination of styrofoam packaging and the use of low-emitting materials, including paint, flooring and furniture.

Orient-Express’ Copacabana Palace Hotel also has a strong sustainability programme. Its 24-point action plan covers everything from recycling cooking oil and greywater harvesting to the installation of waste-saving devices and the reduction in packaging. The hotel also helped to promote Barra Sustainable 2011.

What challenges lie ahead?
According to Paulo André Pozzobon, the Copacabana Palace Hotel’s director of engineering, the biggest challenge ahead for Rio’s hotel industry is to alter the mentality of hoteliers concerning the initial outlay required to implement sustainability projects.

He believes that business owners must be made to understand that sustainable practices—by their very definition—generate economic value in the long run. “The perception of this difference is crucial to the decision of companies to engage in sustainability programmes for their hotels,” he says.
In terms of the bigger environmental picture, many commentators agree that a lack of specific and time-limited goals and unified and efficient planning, cooperation and action at all government levels are likely to be the biggest challenges that lie ahead.

However, with some of Brazil’s most pressing social and economic challenges easing, and with Rio+20 bringing sustainability into focus, Rio’s responsible hoteliers are hopeful that Brazil’s growing economy, a booming tourism industry and a recent city focus on “green” issues can help to make Rio a truly world-class sustainable destination.

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