View of Brazil's Porto Alegre from the Guaíba River. Ponta do Melo could end up like this.
Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS
Red Card for Porto Alegre?
By Clarinha Glock - IPS/IFEJ
The 2014 soccer World Cup has created a dilemma for the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre: real estate and tourism development or environmental preservation?
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jul 13 (Tierramérica).- The southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a pioneer in participatory budgets and environmental policies, and initial host of the huge World Social Forum, has returned to the international stage.
Chosen as one of the 12 sites for the 2014 World Cup in soccer, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, with a population of 1.4 million, faces a dilemma.
In August, the citizens 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 takes place in a context of major plans, including the expansion of sports stadiums and road construction, to better receive fans for the soccer championship.
But some of these projects are facing legal challenges because of their potential for harming the environment. The Porto Alegre Fundamental Law establishes that the areas along the river are permanent preservation zones.
Ponta do Melo, situated between the central and southern parts of Porto Alegre, was at one time a shipping port and 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 meters.
Once Estaleiro Só went out of business, the court ordered an auction to pay off its labor debts. In 2005, the land was auctioned by the SVB Participações Empreendimentos company, which transferred it to BMPar Empreendimentos.
At the time, municipal law 470/2002 authorized only construction of commercial buildings, with several urban restrictions.
In 2008, BMPar interested a group of city councilors 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 the law 470 to allow construction of residential buildings at the site, which was then named Pontal do Estaleiro.
That's when the protests began. "The project did not respect the participation of society," argued councilor Beto Moesch, who voted against law 470 in 2002 and opposed its reform last year.
At several public hearings, company representatives were seen embracing council members, while citizens shouted "sellouts!" at them. The attorney general opened an investigation into charges that municipal lawmakers were bribed to favor 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 council, which included an amendment that the citizens should be consulted. Meanwhile, another amendment was approved, which expanded the construction-free strip of land between the river and the buildings from 30 to 60 meters wide.
As a result, BMPar declared that it would not build anything at the Pontal site. Even so, the Council voted on the reform of law 470 and set a 120-day period to convene a referendum.
According to the Movement in Defense 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 waterfront.
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, qualifications and protection." According to Gothe, if land is not occupied 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 will cause traffic problems in the area and damage the riverbank.
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 for injunction, presented by ecologists, asks for immediate suspension of the January authorizations to expand the stadiums of two soccer 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 and a greater concentration of buildings per square meter, which would negatively affect the urban landscape, the environment and aerial 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 international soccer 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 riverside zone will be revitalized, and will attract tourism and 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 meters from riverbanks, to ensure preservation of water resources. But if the Guaíba is declared a lake, the area of protection is reduced to 30 meters.
According to city statute, changes like those planned for the soccer World Cup can only be decided with participation and approval of the citizens.
The 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 bused in to fill the hall and prevent participation of 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 IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).