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New Rio Olympic golf course harmed environment, say critics

  • Environmentalists unsuccessfully fought a new Rio golf course that the city claimed was required to put on the 2016 Olympics.
  • The R$ 60 million golf course, which includes a 22-story high rise infringed on the sandbank habitat of the Marapendi Environmental Protection Area (EPA).
  • Rio officials countered critics by commissioning a report that denied habitat damage, noting that Brazil’s EPA designation legally allows for human development within this type of protected area.
  • The golf course controversy is just one of many swirling around the Rio Olympics, including concern over the sewage polluted bay where sailing events are to be held. Federal investigators recently expanded a probe into possible corruption involving staging of the event, set for August.
Rio’s new Olympic golf course. Photo by Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil

After more than a 100-year hiatus, the sport of golf will again be played at the Summer Olympics — though that celebratory event has been tarnished by an environmental controversy, with conservationists battling but failing to stop the city of Rio’s Olympic golf preparations.

A new golf course was required for Olympics competition, according to Rio authorities — even though there were already two regulation golf courses within the city of Rio de Janeiro.

The land chosen for the new golf course, which was to be completed in 2015 ahead of the Olympics, lay within the Marapendi Environmental Protection Area (EPA) — a coastal habitat for sandbank native vegetation and animal life, including endangered species.

The open space of the EPA also happened to lie conveniently within the upmarket Rio beach suburb of Barra de Tijuca, dubbed “Rio’s Miami Beach,” a real-estate hot spot where condos and shopping malls are on the rise, and also the site of the Olympic Village and Olympic Park.

Biologist Marcello Mello, strongly opposed to the project, bluntly dubbed the golf course’s construction an “environmental crime”.

“The [formerly protected] sandbank belongs to the Atlantic Forest, which is a registered [heritage site] by UNESCO and is [part of] one of the most threatened biomes in the world,” asserted Mello. Referring to the damage done to the Marapendi Environmental Protection Area — home to 238 registered species — he declared: “It is a scandal.”

The decision to build the golf course generated immediate protests from environmental activists and the state prosecutors of the Public Ministry of Rio (MP-RJ), who contested the city’s decision by filing a lawsuit challenging the environmental license for the project. The request to halt work was rejected by the Brazilian courts and construction moved ahead on the R$ 60 million project.

Environmentalists and officials continue to argue whether the sand bank habitat edging the Olympic golf course was harmed or improved by the development. Photo courtesy of Divulgação / Prefeitura do Rio

That didn’t stop the opposition: they directly confronted International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in the lobby of the Windsor Atlântica Hotel while he was in Rio for a meeting; demonstrators held up signs calling him a “nature killer.”

As the project moved forward, activists from a group known as “Golf for Who?” along with other critics, came to the construction site to protest. But their efforts failed to stop the project. On November 22, 2015, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes officially dedicated the golf course in the presence of Brazilian Olympic Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman.

In February 2016, the State of Rio de Janeiro issued an expert government report, saying that the golf course “contributed to the growth of local vegetation” and was improving wildlife habitat rather than harming it, while also saying that the Marapendi EPA’s sandbank habitat had been badly degraded from many years of sand extraction.

“The fringe of native vegetation has not changed,” with the construction of the golf course, the report said, an assertion with which the city of Rio concurred. The expert report also claimed that the golf course had increased the number of species living at the location, not decreased their number.

The Marapendi golf course (black outline) built within the Marapendi Natural Reserve for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Map © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA 2.0 / MotorOilStains

The MP-RJ has since disputed that analysis through another agency, the Group of Specialized Expertise on the Environment (GAEMA), and asked the court to hold a new hearing that would include a “multidisciplinary team” to analyze habitat damage. The judge has not so far responded to that request.

According to GAEMA and the activists of “Golf for Who?”, the golf course caused serious detrimental environmental impacts: including suppression and fragmentation of native vegetation, and reduction of local biodiversity, resulting in the loss of habitat and native species of fauna and flora, including endangered species.

“This project is… eliminating the salt marsh ecosystem, [the] habitat of rare and endangered species,” Mello said, including a species of beach butterfly, the white-sand-lizard, rare species of orchid and a rare cactus, plus more common species including the Jacaré do Papo Amarelo or broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris), the armadillo, cavy and sloth.

Mello also questioned the accuracy of the government’s expert report, saying that it would have taken extensive and costly environmental studies to prove the city’s report wrong — an effort the activists couldn’t afford. He argued that, while the EPA sandbanks had indeed been degraded in the past, the habitat had largely recovered in recent years. He also alleged that the report presented misleading photos which showed a small area of degraded EPA land, but which failed to show any of the well-recovered sandbank habitat. Those pictures, he said, made everyone “believe the recovery was a lie. ”

Jacaré do Papo Amarelo or broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris). Photo by Rogerio Ponton licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Today, the golf course covers 970,000 square meters (0.375 square miles). It was built as part of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the government and Fiori Enterprises, which, according to the agreement, had the right to construct a 22-story building on the site. Early on, the project permit had limited the high rise to just six stories, but Rio officials later approved the parameter change.

At the golf course opening, Rio Mayor Paes rebutted project criticism by asserting that the new golf course will meet all the requirements of the International Olympic Committee, while the two already existing Rio golf courses (Itanhangá and Gavea) did not meet those requirements.

“Anyone who wants to understand the project, can go on the [web]site ‘explicagolfe‘, and [they] will see that here [in the EPA] was an area that was degraded,” by local sand mining. “We made some adjustments [building the golf course]. We’ve recovered part of that [degraded] ground, putting [in] sandbank vegetation,” he argued.

Environmentalists note that golf courses do not have a reputation for being eco-friendly: they are usually planted with invasive nonnative grasses; require intensive upkeep, including the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; while also needing regular maintenance utilizing heavy equipment — practices that are not conducive to wildlife.

The new Rio Olympic golf course was built even though the city already had two regulation courses. The new course is conveniently located to the Olympic Village and Olympic Park, though it is also inside the Marapendi Environmental Protection Area. Photo courtesy of Divulgação / Prefeitura do Rio

Rio’s Olympic organizers deny any wrongdoing regarding the golf course, and note that under the law, the Environmental Protection Area designation allows for both human activity — including buildings — and environmental preservation, so long as “legal restrictions are respected.” The organizers also point out that the golf course was granted all required environmental permits and so its construction did not violate any laws.

After the Olympics, a public entity will manage the golf course for 20 years. The course complex has the capacity to entertain 15,000 spectators. According to Rio’s mayor, the aim of the project is to popularize and encourage the practice of sport in the city.

Rio’s golf course controversy comes amid a widening federal investigation that is looking into possible corruption surrounding the 2016 Brazilian Olympics and its many construction projects, contracts for services and security. Rio has tried to overcome negative Olympic publicity, which has included reports on its sewage-infested bay where sailing races are to be held, and a newly built US $12 million coastal bike path — a portion of which collapsed this April when hit by a wave, killing two people.

The broad-snouted caiman is a hazard most golfers would likely prefer not to meet. Photo by Cláudio Dias Timm on Flickr