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The Fallen Trees of Vila Autódromo: Rio Topples Olympics Environmental Legacy

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When you are fighting for your house, and your most basic needs–like safety and public health–trees are left behind. To talk to the City about the trees… I left it for last. But then I felt bad about this. I should not feel bad protesting the[ir cutting the] trees. Trees should be the first [priority]… Without them, without oxygen we have nothing.” – Delmo Oliveira, resident of Vila Autódromo

After over five long years fighting their Olympic eviction, the community of Vila Autódromo, adjacent to the main Rio 2016 Olympic facility in Barra de Tijuca in Rio’s West Zone, struggles to keep the little that remains of their community. Once a peaceful community of 700 families, just 20 remain and have negotiated with the City to continue living on the land in newly built homes. Residents continue to be concerned about the community’s natural habitat, however, in particular the remaining trees, some which stood long before residents arrived in the community 40 years ago. According to Natália Silva, raised in Vila Autódromo, there were already a number of native trees in Vila Autódromo before residents arrived, including the protected species Pau Brasil, Brazil’s namesake.

Today, like the human homes in the community, many of the remaining trees in Vila Autódromo have been marked to be chopped down. When residents asked why, they got uncertain responses from government representatives designated to mark them, saying they didn’t know why.

Three trees marked in Vila Autódromo

During the stages of the house demolitions in Vila Autódromo and the government’s negotiations with residents, many were forced to leave and the boundaries of the community diminished. In the process, the community saw their number of trees reduce significantly. “I can only give an estimate,” said Natália. “I know there were definitely more than 500 trees… The government managed to get a license to cut down hundreds of trees.”

The importance of trees within communities

Trees are an essential part of the natural and human environment. They provide ecosystem services on a broad scale including water purification and atmospheric CO2 reduction, acting as a natural buffer against climate change. Trees also play an important role on a local level. Their roots stabilize soil preventing landslides and act as a local climate control. The lack of trees contributes to a phenomenon known as heat islands which tend to occur in less serviced urban areas where there are often fewer trees than in affluent areas. Additionally, tree roots can be used for treating sewage in eco-friendly biosystems. Trees provide food for communities, and can play a role in religious ceremonies, such as the trees of Heloisa Helena’s Candomblé practice in Vila Autódromo.

Tree marked in Vila Autódromo

Delmo Oliveira has lived in Vila Autódromo for 26 years and is an autodidact in plant biology and ecology. He actively sought to create a positive natural ecosystem for his community, but has now seen many of the 7,600 seedlings he planted with his son along the boundaries of the community and neighboring regions torn down. They were planted to ensure residents had the comfort of walking to the bus stop in the shade. Taking close to three years to finish two streets full of trees for shade, Delmo said it was an easy process, one they did over time, collecting seeds, digging a hole and planting them. “On the weekends as an incentive we would work before going to the waterfalls,” he added.

Delmo affirms the basic necessity of trees for life: “You cannot stay alive without oxygen. So we need to be concerned about trees. How will a new generation be created without the existence of trees? Oxygen is the most important thing, without it you don’t have anything.”

Delmo emphasizes that Vila Autódromo has plenty of life and trees but the government is “wasting and burning and tearing down” the trees and in turn, destroying their resources.

Delmo Oliveira

Olympic legacy promise to plant 24 million trees

One of the most notable promises of the Rio 2016 Olympics bid was to plant 24 million trees, intended to offset the carbon emissions related to the Games. In September 2014, State Environment Secretary Carlos Minc increased this number to 34 million trees to be planted by the end of 2015 in addition to creating 5,000 jobs in the green agricultural sector and opening tree nurseries across the state. They established a tree counter, which in 2014 indicated that 5 million trees had been planted, but the link no longer exists.

The Rio 2016 Sustainability Management Plan states that sustainability initiatives would be the main instrument for offsetting residual carbon emissions. The Plan includes projects in the Barra de Tijuca area such as “reforestation of degraded areas” and “ecological and functional recovery of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon system” with “reforestation in the strip around the lagoon.” There is no mention of Vila Autódromo’s existence in the plan. Additionally, the document called for the use of native species for landscaping and the reforestation of degraded areas, using native species included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Plan lists specific initiatives such as the Rio Green Capital program, a continuation of an already existing program called the Mass Reforestation Initiative using subcontractors to plant Atlantic Forest species on Rio hillsides and build capacity for future reforestation, including the construction of a new seedling nursery in Colônia Juliano Moreira. The project planned to reforest 1,600 hectares by 2016. In 2011, the Mass Reforestation Initiative had already planted 5,250,000 seedlings spanning 2,509 hectares, potentially the number accounted for in the now deleted tree counting site.

Delmo planted trees along the boundaries of Vila Autódromo

In March 2015, the City announced that 24 million trees would not be planted and the Jacapareguá Lagoon would not be cleaned by the start of the Games, stating there would not be enough time to clean the lagoon. State Environment Secretary Carlos Minc said the promise made didn’t count as “they did not have a trustworthy reference for the carbon footprint of the Games at the time.”

In March 2016, the contracts for cleaning the Jacarepaguá Basin including the lagoon and surrounding rivers were officially cancelled, meaning that none of the environmental projects promised in the Olympic bid would be completed, including the cleaning of the Guanabara Bay.

Delmo remembers the environmental legacy promises for the Pan-American Games in 2007: “[The government] did plant a whole avenue full of trees, but then what happens, a mega-event like the Olympics comes and they tear them all down.” Most notably in the region, he says, were the trees torn down along Estrada dos Bandeirantes, the most tree-populated road in Jacarepaguá, to widen the road for the Transcarioca bus rapid transit (BRT) route as part of the Olympic transport legacy. “This ‘progress’ is what destroys these [natural] things,” adds Delmo.

Environmental legacy in Vila Autódromo and beyond

The government’s plan to upgrade Vila Autódromo includes several trees on the planned streets. However residents argue that these trees are for aesthetics, not for the environment and species that inhabit the area. The green areas will be created by landscapers, not biologists or those familiar with the local environment. Delmo argues: “You have to observe a region over many years to be able to successfully reforest that area.” 

Beyond Vila Autódromo some ongoing environmental initiatives inspired by the Games are moving forward. The World Land Trust in partnership with Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve (REGUA) are currently fundraising for the acquisition of a land trust called the Olympic Forest Reserve, a parcel of Atlantic Forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Further, the municipal government’s Resilient City Plan for 2017-2020, created and published as part of the Rockefeller Foundation Initiative 100 Resilient Cities, outlines plans to plant 50,000 trees in public squares largely in the North and West Zones, so “most of the population has access to a green area within 15 minutes of their home.” The Plan also describes a R$127 million initiative to reforest and protect the city’s Atlantic Forest. However whether these ambitious ideas translate into action, or continue as merely plans marketed to an international audience remains to be seen. 

However as Delmo insists, the issue is of basic necessity and urgency. He says: “You cannot forget the environment, oxygen and the values we have. Trees have to come before everything. It’s so important. Now our climate is changing dramatically because of this lack of respect.”