Rio didn’t need a new golf course, and most people didn’t want one. A billionaire developer worked with the city to build the Olympic Golf Course on protected land anyway.
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.
Last week, in the office of Rio de Janeiro's public ministry, two biologists and a lawyer for an environmental-investigation division called Ambiental GATE patiently listened to me read from a recent Golf Digest article about the new Olympic Golf Course's positive environmental impact.
They had an intentionally blank expression, as one does when trying to keep it together when you know you're hearing nonsense.
"Opponents were certain a swamp, known as Marapendi Lagoon, was being despoiled by the course, but the environmental-impact report established the opposite."
Rodrigo Ventura Marra and Simone Mannheimer De Alvarenga, the government biologists, and Tatiana Moraes, the lawyer, neither nodded nor frowned. They slightly pursed their lips almost in unison.
"Native vegetation has increased by 167 percent, and the number of animal species in the locale has more than doubled since June 2013."
They had just spent two hours carefully explaining to me in detail why the exact opposite is true: that the Olympic Golf Course destroyed protected land, reduced biodiversity, and was built in violation of Rio's environmental laws.
I asked them what they thought of Golf Digest's assessment. Alvarenga politely smiled.
"We have heard these words before. Those words are from the city and the developers."
As a result of a civil complaint filed by a local group, the GATE team has been investigating the Olympic Golf Course for violating the city's environmental laws since 2013. In Brazil, the public ministry acts as a kind of fourth branch of government. Citizens can lodge complaints, the ministry investigates, and if they find wrongdoing, they bring the issue to a judge.
What GATE found regarding the Olympic Golf Course was not only a blatant disregard for the letter and spirit of environmental laws but a concerted effort between the city and a billionaire developer to get the course built for personal gain.
The Rio Games have caused neighborhoods to be destroyed and people to be killed for the Olympic Family's benefit; billions upon billions spent with little payoff for the vast majority of Cariocas. So while the course itself, and the men's tournament played there last week, have earned rave reviews, the true story of how the course was built has mostly been ignored by the international press.
By now, though, it is abundantly clear the Olympics have served the political and billionaire class and nearly no one else. For the most blatant example of this—if not the one with the most severe repercussions—look no further than the Olympic Golf Course.
The Olympic Golf Course did not have to be built. Golf—an expensive sport with a high-cost barrier to entry, even if you can play on a course for cheap—is not popular in Brazil. According to figures reported by the New York Times, Brazil has roughly one golf course for every 1.6 million people, whereas the U.S. has a course for about every 22,000 people.
Rio already had two courses when it submitted its bid to host the 2016 Games to the International Olympic Committee in 2007. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said in a press conference last year that the IOC blocked a move to hold the golf event at one of the existing courses, the Golf Club Itanhangá, which would have needed some $25 million in renovations. When IOC President Thomas Bach heard these remarks, he responded, "I'm a little surprised because as we all know, the mayor was pushing very much for this [new course] to happen." The manager for Itanhangá wrote a letter to the city council declaring the club was never approached to host the event despite being one of Golf Digest's top 100 courses outside the U.S. and being IOC-compliant.
According to a spokesperson from Paes's office, the International Golf Federation and the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee decided to build a new course, not the mayor: "The verdict was based on a technical study conducted by the IGF, who is responsible for the golf competitions in the 2016 Games and for approving/vetoing the facilities proposed by the Organizing Committee." However, the spokesperson did not go into detail on who conducted the study and why Itanhangá was not considered suitable.
The spokesperson also stated that the new course would be a "legacy" project, remaining open to the public for 20 years in order to increase golf participation in the city. "The aim is to promote the sport in Brazil and South America and encourage tourism directed to its practice."
Even allowing that another course is something Cariocas might eventually want glosses over the fact that the Olympic Golf Course just so happens to accomplish a decade-long pursuit by the area's most prominent developer.
Pasquale Mauro, an 89-year-old billionaire real-estate mogul in the Barra da Tijuca area and partner in FIORI Empreendimentos, the developer of the course, admitted to journalist Alex Cuadros that he had been trying to build a golf course on a piece of environmentally protected Barra land since 2006 as part of a condo project. But there were two obstacles. First, that land was home to a particularly rare and vibrant ecosystem, known as the Marapendi Municipal Reserve, which was zoned for no building whatsoever and total preservation. Second, the rest of the land was zoned to prevent most types of development and couldn't be used for a golf course.
Before the Olympics, Mauro was having trouble getting clearance to build there. The GATE team praised Rio's environmental laws as being very comprehensive to protect what is left of Rio's unique ecosystem. This particular preserved area, called restinga, is part of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, the coastal rain forest of Mata Atlântica. It has mostly been destroyed by coastal development in Brazil, particularly in Rio. According to GATE's biologists, about 1.2 percent of Rio's original restinga still exists.
Further, most of the remaining restingas are disconnected. In ecology, the larger the piece of land and the wider variety of habitats therein, the more diversity it has. The land Mauro wanted to develop was part of the largest piece of continuous restinga left in the city, home to several endangered species including butterflies and a type of alligator. To build a golf course there would be to fragment the most diverse restinga remaining in Rio, and make the area more vulnerable in the process. GATE's biologists also emphasized that no two restingas are exactly alike, and that destroying this land would be destroying a unique landscape—something that may never be reversed or rebuilt.
The destruction of local habitat is not merely an academic issue. The reserve was not only for endangered species; it also protected the surrounding lands—including developed areas—against the effects of high tides, wind, and erosion. The dunes formed natural barriers against rising sea levels, which the Opening Ceremony showed will drown Barra da Tijuca. Like every other evolved ecosystem on the planet, it served a purpose, and that purpose was not Olympic golf.
Nevertheless, for Mauro, the Olympics offered an opportunity to finally circumvent these laws. Rio won its bid to host the 2016 Games in 2009. At the end of 2011, with the Olympics around the corner and with the city council's help in what Cuadros called a "lame-duck session," the project was approved for a piece of land in Barra.
The council took two dubious steps without having conducted any of the technical studies that are required by law before building on protected land. First, they passed a new law that flat-out removed a 58,000 square meters of Marapendi from protection, and did not offer any explanation.
Second, and most gallingly, they designated the rest of the park as "degraded" because, they claimed, the northern edge had been harmed by other development projects near the main road. If a land is degraded due to development, according to the law, the developers are responsible for restoring it. As it happens, the city council voted that building a golf course would qualify as a restoration project.
Under the arrangement with the city, Mauro would pay for the course's construction—estimated at $25 million—and the course would remain public for 20 years. In return, he could build 160 luxury marble and glass apartments in four 20-story towers on the same parcel of land, which are now selling for between $2.5 million and $7 million each (a few penthouses are selling for a higher but undisclosed amount). The math is elementary: Mauro will more than make his money back by selling just a few condos. If he sells all of the condos, he will make something approaching $800 million.
In 2013, GATE's two biologists, Marra and Alvarenga, began investigating the city council's decision and its impact on the protected land. A major part of that investigation required assessing whether or not the land was "degraded," a highly technical ecological term with no clear definition. Nevertheless, GATE's team found an obvious answer.
The only part of the land that was "degraded" was up north, near the road. But it was degraded as a result of previous developmental projects such as the road itself and the accompanying housing and businesses built in the 1970s and 80s; still, it was in the natural recovery process and almost fully restored. The rest of the land was a perfectly vibrant ecosystem with no degradation whatsoever. In effect, the city council's decision used the guise of environmental preservation to destroy more of the preserve.
The Mayor's office doesn't see it this way. In a statement to VICE Sports, a spokesperson claimed the course is only using 58,000 square meters (3.5 percent) of Marapendi Park, and that, to compensate for this, "the City created another park, Nelson Mandela, across to the Marapendi Park and with 1.6 million square meters. The total area of parks in the region will double. Together, the Marapendi Parks and Nelson Mandela have 3.2 million square meters."
But GATE's Marra thinks this is disingenuous accounting. For one, Nelson Mandela Park used to be called Barra da Tijuca Park, and has existed since before the golf course project was approved. "They are considering the date it was renamed (December 2013) rather than the date it was actually established, to justify it [as] 'compensation.'"
Second, even if Nelson Mandela Park was actually compensation, it is a different type of restinga area that doesn't have the continuity of Marapendi, so preserving one doesn't negate the destruction of the other.
Third, the 58,000 square meter area the city cites is just the area of Marapendi given to the developer, which GATE argues—and the pictures below support—was not degraded at all. GATE is just as concerned about the rest of the 1,142,000 square meters of the golf course, which is still a protected area that GATE found should not have been built on.
The course's designer, Hanse Golf Design, and FIORI did not respond to a list of questions sent by VICE Sports.
In 2014, GATE investigators, having found that the law had been violated, brought the case to their prosecutor, Daniel Marones, who in turn brought it in front of a judge. Marones argued that the city and the developers had violated the city's environmental law.
Although FIORI was able to get their building permits mere days after the city council's ruling, the legal case dragged. "The judge thought the Games were important for the city and [that he] cannot stop that," Marra said.
The course and condos have already been built, but there is still plenty left to fight for. The GATE team wants to see FIORI and the city forced to restore the area they have damaged. More important, a ruling in their favor may prevent further development in similar areas.
Earlier this year, the judge appointed someone to act as a kind of mutual expert witness in the case. The expert was expected to survey the land and answer a list of questions asked by both sides for submission to the case.
There was just one problem: the expert appointed, Luiz Heráclito Augusto Moreira, is a mechanical engineer, without the slightest knowledge or expertise in ecology or biology as his responses later made clear. Marones asked the judge for an expert with a focus in biology or ecology, a request the judge denied.
Moreira responded to most of GATE's 41 detailed questions by repeating the arguments previously made by the city and FIORI verbatim, or with a single word: "Yes." His responses didn't include any evidence of surveying, technical analysis, or expertise whatsoever, as required from an expert witness. He didn't even bother to incorporate Google Earth photos.
However, two weeks ago, the judge invalidated Moreira's report. Not because he was incompetent but because it was found he had secretly met with FIORI representatives and the city before writing his report.
When I asked Marones whether the city viewed GATE's efforts as fulfilling a vital role in the environmental law or as just another unwanted obstacle, he flashed a grin, paused to think of the right way to put it before settling on his answer.
"The second option."
The biologists, Alvarenga and Marra, say the golf course case is the rule in Rio, not the exception. "This is what it's like in Rio. This is our job. When there's a lot of money in Rio, this happens."
"It's only one case," Moraes, the GATE lawyer, added. "Every day we have to put up with things like that. It's normal."
Last Thursday, during the first day of Olympic competition, the sky was bright and breezy, with a sparse crowd of some 3,600 people. Outside the grounds was a small protest by the group Ocupa Golfe, whose Facebook page has more than 10,000 Likes. I walked the perimeter of the course, surveying the land that was once a rare nature preserve. The condominium towers loomed in the background, a constant reminder of why the course was here to begin with.The dense, unique forest is mostly gone now, the perimeter walled off by a ten-foot high fence. The small area between the course and lagoon is so dense that, in most places, you can only see a wall of vegetation, a fleeting glimpse of what used to be.
The developers, the course designers, and the city claim that native vegetation has increased 167 percent, and that the number of animal species in the locale has more than doubled since June 2013. Needless to say, Marra and Alvarenga balk at these claims. First of all, it goes against basic common sense: How can an area's biodiversity increase after being destroyed and replaced by golf grass? Second, it goes against basic ecological principles that the greater an area, the more biodiversity. The golf course significantly shrunk the area of native vegetation, so how could biodiversity increase? Third, there had been no survey of native species prior to the area's development—there should have been, according to Rio law, but the city council ignored that—so any numbers produced are the developer's estimates from after they razed the land. It's easy, Marra and Alvarenga observed, to increase biodiversity when you're starting from sand.
The course designers also claimed that they restored many of the plant species they removed to make the course. This, again, goes against common sense. How could all of the species have been preserved, particularly since nobody knows precisely what species were there in the first place?
Of course, any of the dozens of stories about wild animals "taking over" the Olympic Golf Course have the narrative precisely backwards. The animals didn't take over the golf course—the golf course took over the animals.
If you walk along the perimeter of the course now, you'll find scattered areas, not much bigger than a hundred square meters each, that claim to be protected land. They have small signs, like ones you'd find at the zoo, planted in the ground, bearing one of two messages. Some signs read, "Capybara, Caiman and other wildlife live here and they are protected by law. Please help us protect them." The other variation, often in a roped-off area, requests, "Please do not enter this sensitive area. Native and protected plants live here!"
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