June 21, 2012 6:44 pm

Snarl-ups deal blow to success of Rio+20

For a city preparing to host the 2016 Olympics and some of the 2014 World Cup games, this week’s UN Rio+20 earth summit has shone a sometimes unflattering light on its hotel and transport networks.

Traffic jams have snarled up the city in spite of the government’s declaration of a school holiday during the event.

Lisa Jackson, one of the most senior members of the US delegation, was due to speak on Tuesday at a conference in Copacabana co-hosted by Eduardo Paes, Rio mayor, and Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor. Ms Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, got so stuck in the city’s chronic traffic that she missed the event. Her speech was read out by another EPA official.

But the problems began well before the start of the summit. When official delegations went to book rooms for Rio+20 – named because it comes 20 years after Rio hosted the 1992 UN earth summit – they were confronted with hotel price-gouging.

A government-appointed travel agent in charge of bookings told delegations they not only had to pay rates of $600 and more per night but they had to stay for at least 10 days.

A European Parliament delegation decided to cancel, some poorer country leaders shied away and media organisations downscaled their planned coverage.

“They blocked the rooms and started charging outrageous prices,” one summit official with knowledge of the preparations said of the official travel agent. He said bad press eventually forced the Brazilian government to order the travel agent and hotels to lower their prices and promise to reimburse those who had been overcharged.

Such problems may have hurt attendance. Just five weeks ago, the guest list was looking good. The names of 83 heads of state, 44 heads of government and four vice presidents were down for the three-day conference, which ends on Friday.

But internal UN figures seen by the Financial Times show that by Wednesday, that list of 131 leaders had shrunk to just 95, fewer than some had expected for what has been billed as the biggest summit the UN has ever held.

There are no doubt many reasons for why the numbers fell, from the eurozone crisis that kept many European leaders at home, to the US presidential election, to the stalled negotiations on what the conference would actually produce.

Brazilian officials say they are confident the traffic and accommodation problems surrounding Rio+20 will be solved by the time of the Olympics.

“None of the infrastructure plans in Rio were planned for this conference,” said Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago of the foreign ministry, Brazil’s chief negotiator at Rio+20. “It is all planned for 2014 and 2016, so nothing is in place yet.”

No World Cup football games will be played near the RioCentro, an aide added. And Brazil plans to increase the supply of rooms in the hotel industry, which has suffered from a lack of investment in recent decades.

But others warned the government needed to learn from this event. “If this is a kind of learning curve, that’s OK, but they keep saying everything is perfect when it isn`t,” said the senior summit official.

Still, some of the summit’s minor logistical snafus have been entertaining. When Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe began to speak at the opening session of the conference, the sometimes erratic English translation on convention centre screens briefly described him as the president of the “Republic of OJ Simpson”.

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