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Municipal administration

“Help a healthy attitude take root”

by Carlos Alberto Richa
Public conservation unit at Tingui Parque, one of 30 parks that serve as habitats for native species in Curitiba.

Public conservation unit at Tingui Parque, one of 30 parks that serve as habitats for native species in Curitiba.

Representatives of over 100 local governments from 28 countries met in Bonn in late May at a “Mayors’ Conference”, which was co-hosted by InWEnt. The idea was to discuss how to protect biodiversity and then submit the results to the plenary session of the 9th Conference of Parties (COP9) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. One participant was Carlos Alberto Richa, the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, a city that started making headlines with public-transport schemes and other environment-friendly measures as early as the 1960s. [ Interview with Carlos Alberto Richa ]

Are you happy with the results of the Mayors’ Conference?
Considering that the cities were able to guarantee a very important role as partners in the fight for biodiversity, yes. Before COP 9, they were not given a role compatible with their real responsibility. After all, they have to assure the life quality of over 70 % of the global population. In my view, what was discussed in 2007 has now been effectively concretised. However, I had hoped for even better results, that more mayors would follow our path in the future. This is what I still expect to grow from the seeds we planted in Bonn. One of the marking traits of the Mayors’ Conference was to exchange ideas and experiences. We intend to come together again in order to evaluate existing partnerships and to present the achievements we made.

How should local authorities act to protect biodiversity?

In different ways. One effective means is to implement public-transport systems that promote collective transport as opposed to the automobile. That way, pollutants can be reduced, and the quality of life improves. Another way is the preservation of the fauna and flora, like we have started to do in Curitiba’s Biocity Programme. Today we have over 300 indigenous bird species in the city’s woods, squares, parks and preservation units. However, each city needs to find its own way, according to particularities. Suitable strategies will differ in rich and poor countries, for instance.

Please tell me more about what you do in Curitiba to protect biodiversity.
There are several programmes, but the most specific one is the Biocity Programme. It links the re-planting of indigenous species and measures to rehabilitate rivers with supporting for popular housing as well as public education. One of the sub-programmes is called Viva Barigui, the goal is the recovery of the Barigui river, one of the city’s most important rivers. Another objective is the creation of privately-owned reserves, which is promoted with tax exemptions. Moreover, we created a reserve in Santa Felicidade. This is one of the most traditional districts in Curitiba, marked by large green areas. On top of that, we are implementing a housing programme for disenfranchised families that links action in the field of education, leisure, health and the environment. One aspect is the resettlement of families who live in environmentally protected areas – generally close to rivers – to areas better suited for housing. Increasing the scope of garbage recycling is another programme, and that should certainly be on the agenda of relevant environmental action in any city.

How does biodiversity relate to development?

In Curitiba, you can see that economic development and biodiversity can be in harmony. It is essential to implement urban-planning policies which are committed to environmental preservation, for example by prioritising public transport and improving the urban and social infrastructure.

Does Curitiba have a special environmental tradition?

Curitiba became something of a model for environmental preservation thanks to the tireless work of several generations of managers, engineers, architects, technicians and civil servants who knew to act in tune with people and entrepreneurs, the men and women who build the city. The base was sound urban planning, and creative solutions for pressing problems. It is impossible to solve things by thinking only in the long term, since people have to make their living now. On the other hand, it is also impossible to get anywhere by taking only immediate measures, without considering a more distant horizon. Local authorities must strike a balance.

Is it true that local authorities tend to shy from trying something new, and prefer copying other cities’ solutions instead?

This is a complex question. In general, I do not see any problem in copying ideas that have already worked elsewhere. But they must always be adjusted to the city’s own social, economic and cultural characteristics. For the success of environmental preservation, policies must be fine tuned to each city’s specific traits. Another important point is respect for the people’s culture. Programmes fail unless the public accepts them. Standards of co-responsibility must be established, involving public authorities, communities, companies and non-governmental organisations. Education and awareness raising are necessary to achieve that. In some schools in Curitiba, for instance, children have ecology classes in the woods next to the school. At home, they then reproduce the good environmental practices, and disseminate ideas that help a healthy attitude to take root among the entire population.

Are the people of Curitiba any different from people of other Brazilian cities of the same size?

Curitiba has 1.8 million inhabitants, 3.2 million people live in the metropolitan region with 26 municipalities. Some people compare Curitiba to European cities. But I do not agree. In fact, Curitiba was settled by Italians, Germans, Poles, Portuguese, Japanese, Ukrainians and several other ethnic groups who later were absorbed, including Arabs and Jews, Chinese and Spaniards. We are a huge, multi-ethnic community. African descendants and native South American Indians also played a fundamental role in forming Curitiba. Right now, we are about to conclude the construction of a housing project that respects, as far as possible, the characteristics of an Indio village. It will be inhabited by Indios, but linked to the surrounding city. It will contribute to diversity and not become a ghetto. It is clear that the people have special traits that set them apart from other cities. But fundamentally, we are a Brazilian city with defects and virtues similar to those found in other metropolitan cities. Curitiba makes diversity one of its main trumps in the quest for well-being and prosperity.

On May 29th you participated in the submission of the “Bonn Call for Action” to the plenary session of the ministerial segment of COP9. What is that paper about?

Cities need to be committed more strongly. As local leaders, we demand that our partners at all levels of government recognise and support local contributions to global strategies. For that to happen, the international inter-institutional pact, which was discussed in Bonn, must be reinforced. Otherwise, there will be no guarantee for the survival of our planet.

What should happen next, after the submission?

I hope that our action serves as a model-role. Everyone should seek his or her own solution to achieve the common goal. They also should demonstrate that it is possible and feasible to enforce necessary changes at the city level.

The interview was carried out by Claudia Isabel Rittel after the Mayors’ Conference in Bonn which was organised by the Local Governments for Sustainability association (ICLEI), the city of Bonn and InWEnt’s Service Agency Communities in One World.