March 23, 2006

UN Biodiversity Meeting Embraces Eco-friendly City

By Carolina Schwartz

CURITIBA, Brazil (Reuters) - It is no coincidence that the United Nations chose the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba to host its eighth conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is under way this week.

Experts say forward-thinking mayors have struck a balance in Curitiba between social and environmental concerns, providing an example for other cities in a country with a fifth of the world's biodiversity.

Curitiba is a far cry from the polluted, crime-plagued cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Curitiba's parks and public gardens total 4,200 acres. Residents zip around town on an innovative public transportation system and leafy bike paths.

"This convention in Curitiba pays homage to the good choices the city made in the past, investing in infrastructure, public transportation and green areas," said Jose Carlos Carvalho, secretary of Environment for the state of Minas Gerais, who was visiting Curitiba to attend the conference.

The talks in Curitiba are seeking ways to achieve a U.N. goal, set by world leaders in 2002, of slowing the rate of loss of the diversity of life on Earth by 2010.

The city's public bus system, nicknamed "speedy" because of its exclusive express lanes, has inspired similar models even in car-dominated cities such as Los Angeles. Passengers wait for buses in futuristic plastic tubes serving as platforms.

Much of the smart planning choices were made by former Mayor Jaime Lerner, an architect who is well-regarded in urban planning circles in the United States and Europe.

Some say good planning has helped make the city more socially equitable and inclusive.

"Curitiba is prettier than Rio de Janeiro, people are nicer, and the city doesn't have such contrasts between poor and rich, with slums alongside million-dollar homes," said Sandy Gauntlett, a New Zealander representing the Global Forest Coalition.

He said he felt safer in Curitiba than in drug-infested Rio. Home to immigrants from Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, the city of 1.6 million inhabitants has become a cultural center of contemporary art in Brazil.

The postmodern Oscar Niemeyer Museum opened in Curitiba in 2002 to honor the architect that designed the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

"This seems to be a socially balanced place," said In Prijo Soetedjo, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Indonesia.

To show that it is socially progressive, the state government put up billboards on the way to the city center from the airport that read "Welcome to the GMO resistance land."

Brazil, a farming powerhouse, is one of the biggest growers of genetically modified (GMO) soybeans.

On Wednesday, the governor of Parana state, populist Roberto Requiao, signed a bill requiring warning labels on products made with GMO crops that are sold in the state and its capital, Curitiba. It is the first state in Brazil to adopt such a measure.