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Ire over proposed 'eco-barriers' in Rio de Janeiro

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / September 25, 2009

A kid flies a kite in Rocinha, the biggest slum of Latin America in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is one of 13 slums that will receive eco-barrier walls to protect the city's surrounding forests.



Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, is taking a highly contentious approach to protecting its endangered Atlantic coast forest. The city is building so-called "eco-barriers" around some of its sprawling favelas, ostensibly to keep them from expanding into — and eating up — the disappearing habitat. But many think that these eco-concerns are serving as cover for another, less benevolent purpose: walling in, and containing, the city's slums.

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In recent decades, as people have flocked to Rio in search of a better life, its favelas have grown dramatically. Between 1991 and 2000, Rio's population increased by almost one-quarter. Now, more than 1 million people live in these slums, or 20 percent of Rio's population. (By some estimates, one-third of Rio's 6 million people call the favelas home.)

The proposed eco-barriers, up to 10 feet high in places, will encompass 13 slums. One favela called Rocinha will receive over 8.7 miles of wall, according to Reuters. Despite resistance, construction on the walls began this past March.

Brazil's Atlantic forest, a so-called biodiversity hotspot, certainly needs protection. More than 90 percent of the forest that once existed has disappeared. The state of Rio de Janeiro alone has eaten 80 percent of the forest, according to a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

Of the Atlantic forest, Conservation International says:

The Atlantic Forest of tropical South America boasts 20,000 plant species, 40 percent of which are endemic. Yet, less than 10 percent of the forest remains. More than two dozen Critically Endangered vertebrate species are clinging to survival in the region, including three species of lion tamarins and six bird species that are restricted to the small patch of forest near the Murici Ecological Station in northeastern Brazil. With almost 950 kinds of birds occurring in this hotspot, there are many unique species including the red-billed curassow, the Brazilian merganser, and numerous threatened parrot species.
Beginning with sugarcane plantations and later, coffee plantations, this region has been losing habitat for hundreds of years. Now, with the increased expansion of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the Atlantic Forest is facing severe pressure from the issues tied to urbanization.

And that seems to raise questions about fairness. Historically, favela expansion doesn't seem to have been the primary driver of Atlantic forest loss. Plantations had already cleared much of the forest before the cities began expanding. But now that there's little forest left, poor favela dwellers are paying the price of conservation.

Indeed, the walls have sparked indignation in Brazil and abroad.

“We had the Berlin Wall, we have the walls of Palestine, now the walls of Rio,” José Saramago, Portuguese author and Nobel laureate, told the Times of London.

"The wall represents a ghetto, an apartheid, the end of the communication between people, so we started to fight against the wall," Antonio Ferreira de Mello, head of a Rocinha residents' association, told Reuters. "There are other ways to prevent the growth of favelas into the forest."

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