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

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.

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."

To the Times of London, Ferreira de Mello said simply, "it's an offence to human dignity."

Government officials say such talk is unwarranted. Icaro Moreno Junior, the president of the Rio state public works department, told the Times of London that if the government did not protect the forest, it would disappear within a decade. “We are protecting the forest," he said. "We’re not dividing people.... It’s crazy to compare it to the wall of Berlin or the wall of the Gaza Strip.”

But suspicions of an ulterior motive aren't totally unfounded. The Reuters story reports:

Many of Rio's hundreds of slums are controlled by heavily armed drug gangs that have further alienated them from the rest of the beach-side city. Despite regular, violent raids on slums, police have largely failed to bring them under control. The city's forest is sometimes used by gangs as a refuge and as a training ground, adding to suspicions that security is the main reason for the walls....
The choice of location for the walls has also raised some eyebrows. Of the 13 communities, 12 are in the wealthy southern district, home to the city's glitziest homes, restaurants and its famous beaches. Walls are only planned for one community in the city's western zone, even though analysts say those slums are expanding at an even faster pace.

Wall critics also point out that Rio will host the World Cup in 2014, and that it has bid to host the Olympics in 2016. It's using the Atlantic forest as cover for cleaning up the city in anticipation, they charge. Indeed, as COHA report points out, the "wall them in" approach has been implemented before. In anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, Chinese authorities built walls around Beijing slums.

But the COHA report, posted earlier this month, also suggests that favela-dwellers and Rio authorities may have reached a middle ground.

The Rocinha favela – perhaps now considered more of a neighborhood than a slum due to its large size – proposed an alternative solution to which the government has recently agreed. There will still be a barrier between the favela and the forest, but rather than looming walls it will take the shape of a park, with nature paths and a space the community can use. There will be stretches of walls, but they will be no higher than three feet, and the taller walls will only be built in areas deemed at high risk of landslides.If the purpose of the walls is truly to protect the environment, the Rocinha solution demonstrates that better options than the eco-barriers exist. It also indicates that the government is sometimes willing to compromise. While the Rocinha example lends hope that other communities could successfully lobby for a similar compromise, one is left to wonder why eco-walls are still the plan-in-waiting for the other favelas.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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