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Thursday, June 20, 2013
Fabiana Frayssinet* - IPS/IFEJ
- Representatives of the Rocinha slum and the Rio de Janeiro government have agreed to replace a high wall, intended to prevent this densely populated hillside neighbourhood from spilling into the forest, with ecological paths, parks and low walls. This may also be an answer for other slums, known in Brazil as "favelas", where high walls have been planned. Many see such construction as an attempt to create a sort of apartheid between the rich and poor of this coastal city.
To reach the highest point in Rocinha, where a government agency is beginning to build the eco-boundary, you climb aboard a motorcycle-taxi, the best way to get around the narrow, curving streets of the shantytowns, which are mostly spread across the sides of the "morros", the hills that give Rio its signature look.
When the Portuguese conquistadors reached these lands 500 years ago, they ran into the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica, in Portuguese), which stretches across another 16 eastern Brazilian states and is one of the planet's most biodiverse ecosystems. But today just seven percent of the original forest is still standing.
At Rocinha's summit, the shacks hanging precariously over the ravine and the still-abundant vegetation mark the limit of the slum. This is where the cutting and burning of trees ended, at the edge of this community of 200,000 people, one of Latin America's largest shantytowns.
With the declared goal of halting deforestation and preventing construction in areas at high risk of landslides, the Rio government had proposed building 15 kilometres of three-metre-high walls around 14 of the city's favelas.
The wall is "an offensive metaphor that is a blow to the people of the favelas," said Silvia Ramos, coordinator of the Centre for Studies in Security and Citizenship (CESC), in an interview for this article.
It is a "kind of cage," in the opinion of Nadson Ribeiro, a Santa Marta resident who works in information technology. The "bars" of the cage are the police, who "constantly keep watch over the area" from below, and the wall above, he said.
That image is a reality in Rocinha.
While the large number of police officers deployed to the shantytown as part of the initiative have destroyed the street vendor stalls in the lower areas of the favela, among the trees above, drug traffickers have continued to ply their trade. The dense vegetation provides an escape route, and many believe that is the real reason behind the plan to build walls: to fence in the drug trade.
Icaro Moreno, head of the state public works agency, rejected the comparison with apartheid. "The border used to be virtual, and now it is physical. What the government did was to say, 'if you cross it or break it, you will be violating public property'," he said.
But some in Rocinha told him "no" to the "eco-boundaries" as well. "Any wall is separatist," said Antonio Ferreira de Melo, president of the Rocinha Neighbourhood Association, in an interview.
The mobilisation of this community, and of the Favela Federation of Rio de Janeiro, has at least led to a truce.
The government accepted the Rocinha proposal to substitute the walls with a combination of stretches of nature paths, including handrails for people with mobility problems, bicycle and skating paths, and playgrounds, alternating with stretches of walls – which will stand no higher than 90 cm.
Three-metre high walls will be built only in areas at risk of landslides.
The Association also proposed training forest rangers from the community who would ensure respect for the established boundaries.
Ocimar Santos, content editor for Rocinha's official website, is satisfied with the solution. "It wouldn't interrupt the right to movement and the nature park will benefit the community," he said.
In his opinion, the community knows that its disorderly expansion creates problems, such as in sanitation and garbage collection. But a wall "is not a positive symbol in any part of the world," he noted.
In the view of Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sérgio Cabral, the walls are intended to "protect" the communities, who in exchange receive benefits from the government, such as basic sanitation, education and urban planning.
"It is a way to keep such spending from being lost over time in the unregulated expansion of the community," said Cabral, who belongs to the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), allied with the left-wing administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The doubt now lies in whether the agreement reached in Rocinha will be extended to other favelas in Rio.
Reactions had even come from beyond the national borders. Jurist Álvaro Tirado Mejía, of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, challenged the walls as "geographic discrimination."
Luisa, a Rocinha resident, summed it up this way: "The wall isn't for separating the trees, it's for separating out the poor." She is not convinced either that the nature paths are the best option.
"They say it's a park, but down there, in the middle and upper class city, nature parks aren't cages," Luisa said.
The alarming loss of Atlantic Forest had contributed to the idea of the wall, which had also been proposed by previous governments.
The Atlas of Forest Remnants of the Mata Atlântica, produced by the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation and the National Institute for Space Research, revealed last month that the state of Rio de Janeiro alone had lost 176,714 hectares of this ecosystem since 1985.
According to the study, the annual rate of deforestation nearly doubled in the last three years. Today, Rio has just 18 percent of the forests that once stood in the state.
Fires, urban expansion and human occupation are the main causes of deforestation in Rio, SOS Mata Atlântica director Marcia Hirota said in an interview for this article.
But the Foundation does not believe that the "pressure on the native vegetation" comes only from the favelas. There are also luxury condominiums, homes and hotels, as well as "other types of occupation that suppress the native plant cover," Hirota said.
A study by the municipal Pereira Passos Institute indicates that half of the city's 750 favelas, which are home to 1.5 million people, doubled in size between 1994 and 2004.
Pressed between the hills and the ocean, the city and its favelas, as well as its mansions and middle-class neighbourhoods, keep expanding into the surrounding forest.
Hirota believes in raising awareness among the people "who live in urban areas… about the importance of protecting the native flora."
Furthermore, she said it is essential to plan urban expansion and establish "systematic controls by the public authorities with society's participation," Hirota said.
The CESC's Ramos agrees that without establishing "a culture of environmental awareness" among the local population, the effort is worthless.
Many Rio governments have tried, unsuccessfully, to reforest the hillsides in the favelas, attempting to include local communities in the effort.
There are additional problems: Brazil has a deficit of eight million housing units, especially in the southeastern states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais.
"When the government decides to build a wall, it's because it doesn't want to invest in low-income housing, for example," said Marcelo Freixo, a state lawmaker of the opposition Party of Socialism and Liberty.
Freixo believes the wall "is truly absurd," and that "the government is once again saying that the favelas are a problem."
The government's aim is "to control the poor communities" and to try to prove to the southern part of Rio de Janeiro, where the middle and upper classes live, that the authorities do indeed "govern."
*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).