Human rights groups have condemned a plan by the state government in Rio de Janeiro to build 11 kilometres of concrete and steel walls around 19 favelas (urban slums), saying the barrier is designed to separate the rich and poor. Construction began in late March and is due to be completed by the end of the year. While officials insist it’s an ‘eco-barrier’ to protect what remains of Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest from further encroachment by the surrounding slums, Brazilian human rights group Global Justice says it will create ‘social apartheid’.
The head of the state’s public works department, Icaro Moreno, rejects the claims of class division: ‘People are completely free to come and go as they wish.’ Rather, he says, the wall is designed to prevent further deforestation of the already decimated coastline rainforest, which has lost 93 per cent of its forest cover. ‘The boundary was invisible, and now it is physical,’ he explains. ‘What the state is doing is saying, if you go beyond this or break it, you are violating public property.’
But Nandson Ribeiro, a computer technician who lives in Santa Marta, one of the affected favelas, says the wall is like a cage: ‘The police keep constant watch over the area.’ The wall here is three metres high and separates the forest from the bare brick houses and shacks on stilts that dangerously crowd the hillside.
Overcrowding in the favelas reflects the country’s severe housing deficit. Official figures state that there is a shortfall of nearly eight million units across Brazil. A study by the Pereira Passos Institute showed that half of Rio’s 750 favelas – home to 1.5 million of the city’s residents – doubled in size between 1999 and 2004, as the poor from other areas of the country migrated to the city looking for work.
Lacking open space for expansion in a city that is virtually surrounded by forested hills and the sea, the favelas now stretch up the steep mountains, which are lined with irregularly built homes, sometimes two or more storeys tall. This slope-side construction has accentuated the problem of the mudslides that frequently claim lives in the favelas during Rio’s rainy summers. The Government claims the wall will help prevent such environmental catastrophes.
A few days before construction of the wall began, Governor Cabral – an ally of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with whom he is carrying out joint social- and income-generation projects in the favelas – announced an ambitious housing programme that will include the state of Rio de Janeiro and involve the creation of a million new housing units across the country by 2010.
José Hilario dos Santos, President of the Associations of Residents of Santa Marta is not convinced. He believes that the only ‘barrier’ that could have any real effect is a ‘social’ wall built by investment in housing, culture, sports and employment, and in education and daycare centres. ‘The city government is trying to control urban development by defending the environment.’ But, he explains, it is a little late for that ‘now the communities have grown, and people still don’t have a place to live.’