Rio Slum Barrier Plans Spark Outcry

The Dona Marta slum in Rio, Brazil. (Photograph: Gregg Newton/Reuters)

Rio Slum Barrier Plans Spark Outcry

Proposed 3-metre-high wall around Dona Marta to protect rainforest compared to Israeli security barrier

RIO DE JANEIRO - Plans to surround a Rio de Janeiro slum with a 650-metre-long concrete barrier have come under fire from environmentalists and human rights activists.

Authorities say the R$1m (PS300,000) "eco-barrier", which will encircle part of the famous Dona Marta slum in southern part of the city, is intended to protect the nearby Atlantic rainforest from illegal occupation as well as improve security and living conditions for slum residents.

As tenders for construction of the 3-metre-high (10ft) wall opened yesterday, critics claimed the project was a form of "social apartheid", comparing it to Israel's security barrier.

"This is something that is very similar to what Israel does to the Palestinians and to what happened in South Africa," said Mauricio Campos, from the Rio human rights group Network of Communities Against Violence.

He said a wall would serve only to "segregate" slum residents from the rest of society.

The wall is expected to be completed by the end of this year and, according to reports in the local press, may be followed by similar barriers around Rio's other slums, know as favelas.

In a statement, the state governor, Sergio Cabral, who ordered the "eco-limit" fence to be built, said it was part of moves by his administration to improve living standards and protect slum residents from the armed gangs that control many of Rio's 600 or so slums.

"What has happened in Rio de Janeiro over the last two decades has been the passivity of authorities in relation to the uncontrolled growth of the slums," he said.

Such walls would, Cabral said, help the city deal with "drug trafficking and vigilantes, [by] putting limits on uncontrolled growth".

Dona Marta is home to an estimated 7,500 people. The favela was the setting for an award-winning documentary about cocaine by the British film-maker Angus Macqueen, as well as a 1996 Michael Jackson music video directed by Spike Lee.

Jackson's producers were forced to negotiate access with the local drug traffickers. Since last November, however, the shantytown has been under 24-hour police occupation as part of a state government initiative to make Dona Marta a "model favela". In December, Rio's security secretary boasted that the slum was "free from the law of the rifle".

The pilot project aims to rid the favelas of traffickers using a mixture of military force and "hearts and minds" community policing. A football pitch was recently opened in Dona Marta as part of a R$40m redevelopment programme, which includes building new houses and installing wireless internet, as well as the controversial wall.

Rio's environmentalists have given a frosty reception to the plans, arguing that unless low-cost housing options are given to the poor, they will continue to encroach on the hillsides of the city and into the surrounding rainforest.

"It is hypocrisy to talk about protecting the Atlantic rainforest without considering the issues of housing and transport to take the pressure off the forest," Sergio Ricardo, a leading environmental campaigner in Rio, told the Jornal do Brasil newspaper.

Cabral said the redevelopment plans showed the city government was investing in Rio "like never before".

Plans to erect walls around Rio's sprawling slums first surfaced in 2004, but were abandoned after a public outcry.

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