By Christine Wipfli, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – For one year the project to build walls around the favelas of Rio has been underway, yet many continue to question what exactly is the government’s motive for constructing the so called “eco barriers”.
The state government of Rio de Janeiro calls the eco barriers project a means to prevent the illegal building of slums from expanding into the heavily forested hillsides. However, some argue environmental concerns are covering up the government’s security agenda and lack of a coherent policy to contain the rapid expansion of Rio’s favelas in recent years.
As many as thirteen favelas have been identified and are currently being surrounded with three meter high gray brick walls, one of which is Rocinha. But many citizens of Rocinha aren’t taking this new program lightly and fierce opposition in the favela has slowed down the construction.
“The wall represents a ghetto, an apartheid, the end of the communication between people, so we started to fight against the wall,” said Antonio Ferreira de Mello, the head of a Rocinha residents’ association. “There are other ways to prevent the growth of favelas into the forest.”
The choice of location for the walls has also caused many to wonder the exact purpose. Of the thirteen communities, twelve are in the wealthy southern district, where the city’s wealthiest homes, restaurants and famous beaches are located. 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.
Human rights groups argue that the walls have been built to keep residents of the favela segregated from the rest of society in Rio. Many critics have drawn comparisons with the Israeli West bank barrier separating Palestine from Israel, and also the Berlin wall separating the Germans.
Some even wonder if the government has completely given up on the favela dwellers in an effort to seek a quick solution to a more complex problem. Rio officials have rejected such criticism claiming that the aim of wall construction was to reduce deforestation not to segregate favela residents.
Experts say the root of the problem is a severe housing shortage affecting Rio and the whole of Brazil. One measure the government is taking to address this problem is by building some 3,616 homes in four different Rio slums under the government’s infrastructure program (Programade Aceleraçãodo Crescimento, known by the Portuguese acronym PAC), Rio’s secretary of public works said.
Last March the government also announced a R$34 billion (US$17.3 billion) housing plan for low-income families in the country, aiming to build 1 million homes by 2011. But critics say it’s like a drop of water on a hot stone, with a 7.2 million deficit of houses and a population that is estimated at more than 190 million people, up from 169.8 million in 2000.
If all goes as planned, by the end of this year, forty favelas will have walls. However, representatives of Rochina were able to convince government officials to replace the high wall with ecological parks, paths, and low walls that still mark the limits of the neighborhood. Other favelas are trying to follow in that direction and some government officials are reportedly considering alternatives to the wall. In the meantime, the construction of the walls continues.