In a city starkly divided between rich and poor, the 15 km of new walls that will encircle some of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest shantytowns are seen by critics as an attempt to seal the upper classes off from the violence endemic in the slums.
“We had the Berlin Wall, we have the walls of Palestine, now the walls of Rio,” complained Nobel-winning author José Saramago to the Times of London. Others point out that creating ghettos will do nothing to solve Brazil’s deep social divisions. But politicians have not been swayed by the outcry and Sérgio Cabral, the state governor of Rio, is pushing forward with the $20-million plan to build massive three-metre-high walls around 13 of the largest shantytowns, called favelas. Cabral’s main rationale is that the walls will prevent the slums’ rapid growth from destroying the last of Rio’s urban jungle. “We are protecting the forest,” said Icaro Moreno Jr., the public works chief. “We’re not dividing people.”
Roughly 20 per cent of Rio’s six million people live in slums. Though some of the older favelas, with their solid houses and paved roads, have an air of middle-class stability, many are full of densely packed thrown-together shelters with few amenities. Garbage is strewn everywhere and sewage flows through the streets. Drug gangs control many slums, and police, who themselves have a reputation for violence, enter only in force.
Cabral acknowledges that the barriers and their security cameras are part of a plan to gain control of the favelas. And for the poor residents, protection from the gangs may make the walls palatable. The state’s model is the Dona Marta favela, perched high on a mountain, that was taken over by police in November. There, in addition to putting up the wall, the government built concrete walkways, a daycare and even a free tram. Since then, property values have nearly doubled.