08 March 2010

The ironic and tragic walls of Rio de Janeiro

Major newspaper editors generally lack a sense of irony. This is especially true in Rio de Janeiro, where the largest daily paper, OGlobo, is a hegemonic behemoth that controls the tone and content of most public discussion. OGlobo is much more than a paper, it is a huge media network that makes no secret of its admiration for the increased state control of Rio’s public spaces under the current government and the concordant installation of a neo-liberal economic regime (at the Federal, State, and City levels). I’m not sure if they have a slogan as irony-free as “all the news that’s fit to print” of the New York Times, in the case that they don’t I suggest something more truthful like: “making the city safe for capital” or "construindo a cidade de consumo".

Perhaps it is my own over-developed sense of irony that attracts my attention to the lack of it in the media. However, when I read the following in the November 29, 2009 edition of the OGlobo Magazine, I ran for the computer:

 - Derrubar muros é um assunto muito atual. O de Berlim caiu há 20 anos, o de Ipanema faz poucos dias. Espaços mais felizes tornam as pessoas mais felizes e propensas a melhor convivênica cidadã. Boa parte da acalmada alegria do carioca, que se sobrepõe a todos os problemas e maazelas da cidade, vem da experiência de habitar um local privilegiado pelas praias, florestas urbanas e outras belezas que cercam essa nossa Cidade Maravilhosa. Rui Campos, "Calçadão do Jardim Botânico", p. 21

    - Tearing down walls is something that is actually happening. The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, the wall in Ipanema just a few days ago. Happier spaces make people happier and more likely to live better together. A good part of the calmer happiness of Rio’s residents, that puts itself above all of the problems of the city, comes from the experience of living in a privileged place of beaches, urban forests and other natural beauties that surround our Marvelous City.

The article, subtitled "Fewer Walls, More Pedestrians", describes with a slate of urban reforms for the Jardim Botânico neighborhood, one of the wealthiest in Rio. The reforms will apparently open up space for people to live a happier, more convivial life, with access to better transport, beaches, and urban forests. This is a good thing and marks some major progress in the planning and organization of public space in Rio. However, while some walls are coming down in Rio, many others are going up - in inverse proportion to the socio-economic and geographic profile of residents. 

Last week, as I was headed to the campus of UFRJ, traffic was delayed due to the construction of a wall that will separate the Red Line highway from the favelas that flank it. The title of the article in OGlobo describing the project was “Menos Barulho” (Less noise). But the content of the article made very clear that this was not about noise reduction: A Linha Vermelha, principal acesso ao Aeroporto Internacional Tom Jobim, registra um movimento de cerca de 140 mil veículos por dia. Já na Linha Amarela, o volume de tráfego chega a 380 mil. Ao longo das duas vias, existem 37 favelas, a maioria dominada pelo tráfico. Da lista, fazem parte, por exemplo, o Complexo da Maré e a Cidade Deus, que receberão barreiras acústicas.

‘The Red Line, the principal access to the Tom Jobim International Airport, records about 140 thousand vehicles a day. The Yellow Line receives about 380 thousand cars. Along both of these lines exist 37 favelas, the majority dominated by drug traffickers. The Maré Complex and City of God are part of this list and they will also receive acoustic barriers.

The article continued with this quote from a coronel of the highway patrol: Os casos de violência se concentram principalmente nos acessos. Os bandidos podem abordar motoristas e fugir de carro ou a pé. É claro que, para a polícia, é muito mais fácil montar um cerco e tentar prender bandidos que estejam em algum veículo numa via mais movimentada do que localizá-los se estiverem a pé, podendo se esconder em qualquer beco.

"The cases of violence are concentrated in the points of access. Bandits can attack motorists and flee by car or on foot. It's clear that for the police, it's much easier to put up a wall and try to catch bandits that are in a car on a flowing highway rather than if they were on foot, hiding in some alley [in a favela]."

The short article concludes by noting that "all of the walls will be painted by artists from the communities as part of the social projects that will be brought to the neighboring favelas." 

The walls along Rio's principal highways will accomplish a couple of things and will not accomplish some others:

1) the barriers will block the favelas from plain view along the major routes of access between the International Airport and the Olympic Zone in Barra de Tijuca as well as to the Center and Zona Sul.

2) the barriers will further separate communites that are already divided by the highway. There are no pedestrian over or under passes. 

3) once installed, the walls will generate temporary employment for a few atrists who can decorate the cage within which their community has been contained.

4) the symbolic economy of the wall will serve as a futher reminder that people living in favelas are better unseen and unheard, augmenting the stigma of living in a favela.

5) will probably reduce the chances of motorists being hit by stray bullets, but will also reduce the escape routes for motorists in the case of a arrrastão, which is a generalized mob assault on gridlocked cars. 

6) eliminate or reduce the access to the highways for community residents  whose primary employment is selling food and water to motorists stuck in traffic.

7) will make it less likely that bandidos who rob a car can escape into a favela, but because the walls are so low, stopping the car next to the wall will make for a very effective ladder. 

These walls will not:1) significantly reduce noise levels because they are too low (bottom at right). Similar walls in the United States (top photo at right), specifically designed to reduce noise from interstate traffic are typically 7-10 meters high.

 2) reduce the access of bandidos to the highways, as they can stroll up the access ramps

3) generate long-term employment or contribute to solving the problems of Rio de Janeiro. 

The Problem with Walls

These are not the only walls under construction in Rio. In Rocinha, the largest informal settlement in Latin America, walls are going up in order to stop the spread of the community into the Tijuca Forest. In the favela Dona Marta in Botafogo, the city erected a wall around the community to "protect the environment" from the unwanted expansion  of the community. (Photo montage at left: Rocinha contained by wall)

Rio de Janeiro is one of the few places in the world where the construction of walls is understaood as a viable solution to environmental, social, economic, and security problems. The other locations are: United States - Mexico Southwest Border Wall; Israel - Palestine Security Wall  (at right, errily similar to the shape of Rocinha); Belfast, Northern Ireland; India - Pakistan Line of Control: Morocco - Western Sahara; Cyprus; Saudi Arabia. 

Are there similarities and differences between these projects and what is happening in Rio de Janeiro? I think that though the circumstances are different, the motivations for building walls are based in an economy of fear that seeks to stigmatize and isolate unwanted social groups (Mexicans, Palestinians, West African Migrants, Catholics, favelados), or to separate people forcibly while providing a security mechanism that augments the power of the state to control and monitor movement across geographic frontiers. In this way, the absurd travail of getting a visa to travel to the USA is augmented by the byzantine banality of the TSA who erect a virtual, global wall that is all too easy to get around (to wit: the underwear and shoe bombers). 

The International Court of Justice condemned the Israeli wall as a violation of international and humanitarian law, and Mexico has considered taking the United States to the IOJ over the Border Wall (though the USA does not belong to the organization, thanks Obama). Belfast was, until recently, a torrid war zone. India and Pakistan have undefined and contested frontiers. Saudi Arabia built a wall following the deteriorating security conditions in Paul Bremer's Iraq. Morocco built the "Wall of Shame" to control the mineral resources of Western Sahara. Cyprus is in a perpetual civil war. Rio de Janeiro is building walls to hide poverty from plain view. Soon, the highways of Rio de Janeiro will resemble the final scene in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" in which an endless series of billboards isolates the road. 

The idea that "good fences make good neighbors" does not apply in a geo-political context nor within the complex political and residential economy of a city as sharply divided along class and geographic lines as Rio de Janeiro.

To return to the article that brought me to this discussion it is sufficient to note that in some parts of Rio de Janeiro, walls are coming down in order to enhance the quality of life. In other parts of the city, walls are going up for very different reasons. The generalized rationale and effects of Rio's walls are the same as those in every other society that erects physical barriers in order to accent and re-enforce difference. The government's claim that these walls are meant to protect the environment or reduce noise pollution is an absurdity matched only by the lack of irony in the Brazilian media.

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