Its silhouette is unmistakable, the main letter of presentation of Rio de Janeiro to the world (with the permission of the Christ of Corcovado). A visit to the two hills that make up the Sugar Loaf, linked by a hundred-year-old cable car, is on the unavoidable list of all tourists who come to the city. From its viewpoints, the spectacular view of the ocean, Guanabara Bay and the city spread out among rolling mountains of dense tropical jungle. Soon, the most daring will be able to contemplate the landscape by launching themselves from an impressive zip line: four lines and 750 meters of cable in total to descend at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. That was (and still is) the original idea of the company that manages the park, but some cariocas cried to heaven when they found out about the works, which they consider an attack on the landscape and an unprecedented attack on the mountain.
To build the platforms from which the attraction will be accessed, several tens of cubic meters of rock have been removed from the summit of the two granite massifs, the Sugar Loaf itself (the highest, 400 meters high) and the neighboring Urca rock. “What they are doing is mutilating, irreversible damage, because the rock does not regenerate,” explains Julio Mello, one of the spokespersons for the platform against the zip line, indignantly. Neighbors, climbers and environmentalists quickly organized; They went to court, launched a manifesto that already has 27,000 signatures, and have made considerable noise in the city. The truth is that the work had the green light from the City Council and all the corresponding bodies, including the rigorous National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), but given the indications of irregularities, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation that led to the stoppage of works. Both the company and IPHAN are in the spotlight for authorizing the project.
Its detractors consider that the zip line is just the tip of the iceberg of a more long-term project that aims to increase commercial space at the top of the two mountains, where there is already a large auditorium, all kinds of bars, souvenir shops and even jewelry stores Last Sunday, they held a new protest, with a symbolic hug to the Sugar Loaf, recalling that it has been legally protected as a natural monument for 50 years, which prevents new construction. Actually, they have reason to be happy, because for the moment they are winning the battle. The works have been stopped since the end of June, when an appeals court judge, Luiz Paulo da Silva Araújo Filho, rejected the company’s appeal asking to resume work, understanding that this would entail “a risk for the whole of society, having take into account that the cutting and drilling of rock in the mountains of Pan de Azúcar and Urca are not susceptible to recomposition”.
People walk and have fun at the Aterro do Flamengo, one of the best places in the city to see the Pão de Açúcar.Leonardo Carrato
The company that manages the facility, Parque Bondinho Pão de Açúcar, now trusts the decision of the court as a whole, which should rule as of September. The already famous zip line will cost a total of about 50 million reais (ten million dollars, 9.2 million euros), and for its promoters, the protests have no reason to exist. From his office, the director of the company, Sandro Fernandes, explains that the platforms from which the attraction will be accessed and disembarked will take advantage of areas already built and that were in disuse. “Rock has been removed, but rock with cement as well,” he says. He assures that only 14 trees have been felled and that many more have been planted to offset the impact, and that the newly built part would basically be ramps to facilitate access for people with reduced mobility.
Annoyed with those who accuse them of squeezing the potential of the mountain to the limit, Fernandes assures that they are not seeking to increase visits, because in reality, the infrastructure no longer gives of itself. The park receives more than 1.5 million visitors each year, making it the third most popular tourist attraction in Brazil, after Christ the Redeemer and the Iguazú Falls. In his opinion, the protests (and judicial setbacks) are a stain on Rio’s reputation, an example of legal insecurity, and above all, an artificial scandal. “What they are doing is delaying development (…) Can you think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower? When they built it, it was the same shock, ”he sums up. However, he acknowledges that the company does have longer-term plans to take the park to “another level.” These works (without a defined date, for the moment) would add more than 500 meters of surface area at the top of the Sugar Loaf, but according to Fernandes, with a “minimal” visual impact. He talks about giving more space and comfort to tourists but without opening more shops or restaurants, but opponents of the zip line are wary.
“The beauty of this place, its magnitude, requires only one thing from us: contemplation, not a hyperactive amusement park relationship,” criticizes Claudio Pfeil, a resident of the Urca neighborhood. It is not difficult for the residents to look back to remember that, in the past, the company has already tried all kinds of expansions, such as extending the cable car to Copacabana beach or building an amphitheater and a children’s playground in the valley formed by the two hills. All attempts came to nothing thanks to popular pressure.
One of the cable cars crosses the clouds passing through the Pão de Açúcar.Leonardo Carrato
Meanwhile, the controversy has reached the offices of Unesco. The unique landscape of Rio de Janeiro has been a World Heritage Site since 2012, when the organization recognized the special symbiosis between the city and nature, to the point that it created an express category for the Marvelous City, that of cultural landscape. The protection covers Rio’s iconic mountains, where any alteration could put the title at risk. The Sugar Loaf, moreover, is in itself a geological jewel: a block of granite almost 600 million years old, a remnant of the time when Africa and America were one. Much later, in 1565, the Portuguese settlers chose a beach located right at its feet to found the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro.
In April, the Brazilian delegation of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body linked to UNESCO, called for the immediate cancellation of the building permits for the zip line. In a harsh statement, he expressed his “perplexity and vehement rejection” of the intervention in the mountains and went so far as to speak of “mutilation.” Following this warning signal, Unesco spoke out to affirm that it is closely following the case, that it has requested more information from the Brazilian authorities and that if there is no solution it will take the matter to the World Heritage Committee, where it will decide on the status of the sites recognized with the coveted title. So far, the only places that have lost it are a sanctuary for the Arabian Oryx in Oman (at the request of the country itself, which wanted to exploit its oil reserves), the Elbe Valley (Germany), due to the construction of a bridge, and the city of Liverpool (England), for the new buildings that hid the maritime façade from the Victorian period.
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