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Rio hits the brakes on controversial favela cable car

When the government built a gondola over favelas, many saw it as a vanity project. Now the cable car has come to a halt. Clare Richardson reports from Rio.

The black cables scarring the skyline of Complexo do Alemao stopped running months ago. For the residents of the favelas below, they're a constant reminder of how even one of Rio de Janeiro's most ostentatious projects built ahead of the 2016 Olympics has fallen victim to the financial crisis gripping the state.

From the start, plans for the cable car antagonized many locals. They saw the project as a symbol of Rio's investments in projects aimed at impressing international visitors while ignoring the real needs of its own people. The transportation line came with a hefty price tag of 210 million Brazilian reais - roughly 62 million euros - and many thought the money should have gone toward funding essential infrastructure for the favelas, like establishing a formal sewage system or improving security.

Instead, residents got a short-lived gondola lift. Last year the state government stopped paying operation costs, and service came to a grinding halt just a month after the end of the Olympics.

Thaina de Medeiros, a member of a local activist media organization called Colectivo Papo Reto, saw the cable car as a glaring white elephant.

"It was a huge expense that wasn't the best use of money," the 33-year old said during an interview in the local community center, which was forced to slash many of its educational programs due to budget cuts before the cable car stopped running.

The end station, Palmeiras

The end station is deserted aside from a police office

Officially, the gondola was built with money from PAC, Brazil's federal funding program for infrastructure, and not specifically as part of preparations for the Olympics. Yet the flashy project and the timing of its construction raised eyebrows.

"The whole thing was a political show," de Medeiros says. "The Olympics were coming, and [the government] had to prove it was doing things for these communities. The politicians just want to point to the number of projects they've built and don't care if they actually make a difference."

Many had hoped the Olympic Games would serve as an impetus for Rio to narrow the vast divide between Brazil's ultra-rich and poor by providing informal communities with badly-needed infrastructure. Yet instead of instating or upgrading such services in Complexo do Alemao, Rio removed more than 2,000 residents from their homes to make way for the cable car's construction. De Medeiros says its route bypasses many major residential areas, suggesting the project was never truly intended to serve the community.

'Better than nothing'

Francois Camargo, a professional cameraman who gives tours of the neighborhood in his spare time, disagrees with the cable car's naysayers. He thinks it was better to receive something than nothing, even if the project was just for show.

"That money wouldn't have gone toward sanitation anyway," he said.

Camargo also thinks the cable car was a boon to the neighborhood because it created a market for local businesses like juice shops and souvenir stalls that catered to its traffic.

Francois Camargo

The cable car supported businesses catering to its traffic, according to Francois Camargo

The end station, Palmeiras, had also housed a small library and a health clinic, which were closed when service stopped.

Now the area around the station at the top of the hill is desolate. Painted kiosks are shuttered, and other than a few local children flying kites, the only people in sight are officers from the nearby Pacifying Police Unit.

Penha, who goes by one name only, lives with her family on the other side of the hilltop.

"It's deserted up here," she says.

Penha had used the cable car to get to another neighborhood called Morro do Adeus, where she collects bottles to recycle for money. It used to be a 10-minute ride, but now the same trip takes her close to an hour by foot.

In addition to creating business opportunities and reducing commute times for some locals, the cable car also helped boost favela tourism in Complexo do Alemao. Detractors say the service gave tourists a birds' eye view to gawk at the poor communities below without setting foot in the sprawling neighborhood, where the security situation is precarious and shoot-outs are commonplace.

Yet Camargo thinks even the tourists were a positive addition to the community.

"There's more pressure on the authorities to keep up appearances when tourists come up here."

Tourists staying away

Watch video 03:26

The center of Rio's pride in disrepair

Now that the cable cars are gone, so are the visitors.

Daniel Nazzaro helps market tours for Favela Experience, an organization that offers guided walks through favelas in Rio.

"It's been a long time since we've sold a tour in Complexo do Alemao," he said.

Twenty-six-year old Izabela Rubens grew up in the area and used to give tours for another company.

"The main attraction was the cable car," she said.

Penha stands outside her house, near Palmeiras station

Penha relied on the cable car to get around

Escalating violence in Rio de Janeiro has also made giving tours in Complexo do Alemao a risky endeavor. Rubens says she stopped taking visitors into the favelas when she began to fear for her safety about a year and a half ago.

As Rio de Janeiro struggles with a deep recession, it's hard to imagine funding to operate the cable car will be forthcoming any time soon. The state transportation secretary confirmed there are no plans to restart operations.

Despite his initial opposition to the project, de Medeiros concedes he's sad to see the cable car go.

"I would like to see it reopened. I have friends who made a living off of it," he said.

Now even the cable car's fiercest critics agree: If Rio was going to build a vanity project to shuttle people above the favelas, the least they could do is keep running it.

Clare Richardson reported from Brazil on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IJP). Additional reporting by Anna Jean Kaiser.

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