- Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Sugarloaf stands shrouded in controversy as construction of a 755-meter (2,477-foot) zipline begins from the monolith monument.
- The zipline is the tip of the iceberg, say critics who warn its construction could prompt the approval of other disputed development plans in the region.
- Environmentalists warn the increase in tourism and noise from zipline riders as they descend will disturb nesting birds and other wildlife in the surrounding vegetation.
- Authorities assure the construction will have minimal effects on surrounding nature, but critics say detailed environmental impact reports were not carried out.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — With boundless ocean views to one side and urban sprawl to the other, the Sugarloaf has long been one of Rio de Janeiro’s most iconic natural wonders. Now after the approval of new development plans, the monolith has become the contentious location for a controversial new zipline, drawing fierce criticism from locals who say the project threatens the region’s wildlife and classic climbing routes.
In the face of protests from residents and environmental groups, drilling has already begun on the sides of both Urca Hill and the Sugarloaf, a federally protected monument and a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site. Four steel cables will be rigged between the two hills to create a 755-meter (2,477-foot) zipline that lets riders reach speeds of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour. Inauguration is expected in the second half of 2023.
Sugarloaf Cable Car Park, the company responsible for operating the site’s famous cable cars, invested about 50 million reais ($10.1 million) in the project with the hope of boosting local tourism and the economy. The company claims the zipline will also benefit the environment, serving “as a reference for other initiatives in Brazil focusing on sustainable tourism”, according to a statement published on its site.
Yet critics say the construction boils down to one key goal: making profits. “My question as an environmentalist working on restoration, reforestation, and recovery in this area is, how dare people do this?” Domingos Sávio Teixeira, an environmentalist who has spent decades laboring to replant trees in the region, told Mongabay by phone. He also coordinates the Sugarloaf Without Zipline activist group. “Our issue is not with the zipline itself. It’s the location. It’s not suitable for a zipline.”
Environmentalists also warn that the zipline is just the beginning. A master plan has been submitted for approval to expand the walkways, viewing platforms and facilities at the top of the Sugarloaf and Urca Hill as well as at the base of the cable car station, which critics say could lead to further encroachment on the surrounding nature. The proposals are “in the initial stages of analysis by the technical area of the IPHAN superintendence,” according to IPHAN, Brazil’s heritage institute, in an emailed statement to Mongabay.
‘Disturbing the animals is inevitable’
Rising 396 meters (1,299 feet) above sea level, the 560 million-year-old Sugarloaf is a conservation unit and was declared a natural monument in 2006 to protect its natural ecosystems and landscapes by law. Both the Sugarloaf and Urca Hill are covered in 91.5 hectares (226 acres) of Atlantic Forest and are home to at least 198 species of plants, including some microendemic specimens. It’s also rich in fauna such as the bright red Brazilian tanager (Ramphocelus bresilius) and the dazzling blue morpho butterfly (family Morphidae).
Environmentalists warn that a surge of tourists to the area coupled with the shouts of riders traversing down the zipline will directly affect the region’s fauna and flora, including nesting birds. The Sugarloaf Cable Car Park claims sound tests indicate “the noise produced by the attraction is imperceptible in the surroundings.” Critics remain dubious. “Going down at 100 km per hour, it’s an intense experience. You can’t really keep quiet,” Teixeira said. “Disturbing the animals is inevitable. There’s no way around it.”
Zipline riders yelling during the 50-second descent can scare animals away from their natural habits, according to Ana Paula Vizintini, a lawyer who coordinates the Sugarloaf Without Zipline legal working group. “It grossly interferes with the behavior, feeding, physiology and reproductive success of several species,” she told Mongabay by phone.
At least 14 trees were removed to construct the zipline, five of which were native species. The Sugarloaf Cable Car Park says, “The impact of the installation of the zipline is minimal and has been approved by the competent environmental agencies.” However, critics say a detailed environmental report was not conducted and a list of all vegetation impacted by the project was not presented. “What was expected was a technical report that mentioned the peculiarities of the types of vegetation in rocky outcrops, typical of these slopes,” Vizintini said. “And that definitely didn’t happen.”
The Sugarloaf Cable Car Park assures that the community was consulted and the zipline doesn’t affect any climbing routes, although critics say otherwise. Any modifications to the Sugarloaf would need to go through an “extremely exhaustive process” of sharing information with representatives of civil society, according to Vizintini. “[It’s] a long discussion that, in fact, never happened,” she said. Mountaineers also claim they didn’t have a say in the discussion and that the construction obstructs important climbing routes.
“The mountaineering federation [FEMERJ] did not publicize this whole project very well and kind of accepted it after a brief meeting,” Felipe Rossi, a local climber and mountaineer, told Mongabay by phone, adding that this approval was made “without consulting the mountaineers who actually use this space.”
The construction modifies two key climbing routes, CEPI and Secundo, according to Rossi. “We are very sad about all this; we love the Sugarloaf so much,” he said. “It is a sanctuary. It’s sad to see it being turned into a shopping mall [and] seeing it being destroyed just for profits.”
Despite concerns, the zipline is already in the advanced stages of construction and all licenses have been authorized, Rio de Janeiro City Hall told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “So far, there has been no record of noncompliance with any condition of the project’s license,” according to their statement.
An online petition was set up that has already received more than 14,000 signatures against the installation of the zipline. The Sugarloaf Without Zipline collective also delivered a dossier to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris outlining the interventions undertaken on the natural monument as well as officially reporting the construction to Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry, detailing the potential impacts of the zipline and the potential damage that could be caused by additional projects.
Protestors hope such action will bring the construction to a halt and prompt the recovery of any damage caused by drilling into the two hills. “We have the expectation that the report made before the Federal Public Ministry will lead to a public civil action, for the immediate suspension of the zipline construction,” Vizintini said. “And to reject the plans for subsequent projects that seek, in an even more appalling way, to mischaracterize the Sugarloaf and Urca Hill.”
Banner image: A view across the bay with the taller Sugarloaf on the left and the Urca Hill on the right. The construction plan connects the zipline between the two peaks, stretching 755 meters (2,477 feet). Image © Sarah Brown/Mongabay.
Carauta, J. P., & Oliveira, R. R. (1984). Plantas vasculares dos morros Da Urca, Pao de Açúcar E Cara de CAO. Rodriguésia, 36(59), 13-24. doi:10.1590/2175-78601984365902
Meirelles, S. T., Pivello, V. R., & Joly, C. A. (1999). The vegetation of granite rock outcrops in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the need for its protection. Environmental Conservation, 26(1), 10-20. doi:10.1017/s0376892999000041
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.