BRASILIA – Brazil's federal prosecutors blocked a decision to authorize the installment of ziplines at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain, claiming they will damage the environment around a UNESCO world heritage site.
Prosecutors announced the decision late Thursday, arguing that Iphan, a federal agency under the Ministry of Culture, “illicitly” authorized the project after construction had already begun in September 2022.
Now, both Iphan and the company responsible for the construction of the ziplines are defendants in a civil lawsuit and each must pay a fine of at least US$9.5 million (50 million reais). Prosecutors gave the company a 60-day deadline to present a schedule to work on repairing a damaged area and to remove every structure and the residuals from the construction site.
Sugarloaf — known in Portuguese as Pao de Açucar — juts out of the earth at the entrance to Rio’s bay. The U.N. agency named it a World Heritage Site in 2012 along with Rio’s other marquee mountains and, years earlier, Brazil’s heritage institute designated it a national monument.
The cable cars to its summit draw hundreds of thousands of Brazilian and international tourists each year, all eager to take in the panoramic views of the sprawling city’s beaches and forested mountains.
In March, some 200 people gathered beneath Sugarloaf Mountain to protest the ongoing construction of ziplines aimed at boosting tourism, alleging it would cause an “unacceptable” environmental impact.
The zipline's four steel lines would run 755 meters (almost 2,500 feet) over the forest between Sugarloaf and Urca Hill, and riders would reach speeds of 100 kph (62 mph). Inauguration was scheduled for the second half of this year, and an online petition to halt work was signed by almost 11,000 people.
The spot is also popular for sport climbing and birdwatching, with the preserved Atlantic Forest towering over the sleepy Urca neighborhood. As such, the prospect of riders buzzing down wires while screaming loudly united mountaineers, environmental activists and residents in opposition. They have cautioned UNESCO could withdraw its heritage status.
Prosecutors acted after a public interest civil action lawsuit filed by Brazilian citizens required halting construction at Sugarloaf in order to protect the environment and its historical and cultural heritage. Federal prosecutors also found that the zipline construction “altered the land’s natural outline due to the rock’s demolition (...) and drilling”.
Parque Bondinho Pao de Açúcar, which operates the cable cars and is behind the 50-million reais ($9.5-million) zipline project said in a statement that sound tests indicate noise from riders will not be perceptible from below, nor will it affect climbing routes. It said it has obtained all the necessary permits and licenses to run the project, from the National Heritage Institute to municipal authorities. It also argued the project has the ability to drive tourism to the area.
“In addition to the great integration with nature, the intention is to improve the experience of our visitors and make the visit to Parque Bondinho Pao de Açucar Park even more pleasant and unforgettable,” the company says on its website.
Opponents to the zipline project have dubbed it “the castle of horrors” and have expressed concerns it would be a harbinger of future interventions.
AP writer Eléonore Hughes contributed.