Math campus multiplies threats to Rio de Janeiro’s dwindling Atlantic Forest

  • A plan to create a new mathematics campus with student accommodation in Rio de Janeiro is being challenged by residents as it calls for the removal of 255 trees in a patch of the already severely diminished Atlantic Forest.
  • A study shows the construction site sits on a slope that poses a high geological risk, leaving residents worried about flooding and landslides in an area already affected by intense rainfall.
  • Experts say there are irregularities in the licensing granted to the construction, and environmental laws are not being respected.
  • The Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA), which is building the new campus, says all its licenses are in order, that it will reforest the area, and that the educational and social benefits will be worth it.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Horto, a secluded neighborhood in the south of Rio de Janeiro with a view of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, is enveloped by forest. Tropical trees with their sprawling branches and fanned leaves encircle the small houses and hang over the gardens of the area’s 2,000 residents. Marmosets scurry across telephone wires, toucans fly overhead, and the air is filled with the buzz of cicadas. People and nature have lived here side by side for decades, thanks to the presence of a still-standing patch of the Atlantic Forest, a biome that stretches south into Paraguay and Argentina, but which has lost 80% of its cover in Brazil alone.

Despite the tranquil surroundings, Horto is the scene of high tension between the low-income residents and large organizations over possession of the land. Since the 1990s, hundreds of families have faced eviction threats as organizations that include Rio’s famed Botanical Garden litigate for control of the land.

At the root of the latest threat to Horto is the development of a new campus of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA), a government research and education center, that calls for removing 255 trees from the Atlantic Forest.

Residents at Horto meet with Chico Alencar, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor, to discuss their worries, concerns and options regarding the construction of a new campus for the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in the city’s Horto neighborhood. Image courtesy of Mari Moraes.
An image of showing how the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) is expected to look once construction is completed, integrating its campus into the surrounding Atlantic Forest in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of IMPA.

The construction site was previously a quarry that had been abandoned for decades, Emerson de Souza, head of AMAHOR, one of the residents’ associations in Horto, told Mongabay in a video interview. IMPA says the vegetation on the site is sparse, although images assessed by Mongabay suggest it’s full and recovering.

IMPA gained possession of the land in 2014, de Souza said, when Globo, Brazil’s largest media company, donated it to the institute. IMPA started planning for construction soon after, but left the Horto residents “out of the process,” de Souza said. “We weren’t invited to any discussions about the effect the new campus would have on our neighborhood. Only in the last two years, after several protests, have we been asked to participate in these meetings.”

Chico Alencar, Rio’s city councilor, meets with local residents to discuss their concerns about the construction of a new campus of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in Horto neighborhood and to share his worries about the impact it will have on the environment. Image courtesy of Mari Moraes.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education granted IMPA 100 million reais ($18.3 million) to build the new campus, which will take up an area of 8,762 square meters (94,313 square feet) — significantly larger than a soccer pitch — on a 251,234-m2 (2.7-million-ft2) lot that’s sloped. However, experts such as Paulo Guimarães, a geologist contracted by IMPA to analyze the site, warned in a public document that the land is at high geological risk due to the slope’s unstable ground, which could lead to extreme flooding and landslides during intense rainfall.

The tree felling required to clear the land for the new campus started in April 2021, residents say, and the project is expected to be completed in 2024. The construction area is just outside the protected Tijuca National Park, yet still makes up part of the Atlantic Forest, one of Brazil’s most ecologically diverse yet highly threatened regions. Just 7% remains of the original 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of Atlantic Forest that once stretched down the country’s coastline.

IMPA already has a campus in Jardim Botânico (“Botanic Garden” in Portuguese), a neighborhood that encompasses Horto. It says the proximity of the site allows it to integrate the new campus with the current one. The campus will include laboratories, libraries, and accommodation for 129 students. Despite the deforestation required to build the campus, the project received an award for sustainable construction in 2017 from a foundation linked to the world’s biggest cement producer.

Workers examine the bare land after removing the trees from the area. Residents say they’re worried about how the exposed earth and rocks will react when the area is hit by intense rainfall. Image courtesy of the ABAMA residents’ association.

The construction project requires environmental licensing, which was granted by the Rio de Janeiro City Council. Given the geological sensitivity of the area, the license lists a set of structural measures to minimize the risk, including surface drainage and buttresses fixed into the slope’s rocks. But experts and residents say further investigations are required to better understand how the construction could affect the risk of landslides and floods, while IMPA says it has the necessary analyses of the area to move forward safely with the project.

Not all technical issues were considered when evaluating the risk posed by construction in the area, according to geologist Sergio Fontoura during a recorded public hearing in June to discuss the Atlantic Forest and the IMPA expansion. “The construction will be built upon a region defined as high risk. The [structural measures in the license] are necessary. But are they sufficient?” He questioned how the presence of heavy machinery, the removal of trees and large amounts of earth, and the construction of the building would affect the stability of the slope, adding that these factors were not considered in the environmental licensing. “What’s the impact of this type of movement on an area that is already at high geological risk?”

Severe flooding

Intense rainfall and flooding aren’t new to Horto. In April 2019, the area received two months’ worth of rainfall in just three hours, leading to flooding that caused severe damage to several houses. Two years later, some families have yet to return to their flood-damaged homes in Horto.

Ana Soter, head of ABAMA, another residents’ association, told Mongabay in a video interview that past land clearing and deforestation in Horto prior to the floods “was one of the factors that created the biggest catastrophe this [area] has ever seen.” She added, “This shows how sensitive this land is. If it can cause this level of problems that we saw in 2019, imagine rain like that during the actual construction work.”

Traces of the destruction caused by the 2019 flood for residents of Rio’s Horto neighborhood. Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay

De Souza echoed those concerns. “It rains a lot in Rio, but we’ve never seen it causing so much serious damage in the area as we did in 2019 after the [land clearing] that happened nearby.

“The area where IMPA will be constructed has been degraded because of past clearing and deforestation, so those who live nearby are really worried about the construction,” he added. “The more deforestation on the land, the more risk it brings to these families and houses around it.”

Emerson de Souza, who heads the AMAHOR residents’ association in Rio de Janeiro’s Horto neighborhood and co-founded the Horto Museum, talks with a resident and a lawyer about the environmental threats that his neighborhood faces. Image courtesy of Emerson de Souza.
The before and after of removing trees close to a residential area, which exposes some of the rocky slope that was classified as unstable. Residents of Rio de Janeiro’s Horto neighborhood say this poses a risk to them. Image courtesy of the ABAMA residents’ association.

Marcus Lima, a former head of the Rio de Janeiro State Environmental Institute (INEA), said during the June 2021 public hearing that Article 14 of the Atlantic Forest Law states that the removal of vegetation from this biome should only be carried out if no alternative locations are available. But no alternative location was considered, according to Marcelo Viana, director at IMPA. Viana told Mongabay in a video interview that as the campus features not just student housing but also educational facilities, “the legislation doesn’t demand IMPA to search for alternatives.”

Those opposed to the project on the current site say there are other possible locations for the new campus. They point in particular to an initiative by the City Council, Reviver Centro (Revive City Center), aimed at revitalizing abandoned buildings in Rio’s downtown with financial incentives to encourage new development. Viana said this isn’t a viable solution. “To use one of these buildings would require a really big investment, as many of them have been abandoned for many years. I don’t know a single place in Rio that offers the conditions that IMPA needs.”

But in a recorded public hearing in September discussing deforestation in Rio, environmental licensing expert Marcel Valente said the step of considering alternatives can’t be ignored. “The basic premise [of issuing licenses] is an analysis of the alternative locations while considering the physical, environmental, social, economic and technical impacts,” he said. “[But] this basic premise is not being respected in various enterprises being constructed in the city of Rio.”

Balancing educational and environmental needs

The balance between the educational benefits and the environmental impact IMPA’s new campus would bring is hotly disputed. De Souza said that given the worldwide discussions around global warming, it’s essential to consider how new constructions affect natural surroundings. “We understand the importance of IMPA for education in Brazil, but independent of who the institute is, they have to respect the local environment.”

A primate sits in one the 25 trees destined to be cut down in Rio de Janeiro’s Horto neighborhood to make way for a new campus for the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA). Image courtesy of the ABAMA residents’ association.
Tree clearing in the area began in May 2021 and involves the use of heavy machinery, something residents say they are worried about given the area’s high geological risk and history of flooding. Image courtesy of the ABAMA residents’ association.

Viana said the need for student accommodation is essential due to the students’ scholarships not being enough to cover the costs of living in Rio. He added the project would also bring environmental benefits. “About half the trees that will be removed are not native to the area, such as the jackfruit,” he said. “They are aggressive and prevent the reproduction of native trees.” IMPA plans to replant 17 seedlings within the land surrounding the building for every tree removed, Viana added.

Soter said the argument about giving students affordable accommodation doesn’t add up. “This isn’t a characteristic of [only IMPA] students. This is an unfortunate characteristic of all students in [all] public universities in Brazil. What makes their students different from others?”

Since the tree felling began in April this year, locals have reported an increase in wildlife straying into their homes. Species such as boa constrictors have been found in living rooms and under car hoods. Experts say the environmental impact of the construction has not been properly considered and there is no clear evidence of how the forest clearing and eventual tree-planting will affect the current ecosystem here.

City Councilor Chico Alencar wrote in Diário do Rio de Janeiro, a local online newspaper, that “it is not known how and when studies were carried out on the fauna and flora of the area, which according to IMPA, do exist. It would be very important for these studies to be made public in order to identify whether they remain current — the forest does regenerate! — and for proper monitoring of flora suppression.”

IMPA’s project isn’t an isolated case of pressure on what remains of the Atlantic Forest. In Tijuca, a neighborhood in the north of Rio, real estate developer Opportunity is preparing to build a new residential building just outside Tijuca National Park. The construction, which includes removing 340 trees, was approved in 2020 by the city’s environmental department. While local media have criticized the Tijuca project, they’ve mostly praised the Horto project because of its perceived educational and social benefits.

“No one is disputing that IMPA is important to science and math in Rio, Brazil and the world,” said Soter, the head of the residents’ association. What they are questioning, she said, is the price that the community and the environment must pay for this new campus, including building student accommodation in a forest using public money.

“The image of the new IMPA campus seems wonderful. But the price is 255 trees, increased geological risk, and risk for [Horto residents] if something happens,” she said. “Even things with a license can go wrong, like the Tim Maia cycle path on Avenida Niemeyer which collapsed in 2016, killing two people. That was licensed. To say it’s licensed doesn’t mean nothing [bad] will happen.”

Banner image: With a sign saying ‘Revoke the License Now’ in reference to the permission to build a new campus for the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in Rio de Janeiro’s Horto neighborhood, residents protest in front of the construction site. Behind them, 255 trees from the Atlantic Forest will be removed for the project. Image courtesy of the ABAMA residents’ association.

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