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Residents protest zipline on Rio’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain

Some 200 protesters gathered beneath Rio de Janeiro’s world-famous Sugarloaf Mountain to protest the ongoing construction of ziplines aimed at boosting tourism, alleging it will cause unacceptable impacts.

The four steel lines will run 755 meters (almost 2,500 feet) over the forest between Sugarloaf and Urca Hill, and riders will reach speeds of 100 km/h (62mph). Inauguration is schedule for the second half of this year, and an online petition to halt works has been signed by almost 11,000 people.

Sugarloaf — known in Portuguese as Pao de Açucar— juts out of the earth at the entrance to Rio’s bay. The U.N.’s heritage center named it a World Heritage Site in 2012 along with Rio’s other marquis 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.

It is also a popular spot for sport climbing and birdwatching with preserved Atlantic Forest in a conservation unit, which towers over the sleepy Urca neighborhood. As such, the prospect of riders buzzing down wires while screaming wildly has united mountaineers, environmental activists and residents in opposition. They caution UNESCO could withdraw its heritage status. One protester on Sunday held a sign reading, “S.O.S. UNESCO”, and the group often broke out into chants of “Zipline out!”

“We are completely opposed to the transformation – which in truth has been happening for some time – of the summits of Urca Hill and Sugarloaf into an entertainment hub,” said André Ilha, a former director of biodiversity and protected areas of Rio state’s environment institute and founder of environmental non-profit Ecological Action Group.

“This is inducing people to go there for reasons that aren’t why the cable car was conceived: to appreciate the landscape,” he said.

Many residents of Urca are likewise displeased.

“We live in a small, peaceful neighborhood. There will be visual and audible impact; no one goes down a a zipline in silence,” said Aurimar dos Prazeres, president of a residents’ association. “And it isn’t one zipline. It’s four of them. One hundred people going down each hour. That’s craziness, and very big impact. ”

Parque Bondinho Pao de Açúcar, which operates the cable cars and is behind the 50-million reais ($9.5 million) 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 says it has obtained all the necessary authorizations and licenses for the project from the national heritage institute and municipal authorities And it touts the ability to drive tourism.

“In addition to the great integration with nature, the intention is to improve the experience of our visitors and make the visit to the Parque Bondinho Pao de Açucar Park even more pleasant and unforgettable,” the company says on the zipline’s website.

The company also says it consulted society ahead of time. Residents, at least, say that’s not true.

Prazeres told The Associated Press her association wasn’t approached until after works were already underway, and amid complaints. Juliana Freire, president of another residents’ association, told the AP the company brought up its intention to develop the zipline during a meeting last year about another subject, but never made any formal presentation.

Freire says the national heritage institute that gave its OK to the zipline had recently barred construction of a lifeguard tower on the beach below Sugarloaf.

Ilha told the AP that the project was presented to the natural monument’s council, comprised of government and civil society, but that members had been awaiting presentation of an additional sound study. The company said in its statement that further studies on sound and traffic are underway.

Activists on Sunday also expressed concern the zipline is a harbinger of future interventions. The company that administers the cable cars is studying a project that would modify the structure atop Sugarloaf’s summit.

Opponents have nicknamed it “the castle of horrors” and warn of all sorts of potential constructions — almost none of which appear in the company’s proposal. The company says the future project wouldn’t entail expansion of its current footprint nor the opening of new stores, and is meant to facilitate observation of the landscape, improve accessibility for the handicapped and separate the flow of tourists, workers and cargo.

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AP writer Eléonore Hughes contributed.

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