RIO DE JANEIRO, March 28 (Reuters) - The government of Rio de Janeiro is building concrete walls to prevent sprawling slums from spreading farther into the picturesque hills of this world-famous tourist destination, an official said on Saturday.
Construction has begun in two favelas, or shantytowns, in the southern districts of Rio de Janeiro, a government spokeswoman told Reuters. One of the two is Morro Dona Marta, which police occupied in November to control crime and violence caused mostly by rival drug gangs.
Officials say the wall is to protect the remaining native forest but critics fear the move could be seen as discriminatory and become a blemish symbolizing Brazil’s deep divisions between rich and poor.
"There is no discrimination. On the contrary, we are building houses for them elsewhere and improving their lives," Tania Lazzoli, spokeswoman for the secretary of public works at the state government, told Reuters.
By year-end the Rio de Janeiro state government wants to build almost 7 miles (11 km) of walls to contain 19 communities. It will spend 40 million reais ($17.6 million) and have to relocate 550 houses, Lazzoli said.
"The objective is to contain the spread of the communities and protect the forest," Lazzoli said. "There are many houses in high risk areas."
During the rainy season many shacks and primitive houses built in ravines or on hills are washed away by flash floods or mudslides.
Thousands of favelas sprung up throughout Rio de Janeiro and other major cities in recent decades, as millions of impoverished immigrants came from the countryside in search of jobs.
On Saturday the front page of the leading daily O Globo featured a picture of a gray wall beside a forest in Morro Dona Marta. Construction workers in blue overalls were seen with shovels and push carts. Middle-class apartment buildings are seen in the background.
Known for the stunning views of its rugged coastline, with golden beaches and lush mountains, Rio de Janeiro attracts millions of tourists each year -- many for its world-famed Carnival celebrations.
Violence between gangs and with police periodically erupts beyond the favelas, forcing stores and roads in entire neighborhoods to shut down. Occasionally juvenile gangs ransack tourists on the beach in posh districts such as Ipanema or Leblon.
(Reporting by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Bill Trott)