Makeover for Rio's favelas: What is at stake?

One of every five residents in Rio de Janeiro lives in a favela, and faces public security and health threats. But the city's plan to improve slums has been met with distrust, writes a guest blogger.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
A policeman patrols the Rocinha Slum in Rio de Janeiro April 4.

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Has anyone calculated the total number of people who have ever lived their whole lives in a favela? Since the first one, here in Rio, on the Morro da Favela, occupied in 1897? It’s surely more than six million [...L]iving under constant threat to one’s health, physical safety, mental balance, etc.

[W]e are talking about generations of people who lived in ghettos. People long on the margin, limited in their capacity to fulfill their human potential.

Today, one in five cariocas [a reference to people who live in Rio] lives in a favela, or slum.

This is why we had two big pieces of news this week. First, Governor Sérgio Cabral announced plans to spend $100 million ($70 million of which come from an International Development Bank loan) to serve 40,000 young people in pacified favelas by 2016.

According to the O Globo newspaper, ”the work includes psychological services, job orientation and help for young people returning to school... The idea is to create spaces for youth, to fund groups that will track residents aged 15 to 19.″

Then, Mayor Eduardo Paes presented a new Strategic Goals Plan that extends to the same year. The plan will affect favela residents on many fronts:

  • it reduces waiting time for public medical services and infant mortality
  • it will increase availability of public infant care, the hours students spend in school and literacy
  • it will cut territory occupied by favelas by 5 percent, using 2008 as a base year
  • it improves public transportation; and will build 100,000 new low income housing units
  • it will bring water, sewage disposal, and drainage, among other services, to 156,000 homes and will remove about 25,000 from at-risk areas
  • it improves sanitation in the West Zone and increases trash recycling in the city as a whole
  • it increases services to child crack users
  • it will reduce poverty by way of income transfer programs that complement the federal Bolsa Família


Many will say that all this attention is because of the Olympics. So what, if it actually happens?

Behind this affirmation is distrust dating back over more than a century of exclusion: if it’s the foreigner’s eye that is pushing non-favela cariocas to meet the needs of favela cariocas, how much can one rely on the quality of the attention?


People who live in favelas tend to gather in doorways, on stoops, and stairs. They know their neighbors and depend on their help. They attend community events and party in the street.

“The use of public space builds a certain subjectivity that in a way also builds a specific culture,” says the architect and urban planner of long experience, Sérgio Magalhães, who last year ran the Morar Carioca favela upgrade contest. ”The connection between people is different.”

He makes a useful comparison. “When you are the author of your own house, that you built over the years with your personal effort, when this personal effort is superimposed on the personal effort of the generation that  came before and is superimposed by the one after you, that house is steeped in shared values, which is necessarily different from the house you buy with a mortgage, and sell with a mortgage when you want, when you need to change jobs, when your family gets bigger or smaller, when your income grows or shrinks.”

Public policy should take this difference into account, says Magalhães. “We’re talking about a contemporary value, not a modern one,” he explains. “Modern was about homogeneity, universalization. The contemporary values differences.”

Pressed for time in the 1950s in the US

Except that the athletes, diplomats, advertisers, tourists, officials, and journalists are already arriving. Even the Pope is coming.

So maybe favela residents need to let go of old customs – and take on the more impersonal culture of the formal city. Maybe it’s merely a question of trading in a barbecue on the lage (favela terrace) for a barbecue in the community space of the housing project – or, in the case of those who ascend to the new middle class, in the restaurant? Because maybe that’s what urban integration is about…

Or do favelas have something worth preserving? The concept of community, after all, is central to a fully functioning democracy.

The hurry is there in the goals for 2016, and also in the way people are relocated when necessary. Those who go through the process complain of confusing information and lack of respect. At least a certain amount of negotiation takes place, even if it’s inefficient and not very transparent.

The authoritarian style of some aspects of Rio de Janeiro’s transformation inspires distrust. There’s a reason why the first headlines about the new strategic plan emphasized the reduction in favela territory (in Portuguese). One immediately wondered which ones, where, and how?

There are other doubts. Who defines at-risk areas, and how can one be sure the term isn’t being used for ends other than protecting citizens from natural disasters? How to insure the quality and durability of the apartments where thousands of cariocas will live? Who’ll pay for maintenance? How to guard against favela gentrification, and the impoverishment of residents who’re paying light bills for the first time? What happens to those who leave more central areas for cheaper parts of the city?

And where is the public debate on the needs and dreams of pacified favela youth taking place?

In the post-war period, industrial countries were also in a hurry. For several reasons, soldiers returning from World War II didn’t go live on hills, as did veterans of the Canudos War. Nor was this the case for black families migrating from rural areas to large American cities. For many of these, the solution was the construction of enormous housing projects– that became enormous problems by the 1970s.

Jane Jacobs, Sérgio Magalhães recalls, the wise author of the classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (published in 1961), said that economic development isn’t always the good city’s partner.

“Sometimes, economic growth leads to urban loss. Because money is abundant, easy money suggests great powers, that anything is possible… in a way here we’re living a period [like the 1950s in the U.S.], that anything is possible. It’s not true,” Magalhães concludes.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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