RIO DE JANEIRO, Brasil – Rarely does it happen in the world’s metropolises that the most valuable parcels of real estate are given to shanty towns. Slums are usually relegated to the suburbs, along the fringes of the city, far away from “normal” citizens and tourists. In Rio, the opposite is true. Few premier hotels and upper class condominiums offer such breath-taking views of the city and its coastline as do the favelas. And more and more of the city’s poor are “taking advantage of them.”
Images: Visit of Favela Morro da Providencia (Source: Student Reporter).
It all began in the 1880s when a dangerous rebellion broke out in the State of Bahia. The imperial government in power at the time decided to suppress it with an army mostly made up of former slaves who had just been liberated. In return for their service, politicians promised soldiers free land back in Rio, conditional upon a triumphant return. Certainly a seductive proposal, especially to people who had spent their whole lives in bondage with no property of their own. But while the soldiers kept their end of the bargain, the government in the meantime changed its mind. Victorious veterans had no place to settle, so finally they squatted on the uninhabited Hill of the Providence. Lacking building materials they constructed dwellings with what they could find in no-man’s land. These were mainly branches of a bush species native to Brazil prized for its durable wood. The bush was called “favela“.
According to UN HABITAT, the number of slum-dwellers will double, reaching 2 billion worldwide by 2030. Of those, over 2 million are estimated to live in the city of Rio. This remains only an estimation because currently, there is no way to account for the exact size of their population. An organization that deals with the problems of world’s biggest urban areas – those over 10 million inhabitants – is the Mega-Cities Project. Founded in 1987 by Janice Perlman, the network is aimed at giving “voice and livelihood for marginalized groups.” They spread best practices all over the globe to link and implement ideas from academia with real and successful actions taken in any of the 21 member-cities. But it is not all about replicating best practices from one mega city to the next. Every case is different and programs successful in one place cannot simply be introduced elsewhere. Above all, programs to enfranchise and uplift the urban poor need to inspire and support local activities. That is exactly what the Mega-Cities Project aims to do.
How does it work in reality? The most important thing is to facilitate social advancement. Authorities have tried to do that many times, adopting successive strategies, including those recommended by the UN. However, results have varied. In the contest between “have’s” and “have not’s”, history has often ruled in favor of the former. Ms. Perlaman summed this up best during a presentation at the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. In the 1960s, “communities of Catacumba neighborhood were evicted from their favela to newly built blocks of flats in other parts of the city. Why? In order to make place for higher class apartments and a picturesque park,” says Perlaman. Unfortunately, the baby got thrown out with the bath-water. The faveladas, displaced from their homes, could not afford the day-to-day commuting, and many lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the erstwhile inhabitants soon returned to share the same lot where they had lived in Catacumba.
What then are the most important considerations for any policy implementation and sustainability programs? All of them can easily become very empty words. To prevent that, Ms. Perlman’s advice is to keep three things in mind. First of all, business and developers will always be about making profits. The challenge is to show them how to marry societal advantages with their own goals. Secondly, governments can never be punished for wanting to win elections. However, they should base their success on actual achievements and not simply on pure political PR. Finally, there is always a diversity of local conditions and differences of opinion. Only by taking these into consideration and adjusting general strategies to account for local and regional differences can we meet the real needs of the people. So simple, but so difficult.