Today’s activities were washed out. It began raining hard around midnight, and it is expected to continue for days. All our existing plans were cancelled and we met in the lobby this am to discuss what to do. Along with several others, I decided to take the morning off and hit the museums in the afternoon. Another group went shopping. When we arrived in downtown (Centro) Rio, we found out all the museums we planned to visit were closed due to a strike. That means I had a lot of time today to consider what we learned about favelas yesterday. For photos and descriptions of these communities, please see the previous post.
Today I want to address several questions: What is a ‘favela’? Where did they come from? What has happened in the favelas in the 1990’s and early 2000’s versus what is going on today as the mega-events draw near (World Cup in 2 weeks, Olympics in 2016)? Why does this matter to anyone besides those directly affected? What is happening now and in the near future for these communities?
Our academic expert yesterday, Theresa Williamson, is on the front lines. She is a dual British-Brazilian citizen, educated through the Ph.D. level in the US. She founded and runs an NGO named Catalytic Communities. This NGO (non-gov’t org) is an advocate for the favela communities. They maintain an enormously important website, RioOnWatch.org, which disseminates critical info in ‘real time’ about the dynamic situation of these many favelas. Her org has been very significant in empowering the residents of these communities through citizen journalism, social media, and non-violent resistance.
Here are some relevant articles – the first one is written by Dr. Williamson.
WHAT IS A FAVELA? Favelas are illegal communities that have developed to meet critical needs for housing in urban areas. They are usually on public land, but as the 2nd article I posted above makes clear, some are established on private properties. These are communities of homes built by the residents themselves, not according to any code or standards. There are about 700 favelas in Rio, most of which are built on hillsides that are legally public land reserved from development.
WHERE DID THEY COME FROM? The favelas were begun in the late 19th century by soldiers returning from the successful war in 1897 to put down the Canudos rebellion in the north areas, who were promised land and housing, but never received their promised payment for their service. Many of these were freed slaves and their descendants. Favelas continued to spring up and grow in and around Rio because of restrictive land ownership policies and economic hardships.
Favelas continued to grow in size and importance throughout the 20th century. At present, our experts estimate that 1.4 million people reside in these communities – about one quarter of Rio’s entire population. (Note: there are many disagreements about statistics regarding the favelas – however, our academic experts have examined all of the relevant data, so I believe the figures I present here are as accurate as any you will find).
Favelas and the other communities lived mostly in peace beside each other through most of the 20th century, despite nearly constant disruptions in social life created by a succession of military dictatorships and corrupt “republics”. This was a period of benign neglect. After becoming mostly democratized in the 1980s, Brazil adopted a policy of improvements in the favelas in the 1990s and early 2000s. Security, sanitization, and other basic services, including stairs, sidewalks, erosion protection, etc., were provided, and the favelas were considered an integral part of the Rio landscape.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER? The size of the favela communities in Brazil (millions in Rio alone), and the significant contributions of the favela population in the overall Brazilian economy (esp. labor) and culture (samba, bossa nova, etc.,), make this a critical issue for the future of Brazil. More significantly, every large urban area in the world has issues with substandard housing and economic inequality, so solutions to the problems created by favelas are relevant to every city on earth.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: The policy of neglect was replaced in the late 20th century by progressive policies aimed at improving the life of the residents of favelas. Sewage and basic sanitation was connected to the city system in many favelas. Stairs, sidewalks and retaining walls were built. Power and water was provided. However, with the two mega-events coming this decade (WC ’14 and Olympics ’16), the policies were changed substantially. Favelas had developed a negative perception, esp. among people who had never visited one, and civic leaders decided the favelas needed to be removed or at least hidden. Thus began a violent period of ‘pacification’ and removal (eviction). Brazil was long a military dictatorship, and so the institutional willingness to use military troops against citizens and residents already existed here. With the enormous global media focus on Brazil and Rio, local government officials tried their best to make the favelas unbearable and offered public housing (far from the city center) to try to force out the residents. When only part of a community moved out, the gov’t came and bulldozed the empty housing, but left the rubble as a breeding ground for animal and human vermin.
The story of the favela called Vila Autodromo is a very poignant and relevant example; it is found in the fourth article above (NYT: Brazil faces obstacles…). This also emphasizes my next point – increased tech savvy and connection by the favela residents has empowered them to be more effective at anticipating and resisting illegal attempts to evict them. (NOTE: in 1988 Brazil adopted a new federal constitution conferring residency rights on anyone who lives more than 5 years on a piece of land not owned by them – this is called an “adverse possession” policy). The Vila Autodromo example also shows how deceptive and even illegal the tactics are that are used by local officials to disrupt and destroy these favelas.
My friends, this sounds like a sad story. But let me assure you this: my visits to the favelas (so far) and my interaction with their residents and their advocates actually seems to me like a story of human empowerment. The power of cell phones, pocket cameras, facebook and other recent tech advances to connect and empower these people, who are being actively oppressed in many cases, is astonishing. From a human rights perspective, it is difficult for me to see how anyone can disagree that destroying these favelas and removing their residents to far away public housing, separating them from their jobs and their communities, is at best misguided and at worst just evil. Thanks to people like Dr. Williamson, her staff and volunteers, the CIEE, and many other NGOs, there is a real resistance here to push back against this. Please join me in prayer for all of those who work and serve in the favela neighborhoods. Pray that they will have the humility, the courage, and the success of those who, like MLK, Andy Young and John Lewis have persisted to overcome their oppressors.
Soli Deo Gloria,