The author revisits 13 conjoined favelas, known as Complexo do Alemão, after one year to see how ‘favela integration’ projects are progressing.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend the presentation of an international research project in Rio de Janeiro called ‘Underground Sociabilities’. The research was lead by Sandra Jovchelovitch, professor of social psychology at The London School of Economics and Political Science, and included the participation of a Brazilian-based research team and community leaders from two prominent grassroots NGOs operating in Rio’s favelas: AfroReggae and CUFA (Central Unica das Favelas). In a shift from more traditional academic perspectives on ‘social marginalization’, this research sought to evaluate the actions of grassroots organizations that have a goal of ‘social inclusion’.
CUFA and AfroReggae are celebrated for offering social programs to young people considered at-risk for gang recruitment and drug trafficking. Funding of community projects is being labeled as ‘social investment’, and we will without doubt see a spike in such funding in the near future. These are projects that fit into the hard-to-define concepts of ‘citizenship’ and ‘social integration’ that the Brazilian state at all levels has attempted to realize since the return to democracy and particularly during the governments of Presidents Lula and Dilma. I will blog in more depth about the research and the debates that it inspired at the presentation in a future post. In this post, I revisit Complexo do Alemão, where both AfroReggae and CUFA operate.
The favela ‘complex’ is composed of 13 different ‘comunidades’ (informally territorialized favela neighborhoods) with a total population of 250 thousand habitants (which constitutes the largest grouping of favela residents in the city of Rio). Alemão is the largest of the favelas in the complexo and is host to site offices for both Afro Reggea and CUFA.
After decades of state neglect, the government began substantial investments in infrastructure and social programming. Streets were paved, sewer lines built, sanitation and drainage improved, a five-station cable-car transport system constructed (known as the telefêrico) along with apartment buildings in order to house those residents displaced by the telefêrico. The 13 favelas were also ‘invaded’ and ‘occupied’ by the military and police in what is known as the process of favela pacification. Taken together, the infrastructure investments, the new community policing paradigm and social programming such as AfroReggae and CUFA, constitute in large part the tangible state-backed projects meant to ‘integrate’ Rio’s favelas and ‘formal city’ (the so-called asfalto).
One year ago I visited Complexo do Alemão shortly after the inauguration of the telefêrico. The transport project, delayed by the military invasion and occupation of the favela space but nonetheless completed relatively quickly once constructed began, was opened with much fanfare. President Dilma, Rio govoner Cabral and Rio city mayor Paes took the first ceremonious ride. I blogged about the telefêrico in Alemão (and another that is currently under construction in the favela Prôvedencia in downtown Rio) for favelissues and argued that the projects were being fetishized by the press. Rather than being understood as one project, long overdue, and part of a long list of infrastructure and other neccessary projects in Alemão and the other 1000-plus favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro, journalists and commentators were lauding the telefêrico as if it were a solution to the problem of social exclusion, territorialized stigma, spatial discrimination and racism.
I took advantage of my short trip to Rio and returned to Complexo do Alemão in order to observe the functioning of the telefêrico and other projects in the ‘comunidades’. I was lucky enough to tour the complex with a community activist and employee of CUFA-Alemão. Below I present some follow-up observations:
The telefêrico is operating smoothly, directly from the train station to the top of five steep hills in five distinct favelas. The stations were clean, the staff friendly and the trip relatively economical (at 1 real per trip although residents are eligible for two free trips daily). Despite public reports of an average ridership of 10,000 daily (capacity is 30,000), it was striking how few residents were using the system at the time of out visit. There were no lines to board, and as far as we could tell, most of the cable cars (capacity of 10 each) were empty or were transporting 1-3 persons. Our guide estimated that only 5,000 people used the transport system a day, mostly during the nine-to-five working day rush hours. However, surprisingly he said that in his experience the cable care is most crowded on Saturdays and Sundays, when residents go out for the day. Also surprising was his estimation that half of those riders on the telefêrico lived outside of the complexo do alemão, principally other Rio residents and Brazilians who come to experience the project as local and national tourists. Complexo de Alemão is located well outside of zona sul, the main tourist area, and is still perceived as a dangerous and unpleasant trip for international visitors, who prefer to visit more majestic favelas with ocean views such as Rocinha, Vidigal and Santa Marta. Perplexing is that according to reports by those who study favela tours in Zona Sul, Brazilians very rarely tour zona sul favelas.
Brazil has elections coming up in October in which the mayor and local representatives to the city council will be elected. Television is full of campaign commercials, the sidewalks are clogged with stand-up banners and party activists passing out candidate leaflets; and anyone walking in the city’s favelas are affronted with small and large billboards attached to homes, storefronts, trees, telephone poles and just about every other standing structure. The electioneering has two very visible effects: the first is the campaign propaganda, for which residents in Complexo do Alemão are apparently paid between 30 and 60 reais (about 15 to 30 dollars at current exchange rates) to attach a campaign sign to their house. The second effect is more significant. Small infrastructure improvements are often made in favelas and low-income neighborhoods right before an election in a bid to show residents that their local politicians are committed to improving their living conditions. These actions are low-cost and relatively insignificant at a larger scale, but they tend to be effective ways of garnering votes for the incumbent and their party.
Along with the telefêrico, public housing complexes and additional projects such as a civic center, movie theater and hospital, the main roads in complexo do alemão were supposed to be widened to the extent that two cars could pass each other traveling opposite directions and still allow room for pedestrian movement. This requires that dozens of homes, stores and churches be demolished before the road can be paved. This seems slow-going, and while in some sections of the complex we did witness the work being accomplished, in other areas it was clear that work had been delayed or stopped after partial demolishing of structures. One resident commented cynically that they would have to wait for the next election cycle in order to garner the political will to finish the roads.
More homes were in the process of demolition in areas deemed ‘at high risk’ of mudslides. It is true that during heavy rains mudslides cause much destruction in many of the city’s favelas; but independent reviews and community activists have claimed that the municipal government has been systematically demolishing large groups of homes (and in some cases whole small favelas) with unsubstantiated claims that they are in areas of high risk for environmental disaster. In Complexo do Alemão, we witnessed a group of homes being demolished that were suspiciously close to where a large, brand new police station stood. One must wonder if the homes in question could have been easily reinforced through basic engineering works, or if the structures were simply too close for comfort to the police post. Noticable is that while these homes are being forcibly removed, those structures within the zones of ecological preservation remain unmolested.
In complexo do alemão, ‘integration’ clearly has a long way to go. While walking in the various favelas that make up Almemão, we passed not a single school or health centre. Its also unclear how well social programming originally through national PAC financing and additional ‘social investments’ such the community programs of CUFA and AfroReggae are articulated with physical infrastructure projects meant to integrate these 13 favelas in zona norte with the ‘formal city’.