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Mobilization versus Pacification in Brazil’s Favelas

In Articles on 15 August 2011 at 5:33 pm

by John Gledhill

Brazilians really are crazy about football, and poor Brazilians are as pleased as everyone else that Brazil is hosting the 2014 World Cup (and 2016 Olympics). Yet families who built their own homes on land to which they did not have secure title also worry about being forcibly relocated because of urban redevelopment in preparation for 2014. This has brought community leaders together to demand their say in the city where I live: Salvador, Bahia.

Although grassroots mobilization delivered immediate results, only sustained action from below can guarantee that everyone benefits from these global events, because public security reforms seem to be prioritizing the interests of middle and upper class people, and economic development is changing the political landscape.

Fighting for a right to the city means fighting stigmatization

Although films such as City of God and Elite Squad have made the favelas of Rio de Janeiro famous, irregular settlements exist in all of Brazil’s cities, often on invaded lands right in the middle of districts occupied by middle and upper class residents. The biggest, such as Nordeste de Amaralina in Salvador and Rocinha in Rio, have over 100,000 residents, closely packed into houses that have been extended upwards by adding extra stories. What distinguishes a favela from other working class areas is not so much family income level as irregular land tenure and the social stigma attached to favela living. Stigma has been heightened by the presence of heavily armed drug trafficking gangs, even though most residents remain as honest and hard-working as they have always been and live where they live because of a lack of affordable alternatives or because they have invested too much in their homes to move.

Many now fear that the interests driving urban redevelopment will exploit the way that favelas are blamed for all of society’s problems of crime and violence, and put the clock back to the days when eviction rather than upgrading infrastructure and services was government policy. Some favelas occupy land that developers could use to build condominiums and shopping malls. Others could be removed simply to beautify urban space and provide rapid transport systems for new international visitors and middle class people. The grassroots politics of resisting dispossession therefore involves action on several fronts. Favela residents have to show that public and private investment will produce sustainable improvements in the quality of life in their neighbourhoods and that they are willing and able to take advantage of new economic opportunities when these present themselves. They also have to counter their association with crime and violence in the eyes of working as well as middle and upper class people living beyond the favelas.

Colibris, a community cooperative, hosts a fashion show to present its collaboration with hip-hop group Clã Periférico.

Most of the people of Salvador, Brazil’s third largest metropolis, are descendants of African slaves. Although US-style racial politics fails to appeal to most Brazilians, young people in favelas have formed hip-hop groups as well as cultural organizations that produce a sense of empowerment by celebrating Afro-Brazilian culture. Although institutional and everyday racism is still a major concern, these young people have broader political horizons. Favelas have also been targeted by projects offering dignified employment in the social economy. Bairro da Paz, a favela with 60,000 residents and a tradition of militancy, occupying invaded land in what has become a prime development area, recently staged a public fashion parade. One show was a new line of clothing for the local market whose original style was the fruit of a partnership between successful community cooperative Colibris and militant hip-hop group Clã Periférico. Positive media coverage and the participation of (white) TV personalities included outsider comment on the injustice of attaching images of violence and criminality to the creative and enterprising people of the neighbourhood.

Resisting Dispossession

Some might argue when a hip-hop posse helps a cooperative to invent a new “brand” they are being subtly inducted into the ways of neoliberal capitalism. But what neoliberal capitalism is principally about in Salvador is construction and real estate speculation. On this front, Bairro da Paz has not lost its reputation for militancy.

In April 2010 communities across the city began to mobilize after opposition councillors leaked details of expropriation decrees prepared by the city government to the press. People from Bairro da Paz blockaded the main arterial road into the city and burned car tyres, causing widespread gridlock. This mobilization generally proved effective, not least because the mayor was already struggling politically with scandals related to backstage relations with property developers. The city finances were in a mess, and there was talk of his impeachment. Blaming everything on subordinates whom he promptly sacked, the mayor revoked most of the decrees and although those that would affect Bairro da Paz remained in place, the city opened negotiations with community leaders at which promises of land titling were made.

Residents of Bairro Da Paz burn tyres to blockade the main road into the city as a response to leaked documents which showed collusion between the government and property speculators.

But nothing substantive came of this, and anxieties turned to new security policies, modelled on those of Rio de Janeiro, which both the state and city governments hoped would reduce drug-traffic related homicide rates that were rising in Salvador and had fallen in Rio. Re-elected for a second term in 2010, governor Jacques Wagner is, like ex-President Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, a member of the Workers’ Party (PT).

At first sight, new thinking about how to police favelas seems positive, because it involves a shift to community policing in which relationships between police and residents should be protective, supportive and everyday rather than simply repressive. In Rio “Pacificatory Police Units” (UPPs) have become a permanent presence in some favelas after an initial operation to expel the traffickers, which involved support from the military in the case of the take-over of two very large favela complexes in November 2010. A similar programme has been launched in Salvador: although only one small favela has a “Community Police Base” so far, the next target is the big Nordeste de Amaralina complex.

The expulsion of the traffickers has been described as the state retaking control of a territory lost to criminals in order to restore full “citizenship” to the residents they terrorised. But although efforts have been made to promote best practice in community policing, through training programs and by favouring female commanders, residents of the first favela to get a UPP in Rio, Santa Marta, complained that lack of consultation and community participation did nothing to enhance their sense of citizenship. Ensuring that residents feel they are being treated with respect will require deep changes to the culture of the military and civil police. But racism and authoritarianism are only part of the problem.

As security expert Luiz Eduardo Soares argues, although UPPs “done right” may be a way forward, the assumption that the police and the drug traffickers are opposed sides is very often wrong, as poor Brazilians know from bitter experiences. Participation in drug dealing aside, some officers sell criminals guns, while others demand payoffs for not arresting them. Others participate in private “militias” that drive traffickers out of favelas only to become mafias taking over community rackets and extorting protection money from local shopkeepers. It is not just that crime pays. As Enrique Arias shows in his book Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro, politicians have used links with both traffickers and militias to gather votes. Responsibility for tolerating corruption and extrajudicial killing by police has often extended to very high levels in public administration. The installation of UPPs may not even eliminate drug-trafficking, but simply change the retailing model to one more like that of the USA and Europe.

Existing budgets will not support extending UPPs to many more favelas. But existing UPPs are located in places where middle and upper class people live close by. So it seems that it is their sense of security rather than the security of the residents of the favelas that is the real priority. Causes for concern, and hope Even if those who fear that new security policies are really about undermining resistance to favela relocation are wrong, other changes may reshape the politics of development.

During the eight years in which Lula was president, the socio-economic “C” class (earning between three and ten minimum wages) moved from being thirty-seven per cent to fifty per cent of the population. Millions more Brazilians entered the consumer society and could now aspire to travel by plane or car rather than bus. They could also aspire to own their own homes, supported by government injections of funds into the housing market that made credit more accessible. The votes of people from this “new middle class” helped the PT to a comfortable victory in the general election. It remains to be seen what kind of city these newly empowered consumers will want.

Nevertheless, Brazilian law does offer grassroots movements good opportunities to contest the future shape of urban development if they can maintain their momentum. On April 26, 2011, the Brazilian urban planner and architect Raquel Rolnik issued a statement on the problems being created by preparations for the World Cup and Olympics in her role as UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a human right. Dr Rolnik reported disturbing allegations reaching her office from many Brazilian cities of a lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue and negotiation in evictions already undertaken or being planned. The financial compensation offered to affected communities seemed ridiculously low given the rise in real estate values created by re-development, and people were being relocated to sites without services, infrastructure and access to jobs.

This is not a new story in Brazil but that makes it difficult to ignore. Dr Rolnick called on federal, state and city authorities to start talking to the people whose human rights they were violating.

In Salvador, those people are already not simply demanding to be heard, in defence of their homes and communities, but also making their own proposals about what should be done with the large amount of public money to be invested in improving the city’s transport infrastructure in preparation for the World Cup. As in other Brazilian cities, people who live on the urban periphery face long journeys to work on overcrowded buses that travel along roads choked by cars. Armed assaults on passengers in buses and bus stations are also frequent, discouraging middle class people from using public transport. One possible solution to the problem of safer mass transit, a metro, has so far proved a complete fiasco. Even the first six-kilometre section of the planned network remains unfinished eleven years after construction began. The project has continued to prove a financial black hole despite federal judicial investigations into the companies contracted to build it. The role of the city government is equally controversial and its thinking about future transport systems still seems to be mainly focused on improving the mobility and security of high-income residents and tourists.

This thinking may soon have to change, however, because of the increasing militancy of a new citywide Union of Neighbourhoods for Urban Mobility. This movement has already staged a protest occupation of the principal bus station serving communities on the side of the city linked to the old port and business centre, and is demanding that the planned improvements in transport networks on the opposite side, where the international airport is located, solve the transport problems of lower class residents and not simply visitors.

Challenging the politicians to recognize that “we are Salvador too”, the movement is demanding not simply inclusion but priority at a moment in which new money could make innovative solutions possible.

John Gledhill is the Max Gluckman Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His publications include the books Casi Nada: Agrarian Reform in the Homeland of Cardenismo and Power and Its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics.

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