Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Rio’s Slum Solution

The postcard images of Rio de Janeiro present a study in contrast. The sprawling city is caught between the Atlantic Ocean and the vast Atlantic Forest region, where world-famous beaches and steep mountains abruptly collide with a growing population and a growing amount of pavement. Rio evokes images of two distinct worlds. One is the luxurious resort city famous for Carnaval, supermodels, and beautiful beaches. But recently, the conception of Rio as a dangerous city plagued by poverty, violence, and drugs has entered mainstream discussion, partially as a result of such popular films as City of God and Elite Squad. The pattern of segregation by financial status within the city has been longstanding, though largely unknown abroad. From the early 1800s on, Rio’s rich lived starkly separate lives away from its poor, but all resided in the same central area of the city. When slavery was abolished in 1888, the first favelas, a term coined to describe a Brazilian slum, were created as newly emancipated slaves migrated to the urban centers seeking jobs.

This duality of rich versus poor is an important aspect of Rio’s socioeconomic reality. Despite the fact that Brazil’s GDP is currently the tenth in the world, 30.3 percent of the country’s population lived below the poverty line in 2007. Likewise, in 2004, 44.6 percent of Brazil’s income – nearly half – was in the hands of the richest 10 percent of the population, indicating a tremendously unequal pattern of income distribution. This disparity is present in Rio, where it is easily visible in the current pattern of construction utilizing urban space. It is no surprise then that poverty, in combination with population growth, has resulted in the expansion of the city’s hillside slums. Rio has grown at astonishing rates; between 1960 and 1970, the population expanded by 30 percent.

The situation in Rio is a microcosm for broader social issues affecting the rest of the nation. Likewise, the expansion of slums is becoming a worldwide problem. The UN predicts that if slum growth continues at its current rate, 40 percent of the world’s population will be slum-dwellers by 2020. Overpopulation of the planet will also have a devastating effect on the environment. The manner in which Brazil attempts to solve this clash of urban and natural environments is likely to have profound repercussions for future global attempts to manage such unsettling issues.


In a controversial move, the government has begun the construction of 10 ft. high walls surrounding some of Rio’s most notorious favelas. Its claim is that the walls are intended to prevent further expansion of the favelas into the Atlantic Forest. However, the inherent divisiveness and the symbolic meaning of the walls make them an unacceptable solution. The construction of the walls represents the Brazilian central government’s historic lack of involvement in the favelas and its apartheid-like desire to ignore the underlying social forces and institutional failures that created them.
The Rocinha favela – perhaps now considered more of a neighborhood than a slum due to its large size – proposed an alternative solution to which the government has recently agreed. There will still be a barrier between the favela and the forest, but rather than looming walls it will take the shape of a park, with nature paths and a space the community can use. There will be stretches of walls, but they will be no higher than three feet, and the taller walls will only be built in areas deemed at high risk of landslides.
If the purpose of the walls is truly to protect the environment, the Rocinha solution demonstrates that better options than the eco-barriers exist. It also indicates that the government is sometimes willing to compromise. While the Rocinha example lends hope that other communities could successfully lobby for a similar compromise, one is left to wonder why eco-walls are still the plan-in-waiting for the other favelas. It also elucidates the fact that the communities themselves originally were not involved in finding a solution, and proves that the input of these communities can be worthwhile. Although the compromise reached between Rocinha and the government is beyond any doubt a marked improvement over the previous plan, it nonetheless still stigmatizes the favelas, essentially placing blame on them.

There are, however, real environmental concerns that need to be addressed. The Atlantic Forest is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, but very little of that original forest remains. The state of Rio de Janeiro has swallowed over 80 percent of the forest, and only seven percent is still standing in the country as a whole. The rate of deforestation in the area is alarming; rather than decreasing amid growing environmental concerns it has, in fact, almost doubled in the past three years. Devastating landslides that are a result of heavy rain and deforestation have posed a threat to the inhabitants of the favelas, which are generally located on hillsides. Anthropogenic climate change is likely to augment the severity of these examples of environmental horror stories, thus increasing the risk of landslides and the vulnerability of the favela inhabitants. The government is arguing that the walls are also intended to protect the residents of the favelas (called favelados )* by warding off the consequences of environmental degradation to their property and lives. However, local environmentalists take exception to this plan and argue that these walls essentially are meaningless, as people will continue to find ways to build beyond the barriers unless more low-cost housing options are created.

Ulterior Motives

These so-called “eco-barriers” have also drawn intense criticism from human rights groups and international institutions. Some have even gone so far as to compare them to the Israel-Palestine wall and the Berlin wall. Even Brazil’s own Secretary of Human Rights, Paulo Vanucchi, stated that, “the idea of a wall is never a good idea.” Much of the criticism centers on the construction of walls regardless of their objective merit, as such barriers inevitably raise disturbing associations with ghettoization. Building walls around the favelas places blame for environmental problems solely on the favelados. Even though the expansion of the favelas of Rio undoubtedly does contribute to environmental degradation, the factors that force their continued growth are beyond their control and urban expansion is not limited to the lower class.

Several factors contribute to the general perception that the protection of the environment is not the primary purpose of the walls. Of the thirteen favelas where eco-barriers are planned, only one sits outside of the wealthy southern district of Rio. The income per capita in the southern zone is 2.5 times higher than the city’s average income, and 5 times higher than the average income in the western zone. The evidence that favelas in the western zone of the city are expanding at a faster rate then elsewhere in the metropolitan area is an indication that there may be an element of socioeconomic segregation at play; critics assert that they are deliberately physically separating the rich from the poor sectors. Furthermore, Rio will be hosting the 2014 World Cup and has a bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Rio would not be unique in its desire to build walls around less affluent sections of its population in preparation for the Olympics. There are certainly echoes of Beijing’s walls that were constructed prior to its 2008 Olympics. Chinese authorities used a similar rationale to justify their policies. In an email to The Boston Globe Wenguang Zhi, then deputy director of the construction department in the Xuanwu district, stated that, “The main concern is over the protection of the city’s environment, safety of the field work, convenience, and safety of passing pedestrians and other factors.”

The environmental aspect of this explanation is not the only part of China’s situation that might sound familiar to Rio’s citizens. The construction of walls in Rio was first proposed in 2004, with the stated intent of protecting pedestrian safety and preventing traffic on a nearby highway from being peppered by stray bullets. Although this initiative was defeated at the time, many suspect that this current proposal is more or less the same program, this time masquerading in the garb of environmental responsibility. A statement by the state governor, Sérgio Cabral, lends credibility to this latter rather dark perspective. Cabral, who authorized the construction of the eco-barriers, explicitly acknowledged the role that the security factor has had in the project by insisting that they would protect the favelados from the gangs that currently control many of the city’s more notorious slums. He noted that the construction of the walls would also help the city handle “drug trafficking and vigilantes, by putting limits on uncontrolled growth.” The favela’s drug gangs sometimes use the forest as a training ground and escape route, so it is quite possible that the city is trying to fence in members of these gangs in order to limit the damage that they can do to the surrounding areas. However, critics of the walls note that as a result, the government would essentially be creating a cage around all of the favelados, without a guarantee of success. This suspicion is reinforced by a new community policing strategy which is supposed to increase the presence of police officers on the streets and paths of the favelas. While this new initiative might suggest that the walls are related to promoting increased security, the community policing program might be a better solution on its own if crime is actually the primary concern regarding the favelas.

Community Policing

The new policing initiative provides reason for cautious optimism, and is certainly a more practical and less divisive approach than the walls. This tactic is very recent and so far has only been implemented in a few communities, although there are plans to expand its application. The officers participating in this program are paid more than their counterparts in an attempt to curb the pervasive corruption that normally permeates Brazil’s police forces. By generally recruiting new members with no prior connections to the force, the program has hoped to avoid tainting its officers with the wartime mentality that has dominated the police force in Rio for so long.. Rather than coming in shooting and then quickly withdrawing, officers are being integrated into the community leg attempting to get to know the local residents.

Residents are reasonably wary, but the overall reception of the policy initiative has been very positive. Although there are problems with the new policing program, it is also indubitably an improvement over previous reformist strategies. Nevertheless, Rio’s police are known to have killed at least 1,330 people in 2007 alone. The history of the police force’s routine violence explains both the reservations as well as the newfound feeling of hopefulness on the part of the favelados that this current approach will bring real, long-term improvements. This dichotomy is a subject of great interest within the favelas, but the situation is very complicated. On the one hand, becoming familiar with the residents could lead to an acknowledgment that not all favelados are criminals, and will hopefully reduce the number of by-stander deaths. However, the police presence might also be seen by the locals as a military occupation, which implies the criminalization of the entire general area. Given the history – or lack thereof – of government involvement in the favelas, some citizens inevitably will view community policing as a cosmetic initiative, an empty gesture to make it look as if the government is really addressing issues without affecting bona fide change.

Many, however, seem inclined to support the program as it acknowledges the issue of drug violence and avoids police responses that lead to indiscriminate killing. The combination of this community policing initiative with a significant increase in public works seems to demonstrate a more concerted effort to integrate and upgrade the favelas. The government is putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak. In Santa Maria, the first concrete site of the new community policing initiative, there is a planned investment of US$17 million — which includes amenities such as wireless internet and a new football pitch. Captain Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo has stated that an integral goal of the community policing should be the facilitation and early establishment of public service organizations, which would help communities improve in areas such as health and education.

Poverty, Inequality and Slum Expansion

Community policing can potentially be seen as part of a larger approach that seeks to address the problems of the favelas rather than segregate them. The eco-walls and consequent public outcry reveal issues that are at the core of Brazilian society. Urban areas in Brazil are facing serious overpopulation, a problem that is compounded by a severely inadequate availability of low-income housing. These factors are largely responsible for the expansion of the favelas, which in turn contributes to environmental degradation and erosion. This overpopulation also leads to a lack of employment, and subsequently increased involvement in the drug trade. The concentration of drug trafficking and violence in the favelas is not to be belittled, but at the same time the societal elements that contribute to crime should be examined. One must remember that the majority of favelados are not criminals and that criminalization of the poor tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jorge Luiz Barbosa, a professor at Fluminense Federal University who is also involved in favela support, suggests that, “The fundamental issues of these communities will never be resolved through walls. To the contrary, the issues will only be resolved through the slum’s integration into the city.” Integrating the favelas into the city is a difficult and complex undertaking, and it must consist of a multi-pronged approach if there is to be any hope of sustained success. The eco-walls are inadequate at best when it comes to solving issues of overpopulation and poverty, and in reality are more likely to be detrimental.

Although Brazil has a long history of inequality, recent trends in poverty and inequality levels in the nation are promising. The percentage of people living in poverty (defined by the World Bank as a per capita income of half the local minimum wage) dropped from 39.4 in 2003 to 30.3 in 2007. Similarly, the percentage of the population in the middle class increased from 42 percent in 2002 to 53 percent in 2009. Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a common statistical measure used to quantify national inequality, experienced a significant decline of 7 percent between 2003 and 2007, falling from 0.593 to 0.552. The decline of inequality in Brazil is particularly impressive given the international context, in which headway against income disparity is rare. The global rise of neoliberal reforms like the Washington Consensus in the 1980s and 1990s generally resulted in an increase in poverty and income inequality, due to the fallacy that economic growth would result as a product of long-term development, regardless of the distribution of wealth. Of the 73 countries for which the 2005 Human Development Report had data, only nine have seen inequality diminish, while 53 have experienced an increase.

Brazil is headed in the right direction regarding poverty and inequality, but still has a long way to go. The country’s Gini index value is still categorized as highly unequal, and as recently as 2003, the World Bank placed Brazil in the 99th percentile relative to other countries in terms of income inequality. Poverty tends to be transmitted across generations because its underlying causes, including lack of education, services, and land are difficult to change. If Brazil is to continue moving forward against poverty and inequality, then jobs, education, and infrastructure must be a priority.

Low-Income Housing

The most important factor in fighting the expansion of the slums appears to be the provision of sufficient low-income housing. Brazil has a deficit of roughly eight million housing units, and this situation is worse in the southeastern states like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The Brazilian government has announced a US$17.3 billion housing project, with the goal of constructing 1 million new homes by 2011. However, even this large figure is likely to be a matter of too little, too late since the project covers only about an eighth of the deficit, and is certainly not enough to prevent further expansion of homelessness. While the initiative is a step in the right direction, the issue requires a much firmer and greater commitment, especially given that major construction projects have a tendency to be delayed and become a black hole for funding. The only way to prevent the growth of slums is to provide adequate low-income housing. It is also the most cost-effective option available; to upgrade a slum with basic infrastructure (potable water, sanitation, paved roads, etc.) costs up to two to three times as much as providing for ground-up infrastructure in a new development.

Slums are ubiquitous in much of Latin America, but countries where the construction of low-income housing is a priority have witnessed advances in reducing their ongoing population growth. Although the measures taken may not represent a perfect solution, they are actually valuable in looking ahead towards future efforts at improvement. Costa Rica, for example, has made a concerted effort to keep the pace of housing development consistent with population growth and recently has been able to focus on upgrading existing slums. El Salvador has discovered an unusual, if somewhat unsatisfactory solution by reducing standards and easing regulations for land development. While the Salvadorian government previously required complete availability of infrastructure including electricity, water, sanitation, and roads before allowing subdivision, they have relaxed their standards because these requirements made the developments unaffordable for many. Formal building means that there is planned structure that includes green spaces and roads. People can now purchase more affordable lots without all of the formal infrastructure in place and can then obtain outside loans in order to upgrade at a later date.

Blaming the Victims

While it is of great importance to confront the issue of providing adequate housing, it is equally important to realize that the way a society views its poor is central to what and how improvements can be made. In discussing the condition of the slums, it is essential that the inequality and living standards of the favelas, and not the favelados themselves, are considered the problem. Brian Godfrey, an author and professor of geography at Vassar College who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Brazil and the Amazon Basin, believes that environmental degradation is the latest pretext in a long history of blaming favelados themselves for the significant current problems being faced by the residents.

Godfrey argues that, “elite ideologies have shifted successively from the favelas’ alleged infestation of disease, filth, and moral depravity in the 19th- and early 20th-century ‘sanitary city’; to social marginalization, behavioral deviance, economic dependence, and general pathology reflected in the mid- 20th-century ‘modernist city’; and more recently to the environmental problems, geo-hazards, and violent threats purportedly threatening the contemporary ‘sustainable city.’ In this context existing biases against favelas have been reconfigured according to the pressing problems dealt with in each historic era: policies have evolved, but favelas have consistently been diagnosed in negative terms that reinforced stereotypes and stigmatized residents.”

As environmental preservation becomes an increasingly important issue in the public discourse, pollution, deforestation and the problems raised by trash and sewage removal in the favelas are all seen as harming the sustainability and value of the city. This is used as a way to blame and control the favelas and the people living in them.

The world appears to be on the brink of a population explosion, and its leaders must learn to effectively feed, house, and employ people. At the same time that Brazil is facing severe urban overpopulation and inequality, slight improvements in combating these issues have been observed. Likewise, Brazil’s economic growth provides the country with a unique opportunity relative to other countries with comparable levels of poverty and populations divided by inequality. The standard neoliberal economic solution to poverty and slums is simply mere economic growth, regardless of the distribution of wealth. Brazil is a clear example that this is not necessarily true. In addition to moral objections, the country’s inequality is an impediment to its productivity.

Some scholars have contended that neoliberalism is also more directly responsible for the current perilous state of the slums, in that free trade, particularly of agricultural goods, has forced rural-urban economic migration to take off, enhancing the burgeoning of slums. The vast array of contributing causes dictate that the response must be comprehensive and include wide scale access to adequate low-income housing, ecological education, sex education and available contraception (and perhaps the more controversial addition of legal abortion), incentives to live outside the city, equal access to general education, and the upgrading of existing slums with at least the availability of water, sanitation, and electricity. A logical solution may be to combine the need for employment with the environmental issues and lack of housing.

For the past three decades, the Favela Residents Association and the Municipal Social Source Secretariat have collaborated in Rio on a multifaceted project addressing environmental concerns, which notably includes employing favela residents in reforestation work. This and similar projects should be expanded, and could include compensating favelados in green, low-income building initiatives. The eco-walls most likely are a short-sighted, superficial response and will cause more problems than they solve. Brazil must work to adopt a broader, more comprehensive and appropriate approach that demonstrates an understanding of the general issues at play, to see the forest from the trees.

* Footnote: Favelado is the common Brazilian term for favela inhabitants, although it is important to note that it is sometimes used pejoratively; alternatively, they are called Moradores de favela