Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Favelas, Infra-Structural Development, and the Eco-Wall: Good and Bad Manifestations of the Brazilian State

To build on Erik's post below, I wanted to add a little more on the so-called "eco-wall" put up around a favela in Rio. In addition to the report that CNN put up (it was actually the major story on when I woke up yesterday morning, much to my shock and satisfaction, as stories about the favelas, and particularly the repression they face, are usually buried deep within CNN's site), there was another report that involved eyewitness journalistic accounts of the favela, which was not too far from where I lived in Rio (within 10 minutes, I could see the favela, and within 20 minutes, I could be in it).

For all of the talk of how "violent" the favelas and their residents are, I thought this part of the journalist's account was worth highlighting:
According to officials it’s an “ecobarrier” built to protect the surrounding rainforest, but a lot of people we talked to were offended.

They felt they were being caged in and saw it as an attempt to further separate the crime-ridden slums from the affluent condos on the beaches below.

But what struck me was just how safe Santa Marta was.

When I lived in Rio eight years earlier it was unthinkable to enter any favela without a police escort.

At night you could hear shoot-outs between rival drug gangs and nearby neighborhoods complained of “lost bullets” that tore through their homes while they slept.

That’s changed with Rio’s “pacification” plan. Santa Marta is one of the favelas that’s been occupied by police. They built a permanent headquarters in the community and have set up checkpoints where gangs used to sell drugs.

We actually saw very few police when we hiked along the winding paths, but the sense of security was palpable.

I commented on this "'pacification' plan" a couple of days ago. I don't know how "accurate" this journalist's report is - it is possible that it was just a particularly peaceful time when he was there, or that this was "pra ingles ver" ["for the English to see"], as they say. Still, I think there's a very real chance that his sentiment reflects the broader atmosphere in Santa Marta, and if what he saw and felt were the permanent conditions in Santa Marta, then I think the new approaches of the police may actually be working, at least in this favela. I've long said that infrastructural development in the favelas would be central to a shift in the policy towards Brazil's poor and marginalized; it seems that Santa Marta has only reinforced that suggestion.

That said, I think the eco-wall is absolutely the wrong kind of infrastructure to establish in the favelas. As I said in comments to Erik's post, I think the problems with the eco-wall are twofold. It was nearly impossible for Santa Marta to spread into the forest due to its location - the mountains around it are simply too steep. While the favela did manage to creep into a part of the mountains, the settled area is already steep enough that they have to have a tram to take residents from the bottom of the hill to the top. In that part of Rio (Botafogo), the mountains simply are unable to even support favelas, so deforestation for settlement is near impossible. My second problem (as much with the article Erik originally commented on, as well as the broader question at hand) is that it treats eco-protection and segregation as an "either/or" proposition, when it's not. It's absolutely possible (and, in this case, likely) that you could do eco-protection while (further) marginalizing sectors of society. Ultimately, this to me is segregation, plain and simple: where Santa Marta is located butts up against the federally protected forest of Tijuca, which is the largest urban forest in the world. What is more, Santa Marta simply cannot expand, and really hasn't - it was the same this past summer when I went to Brazil as it had been when I was first there in 2005. If this were an earnest effort to protect the environment without segregating the poor, it would have happened elsewhere in the city - not Botafogo.

Given the new tactics in São Paulo and the apparent success (though I'd like to see more reports) of the new tactics in Santa Marta, I feel that for the first time, there is a not-illegitimate hope that the violence in the favelas may have a real chance to decline. To re-state my original skepticism, the fact that Santa Marta is one of over 1000 favelas in Rio alone means there is a very long way to go. Still, these efforts indicate that, for the first time ever, the federal state and state government of Rio may actually be taking measures to establish infrastructural improvements that could decrease the violence. But eco-walls like the one in Santa Marta are counterproductive, as they produce no real benefits and antagonize residents that the state is trying to win over.