Close, yet far

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1955, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the director of Rio 40 Graus [Rio 100 degrees Fahrenheit] – a film that received an award at the Film Festival of Brasília – was enraptured by the view of what he called ‘the exposed favela’. Originally from São Paulo, Nelson described how he found the perfect backdrop to the narrative of the ambiguous relationships of proximity and distance between the bourgeoisie of the asphalt, and the majority black population and rogues living on the hillsides in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro. Although spatially close, that did not mean that they were integrated. In São Paulo, the favelas were not as exposed as those of Rio, juxtaposed with middle-class apartment buildings of the characteristic hillsides, typical of Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone. With its depiction of Brazilian reality through one day in the life of five kids in a favela in the North Zone – Morro do Cabuçu – who sold peanuts in Copacabana, Pão de Açúcar hill, and at the Maracanã stadium, some of the city’s main tourist attractions, the film inspired the Cinema Novo movement.

Since then, socio-spatial relationships in the city of Rio de Janeiro have deepened, and cannot be viewed simplistically through dual oppositions, as is sometimes attempted. Between the hills and the asphalt, legality and illegality, or even in the idea of a divided city, there is a lot more. The classic definition of rich central areas and poor outskirts manifested itself alongside the existence of pockets of poverty within wealthy neighbourhoods. The relations of proximity and distance between social groups focused on their material expressions, juxtaposed throughout the city, and came to represent and structure the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.

The favelas, seen as a place of poverty, samba and trickery, and precarious areas ignored by public authorities, have gone through significant transformations since then. From the early 1970s onwards, the ‘urbanisation’, or upgrading, of the favelas has provided positive experiences in some communities that received infrastructure and pavements, the basic requirements of urbanisation. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, this process was strengthened in 1993 and following years with the Favela-Bairro programme created by the Municipality.

However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of low-income settlements – including the favelas, but also the irregular land divisions and housing complexes – is the presence, from the 1990s onwards, of armed violence, which has settled into those areas in connection with drug trafficking. The existence of areas dominated by organisations, gangs or commandos came to define territories of exception, characterised by the ‘absence’ or ‘scarcity’ of the State, shaping a social reality in which there is no rule of law. It is only since 2008 that these areas have been tackled by public authorities, through the Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs. What we need is a better way to understand how these areas have come about and how they are ingrained in the political, social and economic fabric of the city.

The origins of armed violence

Initially, the city treated favelas as provisional settlements, with the expectation that development would soon arrive and replace them. This meant that these sites were ignored. This was followed by a period in which the Brazilian State banned them, at the same time as it discouraged the construction of rental housing and took up the task of producing subsidised homes – a task that was evidently not accomplished. The favelas could not be part of the city map.1 And since they were not on the map, the problem was solved. This legal determination prevailed even into the 1990s.

Irregular developments, in turn, appeared in the mid-twentieth century, at a time when accelerated population growth could not be accommodated in rental houses and when there was no funding for the construction of homes. The families that did not want to live in the favelas occupied new areas in the West, building their own houses.

We could think that both the favelas and the clandestine development areas resulted from low-income families adopting the nuclear family model, which they achieved without support from collective savings. Thus, favelas and irregular settlements did not come about as a rejection to the city; they actually show the willingness of poor people to integrate in the city.

Housing complexes are the result of government decisions. Throughout the middle decades of the last century, complexes were built as the main – and almost exclusive – housing policy action. Residential complexes were to a large extent aimed for the compulsory resettlement of families living in favelas that were demolished by public authorities.

In Rio de Janeiro, recent data (2010) indicates the existence of about 425,000 households in 763 clusters called ‘subnormal’, including favelas, irregular development areas, and settlements without infrastructure or land ownership. These numbers suggest that about 1.5 million people live in informal areas, or about 25 per cent of the population of Rio. The first census of the favelas, carried out in 1948, revealed the existence of about 35,000 households, 138,000 inhabitants, or 7 per cent of the total population. This significant increase marks the tortuous trajectory of poor people in relation to the city’s housing stock.

Figure 1: Map of the city of Rio de Janeiro indicating the favelas and irregular settlements.
Source: Instituto Pereira Passos, 2000

Favelas, developments and housing complexes are the three main models of low-income urban settlements in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro nearly half of its population lives in these conditions. This is clear when we look at the city map.

Common conditions

From the point of view of access to infrastructure and urban services, the degree of integration of these settlements varies. But there is a condition common to almost all of them: the absence of the State. Governments are not as present as they are in the ordinary city – on the asphalt. Even in the residential complexes of Cidade de Deus, Vila Kennedy and Vila do João/Maré, where regular settlements were created, governments usually do not provide good public services to the residents.

Regularisation of property, for instance, does not exist, even though the earliest communities date back to the 1960s. ‘Absence’ or ‘lack of State presence’ is not a way of saying public services are bad, it is much more: a reality in which there are no effective laws governing society. In most of these low-income settlements, tenancy law does not apply. Relationships between landlords and tenants are mediated by forces that do not comply with the Brazilian Constitution. In case of tension, the parties will seek to resolve their conflicts with support from the powers that replace the absent State.

The tax code and building laws have no power either. In those favelas, in case of land divisions and housing developments where the State is not present, there are no guarantees that the right to legal defence, the right of the adversary or the right to come and go – key pillars of the Brazilian Constitution – will be respected. So, what are the rules in force? How are they established? Who enforces them?

Structuring of territorial control

Without a rule of law, these settlements are at the mercy of organisations or gangs for which the areas have some value. In general, the value attributed is one linked to the drugs trade. Today this business is certainly a relevant aspect, but it is no longer the only one, and perhaps not even the most important.

Illegal trade of public services, like transport, communications and electricity, are part of everyday life in these settlements, the control of which has acquired increasing value. Recently, with the advent of the milícias, security services were also created. The construction of irregular housing is another very profitable business, with much better profits than the ones in the formal housing economy. And, as rent collection cannot be dissociated from the ‘dissuasive argument’ of the strongest, it reinforces the circle of illegality, secrecy, and of the better armed.

In Rio de Janeiro, the way territorial control is structured is no longer based on drugs sales points, but on a network. By consolidating itself, this network of illegality forms ‘islands’ that are controlled by different laws. The absolutists at the top exceed the control of their territories and expand their tentacles beyond the archipelago. Thus, the network also unfolds over the legal urban fabric and reaches successive neighbourhoods and important regions of the city.

Figure 2: Network taking over the territory.

Thus, in these territories ignored by the State, an economic-political-social network has been established with negative impacts on the economy, politics, society, and urban life.

Causes and effects x recovery and permanence

Since urban violence has become part of everyday life, it was first understood to be part of the economic forces of modernity. Trapped between authoritarianism and social chaos, illegality was seen as part of a kind of political protest. Next, violence was treated in a context of symbiosis between marginality and the agents of the State, where corruption was the common element. To this we could add the absence of fully-shared moral boundaries, which attributes a certain incentive to illegality in the pursuit of social mobility. Permeating these stages, there were several ways to tackle violence based on the role of the repressive apparatus of the State, which assumed greater or lesser importance, without connections to the social, political or economic causes.

It was only after the Brazilian State lost its legitimacy – and citizens their spirit – that the Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, started to be deployed from 2008 onwards. Since then, there has been an arduous attempt to re-constitutionalise those territories. This does not mean the end of clandestine networks. On the contrary, the symbolic recovery that is the result of the presence of the State in these areas represents the beginning of a new process.

Close, yet far from the rest of the legal city, those territories of exception are beginning to recover their citizenship. Permanent services, viewed as banal in great part of the city, such as regular refuse collection, home delivery of goods and mail, among others, in addition to the simple possibility for children to get to and from school in safety, have started to happen without the threatening control of drugs trafficking. With the now permanent presence of the State, it is a matter of time before services reach these areas. The ways vary, and new problems may arise. In the South Zone, boutique hotels have already arrived, and sightseeing tours take place in the pacified favelas, attracted by the proximity of the wealthy areas and the fine views over the city. However, many areas of the metropolis, especially the North Zone, from Bonsucesso to Irajá, remain critical.

Once the initial stages of recovery of these territories are overcome, one of the main challenges arising is the permanence of public services – which cannot be understood merely as the presence of police forces. Full consolidation of state control is essential. The recent mass protests have brought to the fore the issue of lack of consistent public urban development policies. Our cities still need a more cohesive agenda, with a much stronger commitment to urban development.

1 According to Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Legislation of 1937.

Sérgio Magalhães is President of the Brazilian Institute of Architects. Fabiana Izaga is Vice-President for Institutional Relations of the Brazilian Institute of Architects – Rio de Janeiro.