Heavy rain

It’s been raining all night and sometimes the rain has been very heavy, pounding on the corrugated plastic roof of my small room. It is making me think more urgently of the favelas and their situation. Following what Paulo Saad was telling me yesterday, I have been reading a very interesting and worrying article by Schuster et al. in a book on landslides. The combination of the climate (heavy rains from January to March) and underlying geology (steep weathered granite slopes and residual soil on top) makes Rio particularly susceptible to landslides. Combined with the prevalence of illegal and unsafe building spreading further to higher and steeper slopes, you have a real recipe for disaster: simple landslides can become debris flows as more material accumulates into the slide and adds to its weight and destructive capacity.

In 1966 and 1967, there were over 1000 deaths from landslides after particularly heavy rain in the Rio area. Santa Teresa was also badly hit by last series of catastrophic landslides to affect Rio in 1988, when the Santa Genoveva Hospital for elderly people was destroyed, killing 34. Altogether 120 people were killed and, perhaps even more worrying for future development, 22,000 were made homeless. According to sources quoted by Schuster et al., this was after less than an hour of particularly heavy rain…

After the late 1960s events that action was taken to reforest the undeveloped slopes around Santa Teresa and reinforce some parts of the hill with concrete channels to direct the flow of water. Building regulations were also strengthened. However, it is in this area that much of the recent illegal building is taking place – and as I mentioned, not just by the desperate and ignorant poor, but also by simply greedy and uncaring middle classes.


Robert L. Schuster, Daniel A. Salcedo and Luis Valenzuela. Overview of catastrophic landslides in South America in the twentieth century, pp.1-34 in Catastropic Landslides: Effects, Occurrences, Mechanisms. ed. Stephen G. Evans and Jerome V. DeGraf, Geological Society of America, 2002.

A tale of two communities…

We visited two very different communities today, Santa Marta and Santa Teresa, but despite their differences, in both places we met with an equally impressive community representative.

Morro Santa Marta is a relatively small favela that climbs the steep slope below the peak known as Dona Marta (which is why the favela is often incorrectly called ‘Dona Marta’), above Botafogo, and just on the other side of the hill from the much wealthier neighbourhood of Laranjeiras. Santa Marta is well-known largely because it is perceived as a success story, indeed as we were being taken around he community, journalists from Globo TV were embarking on a month-long series of features and interviews with different members of the community, and representatives were scouting the place as a location for the ‘Red Bull Down’ urban downhill mountain biking series (see this description of a related event in Puerto Rico)… in short, Santa Marta is fashionable.

It is also the target for a number of state interventions; indeed I don’t think I have seen as many different workers from as many different agencies in one place at one time anywhere in Brazil. There were transportation workers on the newly-finished cliff railway, there were workers from the planning department shoring up recently-constructed houses to prevent landslides, there were electric company workers struggling to make sense of the maze of cables, there were refuse workers, and at the base of the favela there was a load of people from the new Motorola-sponsored Digital Santa Marta initiative that is wirelessing the whole neighbourhood. It seemed that various government interests badly want Santa Marta to continue improving, and that a lot is riding on this.

However, as we soon discovered, there is a more complex and fragile reality underlying the business and the superficially sheen of hype. Our guide for the morning was Sonia Oliveira, one of the directors of the community association, and a resident for many years. As we ascended the railway with her, we met her son, and other people, like Luis Gustavo, who she had known since he was a baby… it was clear that Sonia was well-known and well-liked. And who wouldn’t like her? Sonia is a strong woman with a calm, determined presence and an insight matched by the realism of experience.

The key to Santa Marta’s success so far has been the combination of many years of careful community work, combined more recently with a determined effort by a particular battalion of the BOPE (military police special operations) to drive out drug traffickers and secure the community, under Commandate Priscilla, who we will hopefully meet next week. It is not as if the community is any more sympathetic to the police than anyone else in Rio, but the relationship between the people involved here is clearly a special one. And whilst the police still do not understand the community fully – there are still frequent complaints of harassment of young men and the closing down of parties – there is some evidence that they are learning and changing to a small but important extent. One problem now is that the wider context of the ‘choque de ordem’, which is basically a rather more aggressive version of the famous New York ‘zero tolerance’ policy, is threatening to roll back these small improvements in trust and understanding. The police hassle unlicensed stall-holders, which is how most favelados make their living, they stop taxi drivers for checks of insurance and licensing, and of course, they threaten, and indeed carry out the threats, to demolish illegally constructed buildings – which is of course, potentially any piece of the favela. However, for Sonia, the over-assertiveness of ‘choque de ordem’ policing is outweighed by a far greater another fear – which is what happens if the political climate changes, or financial or strategic reviews mean that the BOPE are forced to withdraw from Santa Marta. If they do, she argues, the traffickers will return, and it will be worse than before, as not only will they take control of the community, but they will ‘punish’ it for collaborating with the authorities.

And things must continue here. In many ways they have hardly started. There might be a lot of activity but the favela remains lacking in infrastructure, especially sewage and healthcare. Most of the self-built constructions remain precarious and a severe risk to their inhabitants and those below in the case of heavy rains and consequent landslides. And the understanding of neighbouring communities is far from guaranteed. One might think that neighbours would be grateful that the traffickers are gone and even make efforts to integrate Santa Marta further into the city, but Laranjeiras in particular has been causing all sorts of problems for the favela, in particular over the construction of a school and creche at the top of the neighbourhood. The problem was basically that the school can be seen over the top of the hill, and this led to the fear that Santa Marta would begin to spread over the top and down to the back gates of the expensive apartments and villas of this rather exclusive community inhabited by people like Governor Sergio Cabral. In fact, unlike several other favelas, Santa Marta is not expanding at all. It is becoming a more mature and controlled community, and it is rather ironic that it is at this stage of its development, that it becomes an object of fear and concern for its richer neighbours. The argument has been resolved for now, and the school stays, indeed it is the temporary home of the battalion and the community police, who get a good overview of the neighbourhood from its commanding position. The lack of expansion of Santa Marta has not stopped the State from starting the construction of a wall along its west side. As Sonia says, there is no need to make favelados feel like they are living in a ghetto…

Paulo Oscar Saad was against the building of the school, indeed he is against the expansion of any illegal community into the hills of the area, but in truth this is the only real substantive grounds for disagreement between the leader of the Santa Teresa community association and those in Santa Marta. Santa Teresa is however, an entirely different place. Once a hillside retreat for the rich, its crumbling mansions have for a while now been occupied by an eclectic mixture of artists, academics and other bourgeois but generally progressive people. For many years it served as a kind of cultural centre for the surrounding poorer neighbourhoods, including the many favelas, with favelados mixing with the artists in the bohemian bars and cafes.

However, this mixture has been undermined by three main developments. The first is the aforementioned illegal building, which threatens the very stability of the hillsides which support Santa Teresa. It isn’t just what one would recognise as ‘favelas’ either; many of the illegal buildings are constructed by relatively or even very wealthy people, and often on land reforested precisely to prevent landslides after two previously disastrous deluges in the 1960s and 1980s. The second is the change in the nature and intensity of crime in Santa Teresa. The neighbourhood had always put up with a certain amount of petty theft and pickpocketing, but the arrival of cocaine (and more recently, crack) and in particular the arming of the drug gangs has led to an increase in both actual serious crime and fear. Finally, the gentrification of Santa Teresa is threatening to destroy the easy-going and bohemian atmosphere of the hillside on which it is based. It is an old story, seemingly destined to be endlessly repeated in similar communities all over the world. The old bars and cafes close, and the new upmarket establishments exclude the poor either overtly by policy or implicitly through price. The fear of crime has also driven many residents into the arms of private security companies, who have gated several dead-end streets and equipped them with guardposts. The signs say they are legal; the Community Association says that they are not. In fact the latter are correct. Paulo, like some other I have talked to here, is sure that the private security companies are intimately linked to the militias and indeed to the criminal gangs, all of which reinforce each other in an ongoing spiral of criminality and securitisation. However it is not as if the police (of any kind) or the politicians can be trusted to deal with the situation. According to the community association leader, the police are entirely corrupt and the politicians are fashion-driven media slaves. The only hope lies in bottom-up community power, yet the community is increasingly divided, and even the remaining assets that make Santa Teresa what it is are being cashed in: the wonderful antique tram system that rattles up the hillside is being privatised and its future is uncertain…

It seems that both community leaders are scared of losing what they have and battling to keep their neighbourhoods alive, inclusive and connected, but both are being hampered by uncertainty and contradictory policies and developments at levels which they cannot seems to influence. The future of Rio depends on people like this being supported not undermined by the state at its various levels (which still do not appear to know what each is doing, let alone look like working together). Oh, and I almost didn’t mention surveillance… that’s because like almost everyone else on the ground here, surveillance is seen as a frippery of the rich and something which has no practical use or meaning for the reality of their lives. There is also a strong sense of freedom too: and things like CCTV are seen as a definite infringement of that liberty. The more I get to know people and places here, the more I am certain that Brazil is nothing like a surveillance society and the changes that it would take to become one would be almost inconceivable in scale and cost.

Note: there are photos of Santa Teresa in the next post and there will be more later this week.