The enigma of the favela by Luiz Fernando Janot

Herewith an English translation of an article appearing on O Globo’s opinion page Jan. 28 2012 by a top urban planner and architect in Rio de Janeiro. He’s the first to come out publicly and question the delay in the implementation of the second phase of the Morar Carioca program.

The article idealizes the favela to a certain extent, and incorrectly suggests the current existence of a policy of favela substitution by public housing.

Brazilians are perplexed by the “enigma” of overwhelming community spirit present in many favelas, vis-à-vis its scarcity in middle and upper-class neighborhoods in the formal city. In the absence of viable institutions acessible to the poor, neighbors and family must help out.

But from an American perspective, it’s also clear that community exists in favelas due to less disparity and less distrust among residents there, while this is not the case in the formal city. As Brazil become a more egalitarian society, this dichotomy is bound to lessen. Also, favelas are not growing much nowadays, contrary to what the author says.  Still, his view that favelas should occupy more space in public policy thinking for the city of Rio is correct.– J.M.

* * * * * * * *

A large number of people already regularly go to favelas

A Greek legend tells us that the Sphinx, a mythological creature from the Egyption and Mesopotamian civilizations, on invading the city of Thebes and destroying all its crops, threatened the natives who couldn’t decipher his enigma, saying: decipher me or I’ll devour you. The lesson to be taken away from this passage may not be enough to urge society to reflect on the true meaning of favelas in the city’s structure. But it does somehow point the way to deciphering their enigma; coming to know their reality, their complex spatial organzation, their particularities, vicissitudes, faults, virtues, and most of all, their culture.
This may sound strange, but visitors who tread the narrow streets of old medieval cities, or who climb the steep winding pathways of the Greek isles, enjoying their special beauty, may not realize that those streets and buildings were in remote times the habitat of the poor. The transformation of these places into welcoming environments is indisputablydue to Europeans’ respect for the original spatiality of their cities and the wish to offer better life conditions for their residents. Thus it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine a similar future for carioca favelas.
Society’s growing support for forms of social integration with pacified favelas indicates that this possibility is viable. We see a large contingent of people regularly visiting  favelas, participating in events and interacting with the local population, without the concerns of earlier times. Political will is all it takes to definitively urbanize and integrate these areas into the urban context of the official city. But this is not what seems to be happening. The mayor’s decision that favela urbanization would be the main legacy of the 2016 Olympics led to the December 2010 hiring of forty technical teams selected in the Morar Carioca contest, to develop urbanization projects and housing improvements in a series of favela groupings. As of today however, more than a year after the contest results announcement, the process of hiring the teams is still making its way through the halls of official bureaucracy, with no solution in sight, while favelas continue to grow in a disorderly fashion, stimulated by the demand for housing and family growth.Despite the generalized impression that progress has always passed these communities by, it’s surprising to discover the existence of creative solutions in the ways that space is constructed and occupied. A closer look reveals an extraordinary variety of embodied technical and cultural manifestation, from generation to generation, by way of a rite of passage that values knowledge and uses it as a tool for survival, given the lack of material resources. The biased policy in favor of total removal of favelas and the construction of public housing in their place is wrong in both practical and conceptual terms. Today the old rhetoric in defense of urban and architectural solutions that look down on the city’s cultural legacy is no longer acceptable– and the favela is part of that legacy. Such thinking in fact only favors contractors interested in taking on jerry-built large construction projects, and politicians whose careers rest on such feats.

It must be understood that the residents of such communities have life stories, and that these include material and immaterial investments that cannot be ignored. In favelas and illegal housing developments, culture is manifested by way of individual housing and the social organization of public spaces. Thus the life experience of these people, incorporated into urbanization projects and housing improvements, is the best path towards spatial reallocation in these communities, and consequently, for their integration into the social fabric of the city. To ignore the fact that the favela has been part of carioca culture for more than a century is to deny its preexistence and its spontaneous way of life. Thus it’s impossible to justify the use of universal solutions to resolve particular problems of a specific nature. We live in a time of deep transformations where local cultures will certainly play a relevant role. In the midst of a whirlwind of ideas, concepts and diverse interests, only time will tell if the enigma of the favela was deciphered. We shall see.

The author’s email is

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The enigma of the favela by Luiz Fernando Janot

  1. There seems to be a do it yourself attitude in Favela’s. or a “let’s get together and work on this” outlook that is not widespread in other sements of Brazilian society.
    I am willing to make two observations, and one sad prediction.
    – Basically that favela folk look to the upper strata as a reference point on what it means to be sucessfull in their country.
    – It seems that said reference frowns upon this do it yourself attitude, dismissing it as something pertaining to the lower classes.
    – I am betting that, as people move up the economic ladder, they will start expecting more from the government, and less from themselves when it comes to solving neighborhood issues.
    I don’t think this is positive at all. When it comes to ATTITUDE towards solving urbanization issues the Favela dwellers are much more enlightened than their middle to upper middle class counterparts. The challenge is how to maintain this attitude while prospering, and how to make the rest of Brazilian society notice that this is actually the enlightened way to behave: it should be adopted, not dismissed.

    • Rio real says:

      The only catch to what you say is that the upper classes look not to the government to do things for them, but to the lower classes… so how would that play out?

  2. Bolivians, and other immigrants from neighboring countries willing to do the work that Brazilians used to do, and to do it illegally for that same old wage from yesteryears.

  3. Rio real says:

    I believe that favela residents are more “enlightened” in regard to to the solution of urbanization issues for two main reasons: their communities tend to be more homogeneous and dense, which engenders trust, something in short suppoly elsewhere; and they have less access to government institutions than do those who live “on the asphalt”, so they’re forced to fall back on their own resources.

    As Brazilian society changes and becomes less unequal, trust should increase across the board. And as the poor move up the socioeconomic ladder and demand more of government, government institutions will be forced to professionalize and improve access.

    And, as the middle and upper classes have fewer subordinates to boss around (I don’t think the Bolivians will fill the gap entirely), they will have to organize and work to solve their own problems.

    So my view is pretty optimistic– it’s all about the development of democracy.

  4. “So my view is pretty optimistic– it’s all about the development of democracy.”

    And as a male it is my duty to destroy your optimistic view, and replace it with my somber one. 🙂

    Let’s begin then.

    “their communities tend to be more homogeneous and dense, which engenders trust, something in short suppoly elsewhere;. . . As Brazilian society changes and becomes less unequal, trust should increase across the board. And as the poor move up the socioeconomic ladder and demand more of government, government institutions will be forced to professionalize and improve access.”

    But as the poor move up won’t they live further apart from each other, hence undermining that cohesiveness that engenders trust? Plus, government agencies becoming more professional is a wishful premise at best, just because people see an increase to their income doesn’t mean the state will respond to their new desires. I think the private sector will, but not the state, or if so to a much lesser extent. In other words it is much more likely that people will leave the public health system (SUS) as soon as they can afford to, than SUS improving and beoming attractive to those that now have options.
    I think this happens because the private sector receives signals from individuals as to what they want, and are willing to pay for, in much better fashion than the state. Not to mention they can’t fail , but then just tax, and survive. They must deliver what people actually want

    I’m not saying that Brazil won’t improve, nor that it’s not a blessing that people will be making more money. I’m just arguing that Brazil will probably resemble a richer, yet still unefficient country like Italy, rather than the Switzerland scenario which I prefer..

  5. Rio real says:

    If women are optimists and men are pessimists, is androgyny the only path to realism?
    There are a lot more things that governments do, besides provide health services, as I’m sure you know. It may well be that this ends up mostly in the private sector, for a while at least. But justice, for example, must always be in the purview of the state. And improved justice and more responsive and transparent institutions in general are certainly in the future of a less impoverished, more informed Brazil. I hope to live as long as it takes, at any rate!

  6. “If women are optimists and men are pessimists, is androgyny the only path to realism?”

    I bet you are a fan of Mr. Sheldon Cooper 🙂

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