Favela chic?

Hot on the heels of the Olympic flag, I found myself making the journey from London to Rio for a conference last week.

Rio is a pretty daunting city – intimidatingly sexy along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, larger than life with its dramatic cityscape overlooked by Christ the Redeemer, and unnervingly edgy, with the feeling of angry inequality looming all around from the favela-filled hills. Now, Rio is set to host the World Cup in 2014 and then of course the Olympics and Paralympics in 2016.

But whilst I don’t doubt this self-confident city can pull off both, I wonder how the world will cope with the crime, poverty and inequality of this glamorous metropole. Or more to the point, how the poor and marginalised will cope with the world if they don’t get a piece of the money the world brings to Rio.

Over lunch with the Minister for Peace and Security, he asked me why Brazil was coloured orange in our climate change and conflict risk map in my presentation (as one of 46 countries we identified in 2007 as facing an increased risk of political instability in the face of climate change). Brazil’s economy now outruns that of the UK and with abundant land, water and natural resources, what risks could they possibly face?

I reminded him that if our developed and stable city of London could fall into full riot mode this time last year, why not theirs? Furthermore, Rio is a megacity, on the sea, facing incomers from the poor northeast of Brazil and the Cerrado (desertifying and deforested plains of central Brazil), and increased extreme weather events. In other words, massively vulnerable to population growth, sea level rise and extreme rainfall-induced landslides. How will they cope with one of these risks, let alone all three together?

I’d read a bit about the national government’s efforts to address the major social problems associated with urban crime in favelas and so I took up the opportunity to visit a favela with a local NGO to see the situation for myself. “Pacification” is a polite, if rather unsettling, term for the controversial policy which I saw a lot of. Only 19 of Rio's most dangerous favelas have so far been subject to the enforced clean-up. However, one positive outcome is that these "communities", as they are now known, are safer – not just for inhabitants, but also for visitors.

The schemes include setting up permanent Peacemaker Police Unit bases in the shanty towns. In the one I visited, the police presence was striking – clusters of very visible, heavily armed police every few metres. What was interesting is that acknowledging the close links between drug cartels and corrupt police, the programme includes some serious security sector reform: police training is much more rigorous (involving three compulsory years in the police academy before rookies are even allowed a gun) and pay has been increased to reduce the dependence on bribes and to raise the reputation of the police in society.

There’s also substantial (and presumably hugely costly) investment in the favelas themselves: infrastructure like roads, escalators(!) and cable cars have been added to make access into the steep and precarious bits of the towns easier; schools, hospitals and sports facilities have also been built; and there are even things like subsidies on paint, so that people are encouraged to paint their homes in bright colours to make the living environment less dark and dank! In fact, from a distance, the favelas look strangely picturesque nestled in the hillside.

There are even government initiatives to build industrial complexes in the northeast of the country where many favela incomers originate, thus providing livelihood opportunities at home, easing the push to migrate to the favelas and even creating an incentive for members of favela communities to leave if they wished.

Now these initiatives are certainly far from perfect (I won’t go into all of the pitfalls and shortcomings here, but one obvious one is where will the barons move to if they’re smoked out of the favelas?). But what I was struck by was that what the authorities are doing here is attempting to address the root causes of vulnerability and build community resilience within the favelas more broadly, rather than addressing a specific hazard, be it crime or landslides. This requires strong governance, political will and a lot of investment.

Whether it’s for the world when it arrives for the Olympics, or for the cariocas themselves, Rio is attempting to tackle the challenge. Will it work? Will it catch on? What role for development aid here (or does it just get in the way?). I don’t know. But I do know that urban resilience is going to be a massive challenge for megacities around the world as they face the dual challenges of climate change and fragility. Not all states will have the resources, incentive or strong government to do this. But I was left wondering if Brazil could start to show what can be done.