Photo by Dany13.
A contemporary parable among Brazilian urban planners when discussing the self-built settlements known as favelas is the account of the radical English architect John Turner’s visit to Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. After touring both favelas, considered slums blighting the urban landscape, and sprawling public housing complexes built on the city’s peripheries by the military junta government and encouraged by the US foreign aid agency, he purportedly proclaimed: “you’ve shown me problems that are solutions and solutions that are problems.” At the crux of his critique is the state’s obsession with stamping out the informality of the working poor through eviction, demolition and out-of-sight substandard public housing.
For their part, residents fiercely contested eviction and fought to stay put. While many communities successfully resisted, hundreds of thousands of favela residents were forced from their homes during the twentieth century. However, without viable public housing policies for the working poor — many urban elites insisted that the poor belonged in the rural countryside — families continued to build their own homes and communities on unused land. By the beginning of the current century there were roughly 1,000 favelas in the city. And while Rio de Janeiro may be an extreme example, its urban history is similar to many of Latin America’s metropolises.
A New Approach to Urban Planning
Until relatively recently, the status quo in the cities of the Global South vacillated between neglect and persecution of the poor. In the past decade, however, we have seen a paradigm shift in urban policy, and cities in Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere are pioneering new approaches to urban planning and governance that recognize self-built settlements as legitimate, consolidated neighborhoods requiring intensive and sustained state intervention.
Whereas previous “best practices” models often spoke of slum upgrading, the new approach is often referred to as slum integration. These aggressively liberal campaigns have presented new challenges to resident activists and those advocating for the right to the city. Whereas in the past, liberals and leftists were united in denouncing the anti-poor policies of neglect, now they are confronted with far more complex strategies of state colonialization of favela space, quick-to-shoot militarized police, intensified bio-political projects and free-market land policies.
The current paradigm of slum integration thus brews something of a paradox for those organizing, researching or advocating from the left, because while it responds to certain basic needs and resident rights, it is difficult if not impossible for governments to provide more public services without extending repressive forms of state power along with them. Cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Medellín, in Colombia, have been held up for pioneering “slum integration” in highly inequitable, violently segregated cities. But critical research — including my own, based in Rio — has documented how even benign public interventions can reproduce hegemonic socio-spatial power dynamics. This is most evident in Rio de Janeiro when examining the novel policing strategy the government rolled out in order to establish a territorial “monopoly of violence.” The program once heralded as groundbreaking by the news media, a global model by organizations such as the UN and World Bank, and a necessary advance by progressive urban security “experts” and academics is now on the brink of total failure.
Based on trials in Rio de Janeiro, determining whether to offer tacit or explicit support for state programs into under-served housing settlements, observers should consider whether the interventions support or repress residents’ freedom of assembly and strengthen or undercut communities’ popular sovereignty. In Rio de Janeiro, there were early signs that the policing strategy sought to curtail and regulate the freedom of assembly rather than protect residents’ constitutional rights. Before shoring up any liberal consensus for state action, critical voices should insist on demilitarization of police power and an end to the war on drugs. In many cases, collectives of residents are already indicating the path forward — subverting hegemonic politics and exploring radical autonomy. Those of us interested in building better cities and working towards the right to the city should explore ways of scaling up successful initiatives.
The “Problem” of Urban Informality
Latin American cities, like most of the Global South, are home to sprawling housing settlements referred to as “slums,” informal settlements or self-built neighborhoods. Long a subject of bane for local elites, slum housing or squatter settlements became a global issue relatively recently, when the UN, the World Bank and other international organizations gave urbanists and development experts a platform to declare a worldwide housing emergency. In 2003, UN-Habitat released The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements, in which they constructed a universal category of housing as a growing threat to security, health and wellbeing.
In both vernacular, political and much of academic discourse, such settlements are also commonly constructed as spaces from which the state is absent. Abandoned or forsaken by the state, favelas, barrios populares and villas miserables are considered lawless or operating under parallel systems of criminal governance. Whereas historically these areas were constructed as problems due to their backwardness and squalor, we see a shift in recent history so that the problem is now their informality: the lack of planning, infrastructure, governance and guaranteed public services — that is to say, the lack of a state-imposed and state-maintained order.
Many cities with sprawling self-built settlements experience a concomitant crisis of public security. Gang crime and drug trafficking as well as petty theft and violent assaults are widely associated with favelas in the media. Despite the fact that poorer urban residents experience violence at disproportionate rates, fear of crime among middle- and upper-income residents plays a significant role in how cities are made to look and feel. In Brazil, the situation has become so severe that sociologists speak of “violent sociability” as a principal social order and urban scholars have documented how fear comes to dominate urban planning and architecture. These urban processes work to further “otherize” favelas as wholly separate from the “formal” city, thereby intensifying socio-spatial segregation and inequality.
When the status quo becomes politically untenable — that is to say, middle-class voters and wealthy power brokers form a consensus that something must be done — we see two broad responses by the state, one old and the other progressively innovative. The first is a turn to classic slum extermination campaigns through inhumane eviction-demolitions and half-hearted resettlement programs offering generally low-quality mass housing blocks far from city centers. The second approach, celebrated in Latin America, most notably in Brazil and Colombia, takes aim at informality itself, conceived here as the lack of state regulation and monopoly of violence. Going beyond the former best practice model of “slum upgrading,” focusing on improvements to the physical infrastructure (roads, sanitation, geo-risk analysis, public leisure space), a paradigm of “favela integration” rolls out the state through urban planning, governance, public security, private-sector investment, local entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and collective community action.
In Medellín, the strategy is named “social urbanism” and has much in common with Rio de Janeiro’s favela integration: investments in large-scale transport infrastructure like cable-cars and escalators, the placement of public offices such as health, education and welfare services within the communities, spectacular public works such as libraries and parks aiming to improve public perception and attract local and foreign tourism, and incentives for community participation through cultural projects and democratic local decision making. Underpinning it all are novel public security strategies inspired by “community policing.” In Rio de Janeiro, this program is known as favela pacification and aimed at reclaiming territory from drug-trafficking gangs, installing permanent police stations and posts throughout the favelas and establishing the rule of law while gaining the support of residents. Consolidating a state monopoly of violence was considered a necessary condition for sustained investment in the favelas.
But despite the progress achieved by such liberal governance and infrastructure campaigns, residents in Rio de Janeiro are indignant that the programs purporting to integrate the favelas have failed to deliver on basic promises. Many of the campaigns supporting cultural innovation and incentivizing political participation were toned down or defunded altogether. A major corruption probe revealed that the spectacular infrastructure projects were elaborate fronts for political money laundering, and the running of the libraries and gondolas were promptly privatized and then abandoned in the wake of a state-funding crisis. Moreover, gains in the reduction of violence were short-lived. The Police Pacification Program fractured shortly before the 2016 Summer Olympics and went into a tailspin quickly thereafter.
Favela residents feel the sting of state failure most acutely since many are still struggling for the basic conditions of a dignified life. Any détente that existed between rival gangs, paramilitary police mafias (known as the militia) and the state policing apparatus has fallen apart as gangs again stake territorial claims throughout the city and police officers supposedly trained to respect human rights slip back into a war-on-drugs mentality and practice: racial profiling, illegal search and seizure, threats against community activists, assassination plots, murder and cover-ups. Whereas prior to pacification gangs generally had close ties to the communities in which they operated, the police created an opportunity for new gangs (including from different cities) to expand territorially if they are willing to battle (or bribe) the police. A friend who lives in a once-gentrifying favela in Copacabana darkly joked that he overheard some of the invading gang members complain about their long commute from the far north of the city. In such cases, criminal factions may feel less responsible to residents and are quick to escalate suspicions and mistrust with violence.
A Controversy Among the Left
In recent years, a major debate has emerged among the leftist intelligentsia — academics, architect-urbanists, journalists and influential community leaders — as to what extent the left should support or struggle against the integration of self-built settlements into the “formal city” and normative structures of governance. One the one hand, few would argue against interventions providing roads, sanitation, healthcare and education, which are rights demanded by residents themselves. On the other hand, these improvements are often predicated on the extension of a state monopoly of violence that is achieved through a dramatic intensification of militarized policing. In Rio, for instance, when the Police Pacification Program was rolled out, a political line was drawn in the sand and critical scholars were pressured to take a position: either cautiously accept the program as progress that needs continued reform, or condemn the militarization of favela space by a police system steeped in a history of revanchist, racist violence and shaped by the war-on-drugs mentality for the past three decades.
Those voices that opposed the pacification plan were painted as impractical radicals insensitive to the lived experience of favela residents and out of touch with popular demands to expel gangs and impose the rule of law. There were a few high-profile advocates and activists who managed to carve out a space between enthusiastic support and outright condemnation. They echoed calls for improved public security — tacitly supporting a state monopoly of violence — but criticized the concept of security through police-centered strategies, arguing that the only sustainable solution would include local populations in the oversight of police, health, education and urban planning interventions.
Many public security experts working in Brazil and observing from abroad enthusiastically welcomed the pacification interventions. They parroted the rhetoric of the state “liberating” the favelas from drug gangs and formed a pivotal part of the consensus that “something drastic must be done” in order to integrate the favelas into society. To some extent, their position that external interventions are complicated by gang territorialization is substantiated since projects often require clandestine negotiations through community leaders. There is also anecdotal evidence that substantial bribes were paid to gang bosses to allow flagship public works in the run-up to the sporting mega-events. And there have been discrete cases of violence against laborers working on infrastructure interventions in the favelas.
Despite the complexity of political alliances and security policy that resulted in the favela pacification program in Rio, or the similar policing strategy rolled out in Medellín, the argument that such programs represent progress and therefore must be supported by critical scholars and advocates is fundamentally flawed. For one, the state’s claim to a monopoly of violence in the favelas is contested not only by heavily armed drug-trafficking gangs and politically sanctioned paramilitary mafias, but also by the fact that police officers are historically the principal perpetrators of violence against civilians living in favelas. Decades of research into public security and the war on drugs have labelled the police “violence multipliers,” such that their tactics systematically increase drug crime and violence.
In June of this year, one of the controversies involving the Rio de Janeiro police corporation was a widely-practiced scheme in which officers would kidnap low-level drug-trafficking gang members for ransom paid by gang leaders. In one instance, police responded to the gang’s insistence that they didn’t have the cash to pay by telling them to go out and rob it. To cover up their work, offending police officers boost their drug-arrest statistics by falsely accusing poor drug-users of being narcotics dealers.
Moreover, the claim made by both state and civil-society actors that innovative policing “liberates” the neighborhoods and delivers long-withheld rights of citizenship is contradicted by police practices that suspend or limit those very civil liberties they supposedly guarantee. Here Judith Butler’s recent work in political philosophy on freedom of assembly is particularly illuminating. In short, Butler asserts that freedom of assembly is a fundamental precursor to democratic politics and therefore exists independently from specific rights granted by the state. This assertion is made plain when a state prohibits assemblies that call its sovereign legitimacy into question or when the people cannot assemble without fear of state intervention and police brutality. In the case of “pacification” strategies that claim to deliver and protect the citizenship of favela residents, systematic tactics that monitor, regulate and limit the activities of residents (like stop-and-search, control of public gatherings for festivals or parties, illegal entrance to homes and seizure of personal property) contradict not only the mission of democratic governance but also threaten the legitimacy of the state itself. As Butler writes:
As long as the state controls the very conditions of freedom of assembly, popular sovereignty becomes an instrument of state sovereignty, and the legitimating conditions of the state are lost at the same time that the freedom of assembly has been robbed of both its critical and its democratic functions.
One of the controversies surrounding the police pacification in Rio de Janeiro was the official banning of funk dance parties — a genre of music originating from the favelas blending hip-hop and bass-heavy electronic music — for their supposed historical connection to drug gangs and anti-police sentiment. While a clear violation of residents’ civil rights, this move was codified by municipal law giving local police commanders authority to approve or prohibit cultural and political activities within the borders of “pacified” favelas. Clearly the people’s sovereign ability to assemble is pre-empted by the very strategy the state claims to guarantee rights and citizenship. As Butler notes, this contradiction undermines the legitimacy of the state itself as its territorial right to a monopoly of violence in the favelas is at the cost of democratic principles.
A Way Forward
The main mistake of progressives and formerly leftist scholars who supported “pacification” was in either ignoring the above contradiction or accepting the — hopefully momentary — suspension of freedom of assembly as the cost of “peace.” Regardless, trusting the police to abandon a war-on-drugs mentality without any tangible change of policy or law now seems naïve at best. Critical scholars and progressives working on government politics and policy should insist that the only way forward in the favelas is to end the war on drugs. Rather than supporting severe campaigns to establish a state monopoly of violence, we should incorporate the demilitarization of police and the decriminalization of narcotics as necessary conditions for sustainable success. Additionally — indeed, most obviously — we should follow the lead of organized resistance within the favelas.
We could consider those engaged in subversive struggles in two broad categories. First are those engaging with the state to improve the material conditions of favela neighborhoods through democratic governance. The abovementioned liberal consensus that favelas are constitutive of the legitimate city added credence to campaigns calling for public interventions beyond basic urbanization — paved roads, street lighting, trash collection, postal addresses and public squares — but also locating education and health centers and additional public offices that historically have only been offered in “formal city” neighborhoods. In the later decades of the twentieth century, many community organizations and NGOs emerged leading such a charge and their influence is noticeable in the discourse of current public policy.
Because many of such organizations work with local politicians and rely on public funds to run community programs, they are vulnerable to criticisms of state co-optation and liberal “NGOization” of community organizing. While there are large and small NGOs worthy of such criticism, especially in regards to their enthusiastic support of the militarization of favela space through the pacification programme, wholesale dismissal of such groups is unjustified. A more generous, nuanced analysis recognizes a Gramscian strategy to occupy spaces of power and destabilize center-periphery spatial power dynamics in the city. Many of these groups are led by what we might consider the old guard of activists who came of age under military dictatorship and conceive of liberation through wielding or manipulating state power to serve working populations and the dispossessed.
A second category of subversive struggle has gained much ground in the twenty-first century. A generation of youthful activists are pioneering new relations of power independent of bourgeois institutions. Disenchanted with the state, these strategies are diverse but often employ technologies of infrastructure (both digital and physical) that strengthen community and build local solutions independent of state institutions and partisan politics. As such there are many parallels to anarchist, autonomist and black feminist thought. While these struggles take a decidedly different path, they are not wholly divorced from the organizations of the old guard. Many of the youths stepping up as leaders today are products of established community organizations and projects and find mentorship, resources and alliances with influential NGOs.
Small groups of activists have amplified voices by forming media collectives and news outlets devoted to local stories, covering state program failures and documenting police abuse. Using amateur and semi-professional equipment and employing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsAPP group messaging and online news platforms, these initiatives confront the media blackout on the daily lives of favela residents in conflict zones as well as driving stories about art, culture and ingenuity of local residents. Further along the road of autonomous strategies are initiatives that respond to decades of neglectful public investment: libraries and community spaces maintained by local residents, small-scale urban farms, local alternative currencies and self-contained bio-waste treatment and recycling systems.
In addition to building consensus to end the drug war and demilitarize the police, critical scholars and urban planning experts should work to broaden the reach of these autonomous projects. Despite some success, activists and NGOs have encountered difficulty in scaling up such initiatives, and it would be naïve to suggest that micro-interventions could substitute for large-scale public investment. The Brazilian scholar Marcelo Lopez de Souza has offered a valuable framework for autonomist planning that may provide a roadmap for progressive urbanists and scholars. The inclusion of social movements in the formulation of urban planning and of residents in budgetary decision-making are two examples from Brazil that address the paradox mentioned at the opening of this essay — how public interventions may guarantee urban services and protect residents’ rights without extending repressive police power and reproducing existing relations of urban inequality.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/slum-integration-favela-pacification/