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May 6, 2010 10:02 am

Favela urbanisation: Aim is to bring slums into the mainstream

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These are difficult times for Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, the drug kingpin who controls the Rocinha favela, Brazil’s largest.

With police closing in on his cocaine operations in February, the 34-year-old, who goes by the nickname Nem, almost succeeded in faking his own death until a local doctor confessed that the certificate he had signed was a replica.

A police commando raid the following month killed seven of Nem’s lieutenants but failed to capture the head of the 300-strong private army that rules this southern Rio de Janeiro slum of 85,000 people.

Slum is perhaps the wrong word. There are thriving businesses along the pot-holed streets where the big Brazilian banks, such as Itaú Unibanco, operate mini-branches.

A new sports complex has just gone up, and buildings such as the 40-apartment block built by a former bus driver and the RPM Fitness Gym offer some of the most spectacular views over the city. But, overwhelmingly, the favelas of Rio and other Brazilian cities are the refuge of the poor.

One million of Rio’s 6m people are estimated to live in the unplanned, unlicensed makeshift communities that sprawl across its hillsides.

Successive governments, with the assistance of international institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), have made significant progress at introducing basic services to these communities, which abut some of Brazil’s most expensive real estate.

As early as 1995, the IDB supported the Rio authorities in the so-called Favela-Bairro initiative that involved expenditure of $600m on public works in 120 slum neighbourhoods.

Clean water is now provided. Electricity is supposed to be paid for, although many residents prefer the “gato” (cat) system of running power lines that “borrow” from the public grid. Bottled gas is available but is more expensive than elsewhere because of a levy imposed by the drug gangs.

The first favelas were built by army veterans in the late 19th century but their growth surged in the 1940s and again in the 1970s when a building boom attracted thousands of workers from the impoverished north-east.

Their spread was fostered by laws that allow squatters who build a solid home on public or unclaimed private land to establish a property right after five years.

With the favelas now such an established part of city life, economy and indeed culture – they provide the world-famous samba displays at the annual carnival – even the present reformist government does not plan to remove them altogether.

The objective is to “urbanise” them, reduce their populations to a more manageable size, relocate people from precarious zones threatened by mudslides and bring their citizens into mainstream life by building more schools and clinics and regularising an informal economy that includes the favelas’ own unofficial real estate market.

“The slums are there because that’s where the job opportunities are,” says Ricardo Correa, director of the Bento Rubião Foundation that defends the rights of favela dwellers. The foundation is involved, in co-operation with the federal ministry of cities, in helping Rocinha residents regularise their ownership status.

Because the public transport system is mediocre and expensive, low-paid workers need to be near their jobs in more affluent neighbourhoods, Mr Correa explains. The small favela of Vila Canoas, a warren of steeply stepped streets, some barely a metre wide, was first established by workers from the neighbouring luxury golf course.

The cheek-by-jowl nature of Brazil’s class divide means that in Rio some of the most expensive real estate, with Scandinavian-level living standards and the highest property taxes, is across the street from neighbourhoods superficially reminiscent of the Gaza Strip. The garbage-piled entrance to gang-ruled Rocinha is a hairpin bend away from the gates of the city’s prestigious American School.

The government’s urbanisation programme, as part of its overall strategy for accelerated growth, envisages R$21bn (US$12bn) of investments in 800 favelas, many of them, including Rocinha, in Rio.

Part of the strategy, once slum areas have been integrated into the cities, is to ensure that they do not lapse back into old habits of self-rule. Activists such as Mr Correa say co-ordinated planning is needed to ensure schools, transport and other infrastructure are built into urbanisation plans.

The state also needs to reclaim its monopoly over force in some of the tougher areas. In recent months, the city’s Police Pacification Units have been engaged in “liberating” favelas from the drug gangs that have controlled them since the 1980s.

The gangs, which maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards petty crime on their own turf, process cocaine from Bolivia and Colombia and sell it on the local market.

The police units have secured seven districts in Rio, including Cidade de Deus (City of God), made famous in the 2002 film of the same name.

For the moment, Rocinha is still in the hands of Nem’s network which has agreed a truce in its war with other city gangs, as they confront the common threat of police action.

As leader of the Amigos Dos Amigos (Friends of the Friends) faction of the local drug world, Nem is still believed to be holed up in the favela, no doubt sipping a 12-year-old malt, his reputed tipple. But, in spite of the abortive effort to catch him in March, a police spokesman insists his days are numbered.

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