38,000 families in Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro have access to just two primary schools. As far as physical health and recreation, there is one outdoor soccer court that borders the polluted river.
Addressing the undeniable irony of the latter observation, residents and community organizers are pushing the 2016 Olympic Games planning officials to genuinely consider the rights and needs of slum residents – a population that was grossly disregarded, and in some cases violently removed, to make way for last year’s World Cup infrastructure.
These were some of the first insights shared with members of the Social Policy team on Tuesday, March 3rd, when we had the opportunity to meet with NGO Rio de Paz (Rio of Peace) and a collaborating resident’s association in the favela, the population of which is only surpassed by comparatively developed Rocinha.
People routinely sped by on motorbikes in the unmarked roads – no one can afford a car, our guides said. Entering a tight space in between buildings in single file as we began our walk, I immediately felt the restriction of air flow into my lungs.
Manifestations abounded of the way living conditions are limited to residents’ self-provision: this included everything from open-air plumbing and sewage that children played around; to exposed electrical wires that we could have reached up and touched. Concrete slabs precariously positioned one after the other formed much of the ground in between houses. Makeshift generators buzzed over our heads.
One of my colleagues asked why basic needs were not being fulfilled by policies such as Bolsa Familia, which claims relevant progress across the country.
‘I think it’s interesting,’ said our guide, Marcos, ‘how you all have this idea that the government actually does everything it says it does.’ No one here, he continued, benefits from any urban or social development program from the government. This view was universal among the different individuals who we talked to.
Contrary to stereotypical presuppositions, there was little perceivable danger as we walked through the quebrada. To the contrary, there was an evident affirmation of messages of community solidarity (popularized by funk and pop culture). Many residents sat together in front of their houses, in living rooms watching TV, or in front of cafes. Others worked on household chores or walked in between errands. The ‘shopping mall’ that we passed through was largely owned by outsiders, our guides said. Store employees, predictably, were actual residents.
Whoever says that the favela is violent is wrong, according to the residents’ association representative, José. ‘If you come in and stir up trouble,’ he said, ‘then, yeah, you will get trouble.’ Otherwise, he affirmed, the myth of the unruly poor pervades perspectives – be those of taxi drivers not willing to enter the favela, or of decision-makers crafting Brazilian security policy.
(Indeed, as many representing favelas argue, the Pacifying Police Units’ invasion and occupation of space in the favelas has worsened the lack of security. But I’ll leave that to our Security policy group to interpret.)
When I asked a colleague of José to elaborate on his perspective of Bolsa Familia, he critiqued the program as not doing enough to instill long-term self-sufficiency in residents. For example, he argued, mothers who are given the monthly cash transfer could and should be given certification in skills that they can easily build upon in an entrepreneurial sense, such as cooking.
Quality of health is also major concern for the residents, José explained. In collaboration with Rio de Paz, he and other nurses-in-training work to treat patients with zero access to needs like physiotherapy for elderly individuals. The issue here, though, is that nurses are not trained to diagnose.
Similar to organizations like the Favela Observatory, which we visited in Maré, these civil society actors work to provide services and expand dignity and quality of life among favelados. The primary strategy of their actual activism, though, is to alter the dominant discourse of at best, excluding and at worst, misrepresenting favela life.
Through alerting the media of the deficit of basic services and opportunity for economic mobility, the organization hopes to put pressure on the government to create real change.
Until then, says Rio de Paz’s leadership, no one in the favela is thinking about achieving educational, health nor socioeconomic equities – concerns reflected in many of the research questions posed by our group.
Instead, what one is going to eat is the day-to-day priority of a typical favelado in Jacarezinho.