Living on the edge: A review of Janice Perlman’s ‘Favela’

Posted on April 11, 2011

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favela janice perlman

Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro is the culmination of a groundbreaking longitudinal study charting the life trajectories of residents in some of Rio’s most socially excluded neighbourhoods.

As may be unavoidable given the subject matter and research methodology the book treads a fine line between academic and popular social science, and does not always do so seamlessly. At points the research process is allowed to structure the presentation of ideas, leading to excessive repetition of certain themes and some sections that readers without an academic interest may struggle with (this and the large number of typos give the sense that a publisher’s deadline may have rushed things somewhat.) Elsewhere the book comes alive through individual stories and the author’s meticulous efforts to develop these diverse and often contradictory strands into an account of how favela life has changed over forty years.

Ultimately it is Perlman’s unparalleled expertise and passion for the topic and her fascinating research findings that make Favela very difficult to put down and impossible to ignore. Its conclusions will have massive implications for existing approaches to urban development by national and municipal governments in the Global South and for Western development actors.

In 1968 Janice Perlman, an American doctoral research student from MIT, went to Rio de Janeiro to study the experiences of rural migrants who were then settling in large numbers on the city’s peripheries and precarious inner hillsides. It was the height of an enormous demographic transition across Latin America. In 1950 around 40% of the region’s population was living in urban areas, by 1980 it was well over 70%. This transition to an urban society took place over just three decades (compared to six in North America) and overwhelmed national and municipal governments across the region. Their responses oscillated between total neglect and occasional attempts to forcibly relocate poor but vibrant favela communities in distant concrete housing projects, far from family, friends and employment opportunities.

Perlman’s original study documented the daily challenges faced by the populations of three communities: Catacumba, a densely populated hillside favela of 10,000 inhabitants, rising up from the affluent Zona Sul (Southern Zone); Nova Brasilia, a larger and more sparsely populated favela of some 12,000 in the industrial Zone Norte (Northern Zone); and Duque de Caxias, a large conglomeration of favelas and loteamentos (legally occupied, but often illegally subdivided lots with self-built housing) in the Baixada Fluminense – reclaimed swampland at the northern edge of the city. At the time most shacks were made of wood and clay and they were often shared with goats, chickens and pigs, which allowed families to persist with subsistence agriculture to supplement their usually meagre and often unreliable incomes. Women walked every day, sometimes considerable distances, to fetch water from slowly dripping communal spigots. In the study areas 73% had electricity (mainly tapped illegally from power lines and liable to cut out at any time,) while 36% had refrigerators and 27% had televisions. 72% were illiterate.

Despite their material poverty Perlman’s experiences in the favelas did not fit with the popular view at the time that favela communities were marginal to the city and society. In her subsequent book The Myth of Marginality (1976) she challenged these ‘deficit’ and ‘pathology’ models, which saw new urban migrants as a ‘surplus humanity’ that was maladapted to city life and impossible to integrate. She argued that this view failed to see that favelas were tightly, but asymmetrically integrated into the urban economy, and were at the same time excluded socially. It also overlooked the normative behaviours regulating life within the favelas and their relationship with the ‘asfalto’ (the formal ‘asphalt’ city), instead viewing them as infernal breeding grounds of vice and criminality. (This is ironic considering that at the time crime and violence were rare in the favelas, but have subsequently become endemic, with the rise of favela-based drug gangs and their periodic confrontations with one another and with Rio’s military police.)

Perhaps most harmful of all the marginality model did not recognise the many assets of the favela communities. Favelados exhibited an unparalleled work ethic – often travelling miles across the city to work long hours in low paid jobs – and the industry and ingenuity to find solutions to the daily challenges of favela life. They also had a remarkable capacity for self-organisation and mobilisation to achieve collective aims, either through formal political lobbying or independent infrastructure projects. Perhaps most importantly they have shown a dogged determination to be respected and finally accepted as ‘gente’ (real people, or citizens) by wider society in the face of continuing marginalisation. This underlying theme returns throughout Favela and forms the book’s core message.

Some thirty years after her original study Perlman returned to find a very different picture. Catacumba, a dynamic community with a proud history of community mobilisation has disappeared altogether. In 1970, a year after the study ended, police removal units razed the favela and evicted families, sending them to a range of distant housing conjuntos (projects). Nova Brasilia, meanwhile, has mushroomed and merged with neighbouring favelas to form an enormous complexo (conglomeration) and has lost most of its old car manufacturing industry. Finally, Duque de Caxias has been built up into a densely populated and formalised area, although with ongoing legal issues around land titling for many residents. Despite their different histories and characteristics a number of common threads run through the stories of the different areas and of their residents (the conjunto of Quitungo, as the main destination for evicted Catacumba families, serves as a replacement study area.)

Notably, all of the areas have had their physical infrastructure upgraded, either by community organisations or government, so that now close to 100% of residents have brick homes, indoor plumbing and electricity (in the case of Quitungo residents live in purpose-built housing blocks.) Private consumption has also taken hold in the favelas and conjuntos, where not only televisions and refrigerators, but also mobile phones are now ubiquitous. Health and education indicators have also improved dramatically. While the literacy rate of the original respondents was just 28%, it is 94% for their children and negligible for their grandchildren. The average number of years a child stays in education has increased from under 2.5 to almost 9, and whereas none of the original participants attended high school, almost half of their grandchildren have.

If these signs of progress paint a rosy picture, however, new challenges have emerged which are in many ways more insidious and intractable. The most obvious, to participants and outsiders alike, is the problem of drug-related violence that dominates life in all three study areas. During the 1970s and 80s the favelas, as unregulated spaces lying in close proximity to the market and ports of the Zona Sul, became obvious points of organisation and storage for the emergent drug trade. Although petty crime in the favelas is rare (far more so than in the asfalto), territorial conflicts between rival gangs and between gangs and military police regularly erupt, casting a permanent shadow over favela life.

Rio has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with favela residents (particularly young men) disproportionately affected and a large proportion of these deaths directly or indirectly related to the drugs trade. However, it is not only their bullets that threaten favela residents. ‘A marginalidade’ (‘the marginality’, a slang term for the drug traffic,) exact a high price through their pervasive influence over all aspects of community life. They have forced out and taken the place of the favelas’ once powerful residents’ committees. In return they might provide ad hoc services to the community or handouts for individuals in need, but in no way represent the ‘parallel power’ of an alternative government that some have claimed. This dominance filters down into everyday life, fomenting fear and eroding social capital. In Nova Brasilia and Duque de Caxias Perlman found formerly vibrant streets and squares and newly built playgrounds empty in the middle of the day, having been abandoned to drugs gangs.

The apparent advancements in education and consumer activity also do not tell the whole story. While core indicators like literacy and ownership of basic consumer goods demonstrate progress in absolute terms, these are both areas in which relative positions are often more important. Rio’s economy has transformed over the study period, with manual jobs declining and the growing service sector offering fewer opportunities for male employment. Most government jobs require completion of high school and formal registration with a carteira de trabalho (workers’ identity card), which most young favelados still do not achieve. Favela residents may have advanced, but the residents of the asfalto and the demands of the economy have accelerated more rapidly. Similarly, Favelados may have more access to consumer goods, but there are also now far more that they cannot and perhaps feel they will never be able to afford. The mixture of limited employment opportunities, high consumer aspirations and the presence of the drugs trade is a perfect storm for the young men of Rio’s favelas, who are able to earn more in a day with the drugs gangs than they would in a month in a government job, which they would not in any case be able to attain.

Perhaps the most ambiguous issue explored in Favela is social mobility. As might be expected, only two of the original participants ‘climbed’ from the favela to the high society of the Zona Sul. However, many more made the not insignificant leap from favelas to loteamentos or bairros (formal neighbourhoods), which offered multiplying benefits in terms of living conditions and opportunities for education, employment and social capital development. However, a larger number remained in their original favela, including, strangely, many of the most active and charismatic community organisers. Despite seeking explanations in terms of individual, local or wider macroeconomic factors to explain variations in the fortunes of different individuals, Perlman concludes that luck, good health and certain character traits (though not necessarily positive ones) such as ambition, optimism and hard work, were salient. This raises the obvious question of whether social mobility can ever be a substitute for narrowing inequality as a whole, or whether an extremely unequal society can be socially mobile in any meaningful way.

The central conclusions of Favela, and others not summarised here, raise a wide number of issues for urban regeneration and wider social policy debates in Brazil and elsewhere. (Rio itself is currently the object of an ambitious citywide programme to urbanise and integrate all favelas by 2020. The ‘Morar Carioca’ programme will constitute the principal social legacy of the 2016 Olympics.) There are three which I would argue are key:

1) Bricks and mortar vs social investment: Large amounts of money have been spent on upgrading the physical infrastructure of Rio’s favelas. Many newer favelas and those in ecologically precarious sites (steep hills, river banks, areas prone to flooding etc.) are in clear need of greater infrastructure investment and will benefit from more programmes of this kind. However, this is arguably no longer the case in Rio’s more consolidated favelas, where further investment investment in infrastructure seems to offer diminishing returns on social outcomes. At this point ‘soft’ economic development programmes that prioritise community development, education, training and employment schemes and support to small and medium-sized businesses are likely to be more effective. Furthermore these approaches often do often have knock on effects for the built environment through bolstering activity by the private sector and civil society organisations.

2) Child vs youth focussed interventions: The changing nature of the challenges in Rio’s favelas reflects a wider issue in international development debates. Interventions and impact measures tend to focus on children and households, and to ignore the youth cohort. Despite having specific characteristics and needs the 15-24 year-olds tend to be grouped either as children or as adults and therefore to be lost in the data, with devastating results. As the recent UNICEF report Adolescence: An age of opportunity notes, in the last ten years in Brazil 26,000 infants have been saved, but over the same period 81,000 15-19 year olds have been murdered, meaning that improvements in responding to challenges in the first stage of life are being offset by failures in the second. Young people have more diverse needs, face more amorphous challenges and are seen as less worthy recipients of aid than children. However the issues facing the youth cohort, both due to its peaking size globally and its potential both as a positive and negative force, must be addressed.

As with the shift from physical to social interventions mentioned above, there may come a time when middle-income countries need to shift attention from tackling infant mortality and offering universal basic education, to focussing on provision of secondary education, supporting young people into employment and challenging cultures of violence. Brazil has not yet made this transition, but with youth unemployment a problem in most regions (including Europe and North America) this is hardly unique. My forthcoming report on youth livelihoods for Y Care International will explore these issues.

3) Social status and inequality: What seems to underlie the shift from absolute material deprivation to a relative, and therefore more challenging form of marginalisation is the relationship between social status and inequality. Perlman’s interviewees claim not to want great personal wealth or even greater equality with the asfalto, but simply to be accorded the status of ‘gente’. The problem is that it is growing inequality (despite falling levels of absolute poverty,) that seems to make this ever less likely. Directly, through unequal access to housing, education and cultural signifiers like clothes and consumer accessories, inequality undermines the ability of favelados to participate in the world of the gente. Indirectly, these inequalities help to fuel the maladaptive responses of the drugs gangs, which cement the status gap by creating stark lines of geographical differentiation that become increasingly difficult to cross (even once roads, sewers and electricity pylons are installed.)

There are assumptions of a trade-off between growth and inequality. This may often be true (though I would argue not always), but when inequality reaches Brazil’s extremes it becomes a drag on growth in numerous ways. There may be a lesson here for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia that are undergoing the kind of urban transition that Latin America experienced in the 1960s and 70s, and which have mostly not reached Latin American levels of inequality. Hardwiring redistributive measures into growth strategies make them more sustainable and may help to avoid repaying for current neglect further down the line. The problem is that political and economic elites rarely have the long-sightedness or incentives to pursue a path of distributive growth and are actively discouraged from doing so by multilateral organisations and foreign investors. Half a century on Brazil has finally begun to confront its historic inequalities, but given its starting point it has a very long way to go. The embattled residents of Quitungo, Nova Brasilia and Duque de Caxias are not likely to become gente any time soon.

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