Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

Refuge and Demise

By Kristen Moller, 9 December 2007

The battle of survival has never taken such a face before. Like in any good novel there is conflict, there are battles, there is defeat, and there is hope. But who is the real hero? Which side are the good guys? Are the entering characters villains or are they the ones to be rescued? In this story our battlefield resides in the heart of Brazil. Our tower being fought for lies on the steep slopes of the beautiful Pedra Dois Irmaos, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. And the main characters, well, you pick. The story to unfold tells its own tail of new people in an old land, and an old land with a new people, both fighting for survival in a new age of time.

Setting the Stage

The Kingdom

In the beginning there was a humble town by the sea, called Rio de Janeiro. Over time it grew prosperous, at times by chance, at other times by hard work. But the town grew to be a city and people flocked to its great prosperity like a warm fire on a cold winters night. Then the world began to change.

On distant shores the Great Depression struck with awful force that spread throughout the world. It’s destructive force reached the land around the city, causing the people great hardship. But the city was strong. Her prosperity had lead to firm policies that now acted as a shield of resistance protecting her from the economic destruction of the Great Depression. And so the people came.

The city opened her arms wide and accepted her new people with joy. They had come from the rural lands surrounding, and worked to make her even better than before. They built new buildings and factories and railroads and more. The city shined with a light it had never shown before. But the people kept coming in, even when the new developments stopped. Now the city was packed, and employment dropped.

Up to this point the economy suffered no loss, on the contrary it kept getting stronger, it may have even taken control. Meanwhile the people were struggling to find work and to pay for their ever-increasing housing costs. Alas, they could not keep up and many wound up on the street. Uncountable migrants joined their ranks daily. And so the development of Rocinha began to unfold.

Before we continue I must portray that this is only one battle of the war raging today. In truth there are many castles, and many peoples that fight. Their stories are all different, but at their core they are the same. So we look toward Rocinha first to understand the whole thing.

The Castle

Pedra Dois Irmaos is a steep slope of land with a magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the view was so priceless that the land was going to be developed to hold a series of mansions. A road was put in and development began but just at that time inflation hit hard. The developer ran out of money and had to abandon the site. His dreams crumbled and fortune lost, all that was left was the one road.

Today, between the two wealthy neighborhoods of Gavea and Sao Conrado, the slopes of Pedra Dois Irmaos are far from empty. The favela of Rocinha has made her home here. Without property rights, and without government taxes, the people of Rocinha make up a population of illegality. The favela is less than one and a half square miles in area, and holds more people per mile than New York City. They currently posses the land as result of decades of land invasions that started out small back in the 1930’s and developed into what Rocinha is today. Buildings of brick and poured concrete now reach up to four stories tall. Each building has electricity and running water. Narrow paved paths weave their way through the densely populated landscape. And the shopping district at the bottom of the hill is packed with entrepreneurs, small businesses, shoppers and tourists.

Meeting the Warriors

The Conquerors

The product of a government that could not provide for their needs, the people of Rocinha developed like refugees in a refugee camp. Their rightful holding on the land they have made their own rests in the rationale of actuality: they actively live on the land that previously had no inhabitants, therefore their physical act of possessing the land makes them rightful inhabitants. Plus, try to move them and they display competent means of self-preservation.

From the eyes of the people of Rocinha, their favela is their home. Their invasion of the land started slowly with small structures made of scrap wood and mud, hidden from view of the government beneath the slope’s dense forest covering. Over time the population of the community grew and the people began to feel more protected from the government’s ability to force them off the land. They began to make their homes of more permanent substances. When they ran out of room to expand horizontally, building progressed vertically. New residences were built on top of older ones. People ran wires to tap into nearby electrical grids, while others ran long white pipes to acquire water from neighboring water supplies. They set up their own businesses as vibrant entrepreneurs. Even their own form of law enforcement and protection moved in.

Rocinha’s security is actually what draws in many of her residents. Outside of the favela the state police are corrupt, and citizens go virtually unchecked and unprotected. Inside the favela their reigning smugglers and associations keep a close watch on the community with their own unparalleled system of law enforcement. They protect their residents, supply them with sources of employment, and even provide frequent community entertainment.

Life in Rocinha is a prosperous haven for her residents, but there is another side to her existence that tells quite a different story.

The Combatants

Outside Rocinha, in the greater area of Rio de Janeiro the city continues to suffer. At a week point in its history, this once prosperity making machine of a city became subject to an overwhelming storm of migrants into their community. These new people filled up their housing market at the same time as the inflation wave hit its shores bringing many businesses and citizens to their knees. There was nothing the government could do but to raise housing costs to keep the economy afloat. But even when housing reached capacity and taxes should have been great enough incentive to at least slow the flow of migrants into the city, they kept streaming in. These new infiltrators began staking camp in the temporarily vacant future land investments of law-abiding citizens. They came in swarms, overtaking land by night. The Pedra Dois Irmaos was one of these places.

Not only do the squatters of Rocinha sit on stolen land, but they also suck up the prosperity of the local legal market and cause division among citizen loyalties. These tax evaders entice law-abiding citizens to join them in their evasion of governmental responsibility. Citizens often shop in the illegal markets because they offer cheaper prices than the legal markets can afford to keep up with. On top of this, Rio lost her status as the Brazil’s capitol and thus her competitive edge against other Brazilian cities. The economy is being stripped to the bone, magnified by a people who unrightfully extort Rio’s already dwindling resources.

However, all of this did not just happen without a fight from both sides.

The Battle Rages

The First Wave

The war’s first bombardment of front lines began in the 1950s. Eradication of favelas was seen throughout the country for the next twenty years. Shacks were torn down and residents were displaced. If necessary the government used force in its actions. In other instances the government set up associations within the favelas as an attempt to prevent the establishment of radical communist strongholds. The associations were supposed to act as intermediaries of the government’s will. Yet this plan backfired when the associations bonded together in retaliation to the eradication projects and directed resistance against the state. This combined resistance eventually resulted in the discontinuation of Brazil’s favela eradication programs.

Since then drug gangs have moved into the favelas and initiated their proficient authoritarian control of the turf. To this day violence between the favela rulers and legal police remains untamed, but relations between the business sectors of legal and illegal community life have begun to look dubiously agreeable.

The Fleeting Calm

Within the past twenty years certain legal businesses and companies have opened up shop in the illegal community. Rocinha’s residents have begun to be seen as a large market of potential consumers by many organizations. As a result, residents now enjoy cable TV, legal water and electricity, McDonalds, and a variety of bank accounts. The businesses themselves are the beneficiaries of quite agreeable profit. They are also a source of competition for the home grown entrepreneurial businesses of Rocinha, which are then forced to improve.

This shift of perspective, however, can only be temporary. As Rio’s favelas continue to develop, bringing in more and more legal businesses and growing in population, eventually the legal area of Rio will not be able to keep up. Somewhere along the line the scales will tip, and the storm currently held in balance will release itself again.

The Battle to Come

Despite its current seeming calm the war of favela versus state is far from over. If the global favela population continues to grow at its current rate its increasing prosperity will lead to direct hardship suffered by the state. Rio is continuously losing tax-paying citizens to the virtually tax-free environment of the favelas. The permanent intentions of favela inhabitants are continually reinforced by its growing size. The demand for legal goods is increasingly gashed by the availability of cheep substitutes.

With all this considered, the authoritarian smugglers of Rocinha may also gain increasingly lofted negotiating power with the legal government of Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is now too large to simply dispose of.  Legal residents of Rio have also learned to rely on Rocinha’s inexpensive economy. If Rio de Janeiro is to remain an independent legal city, something must be done to halt the growth of Rocinha. This is something that Brazil is going to have to deal with, or else allow the legal state of Rio to bow to the growing, independent, and united population of Rocinha.


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