Rio de Janeiro’s Sustainable Favela Network and Its Take on the SDGs

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By Theresa Williamson

Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities, over 1000 of them, provide shelter to some 24% of the city’s population. Rather than perceive of these neighborhoods as a nuisance or temporary solution, neither of which is based in objective fact, a growing movement of organizations and initiatives in the city recognize favelas for what they actually are: a natural and organic response to the lack of affordable housing, in a city marked by the steadfast maintenance of unequal social structures dating back to slavery. Rio de Janeiro was the largest slave port in history in sheer numbers of enslaved Africans brought here, and the neighborhood that first called itself “favela” was settled in the same port a decade after abolition, in 1897.

Today’s favelas are built of concrete, reinforced steel, with indoor plumbing, water, and electricity in over 90% of homes. Those structures are barely finished, nor are public services sufficient and well-maintained, and land titles rarely given. Yet they by far supersede the conditions we typically think of when we translate them as “slums.” Instead, they are kept in a sort of developmental limbo by a system that seeks to maintain a permanent underclass.

Complexo do Alemao. Photo by Antoine Horenbeek

Nonetheless residents have persisted for over a century developing their communities the best they can despite the circumstances. For many years their goal was “integration” with the formal city and so they pressured the authorities to this end. Until Rio’s pre-Olympic boom (2009-2015), that is, when massive investments were made purportedly to this effect, only to initiate gentrification processes, misinvestment and further exclusion.

In recent years, rather than seeking to be “integrated” into the formal city and its unsustainable aspects (such as formal neighborhoods sewage system being sent straight into waterways; the high level social isolation of these neighborhoods relative to favelas; and the denial of the value of spontaneous urban processes), favelas are increasingly seeking to leapfrog to become empowering, sustainable, and even more resilient versions of themselves. There is a growing movement of organizations working to develop while preserving and strengthening their heritage.

Otávio Barros presents his community’s biodigester-based sewage system

The Sustainable Favela Network is one network that brings together such initiatives, with hundreds of members developing local solutions along seven key themes that have emerged as priorities among favela community organizers: Environmental Education, Gardens and Reforestation, Income Generation, Memory and Culture, Solar Energy, Solid Waste Management, and Water and Sewerage. Each theme has a working group planning a demonstration project that will serve communities across the network in areas including solar power, public spaces, museology, ecological sewerage, land rights and more. Network members regularly meet up in one another’s communities for trainings and exchanges. In 2020 the network is planning an International Sustainable Favela Forum in partnership with Local Futures.

Sustainable Favela Network members at annual meet-up. Photo by Luiza de Andrade

Prior to launching the Sustainable Favela Network, the NGO that facilitates the network, Catalytic Communities (CatComm), had spent seventeen years supporting favela organizers. In the organization’s first decade, dedicated to networking community members and sharing their solutions, CatComm had grown to appreciate the incredible diversity of community solutions in the city’s favelas. It was in 2009, however, with the announcement that Rio de Janeiro would host the 2016 Olympics, that CatComm was instilled with the awareness that no matter how consolidated and well-developed a favela may have made itself, the popular conception of these communities and the injustices they chronically suffer, including the state’s perennial option to pull the plug on a community or its investment, would never allow them to realize their potential as sustainable communities. It was then that CatComm launched RioOnWatch, a unique bilingual hyperlocal-to-global news platform taking perspectives from favelas to the world. The organization then spent six years on unraveling the negative narrative around favelas before returning to its roots developing community-based solutions with the launch of the Sustainable Favela Network.

CatComm recently analyzed how all of this work dialogs with the SDGs. The result is an interactive website www.catcomm.org/sdg where the SDGs are portrayed as a tree, with the ultimate goal (the canopy) representing SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. However, to reach this goal all other SDGs come into play. Most notably, SDG 16, representing social justice (as the trunk). Without social justice we will never achieve sustainable cities and communities. All other SDGs are framed within CatComm’s work as leaves on the tree: end poverty and hunger, access to health, and so on, are necessary components of sustainable cities and communities.

With this introduction to some of the innovative work happening in Rio de Janeiro around grassroots sustainable urban development, we encourage readers to visit Catalytic Communities in Rio or online, and share your strategies with ours so we can, together, create a more vibrant and sustainable urban future.

About the Author: Theresa Williamson is a Rio de Janeiro-based urban planner and director of Catalytic Communities, publisher of RioOnWatch, coordinator of the Sustainable Favela Network and of the Favela Community Land Trusts project. @greencities @catcomm