Aug 28 2014

Urban agriculture and the transformation of public spaces: The case of Manguinhos, Rio de Janeiro

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Urbanisation often brings devastating environmental consequences which, in the case of favelas, combine with harsh material living conditions to undermine the wellbeing of their residents. In this post, Lea Rekow reports on how a favela-based community garden is circumventing these environmental and material challenges and, in doing so, improving the quality of urban spaces and fostering community participation. 

Manguinhos forms part of the massive favela landscape that makes up the north zone of Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 50,000 people live in this cluster of informal communities located just six kilometres from the city centre. The area has suffered from decades of urbanisation and the dumping of city waste. It is hemmed in by a series of polluted rivers, highways, train lines, and an oil refinery. Live high-voltage transmission lines cut through the middle of it. Numerous environmental risks afflict the residents, many of whom survive on less than a minimum income, with unemployment levels in some neighbourhoods reaching as high as 50%.

But in the last year, a new community garden has begun to redefine a particularly impoverished part of the favela. The project, implemented at a cost of approximately R$500,000 (€165,000), is led by the Municipal Department for the Environment’s Hortas Cariocas programme. This is an ambitious undertaking that began by removing 700 truckloads of garbage from a kilometer-long site under the transmission lines. An additional layer of contaminated soil was then scraped off the surface and the ground covered with gravel. More than 300 raised garden beds were built and filled with fresh topsoil. Water tanks were installed and linked to the Municipal water supply. Residents were vetted by the Manguinhos Residents Association, and interviewed by Hortas Cariocas as potential gardeners. Dozens of people from the community were subsequently hired, and seeds, tools and training in organic horticulture were provided to begin the task of cultivating the garden.

Carlos RobertoandEzequiasGMFgarden

Not even a year later, the garden is thriving and has taken on a life of its own. Though the overall project remains under the supervision of Hortas Cariocas, the space is separated into three distinct sections, each demarcated by a football field, and each developing in its own way.

The largest section is cultivated by the 24 residents employed by Hortas Cariocas. Each beneficiary is expected to work full-time in exchange for receiving a stipend R$360 a month (€120) and taking home as much produce as they and their family can eat. The gardeners cultivate approximately 160 garden beds that produce chicory, kale, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green onions, lettuce, okra, beets, spinach, and a range of herbs. Excess produce is sold locally and donated to more at-risk members of the community. The city intends to cease providing stipends within the next 18 months, at which time it hopes the garden will be self-sustaining.

hortascariocasworkerswithkidsIn a smaller section, the Green My Favela (GMF) project has been allocated 48 garden beds to develop with retired and underemployed volunteers and youth. GMF’s section is also cultivated and managed by eight resident gardeners. The more experienced gardeners train the less experienced, and all help with the daily maintenance of the space. Children frequent the garden and participate in various activities. GMF provides seeds, tools, facilitates improvements to infrastructure, implements aesthetic enhancements, and provides additional volunteer to augment the efforts of the residents. This section of the garden produces a variety of organic edibles that feed approximately 60-100 people.

Part of the middle section has been compromised by a build-up of trash that is intensified by inadequate garbage collection, the collapse of a fence, and the demolition of some of the beds, but plans are now in place to build walls on either side of the city dumpsters that have encroached on the space in order to mitigate the trash and protect the garden from further damage. Another issue with this section of the garden is flooding, which is critical in Manguinhos. The river, heavily polluted with sewerage and other contaminants, overflows into this area during heavy rains. Most beds in this section, however, are also thriving and producing a variety of organic vegetables at high capacity.

Despite these serious challenges, Manguinhos has profoundly changed the face of this community. The project has increased biodiversity, created jobs, increased access to fresh, nutritional food and created desirable public space. The garden is open to the public at all times and is a lively social space visited by many. For an undertaking less than a year old, Manguinhos is testament to the will and hard work of its residents, and to the possibilities for integrating public policy in ways that encourage networked localism, promote community relations, and showcase the benefits of organic urban agriculture. It also provides a progressive platform for multi-tier collaboration, collective ownership, and self-management. Whatever other struggles it continues to face, Manguinhos can now boast it is home to the largest urban food garden in all of South America.

All photos courtesy of  Lea Rekow.

Lea Rekow is founding director of Green My Favela, an urban gardening project based in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Her doctorate from Griffith University focused on transdisciplinary practices for reclaiming degraded land in areas of social exclusion.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Aug 21 2014

The psychosocial impact of volunteer tourism in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

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‘Slum tourism’ is a growing trend in ‘exotic’ and ‘yet-to-develop’ contexts. In this post, Jessica Aquino discusses her research into the psychosocial impact of the interaction between tourists and favela dwellers on favela communities. By comparing the impact of volunteer tourism and slum tourism, she shows that while the former has the potential to foster self-esteem and community pride, the latter tends to reinforce negative representations of the favela.

There has been increasing news coverage about Brazil because of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games, and tourism is predicted to increase in Brazil because of these events. Slum tourism has gained popularity over the years, directing attention toward its impact on the community. However, a study on the effects of volunteer tourism on slum communities has been lacking. To bridge this gap, in 2011 we conducted such a study on volunteer tourism in Rio de Janeiro, tapping into how community residents feel about tourism vis-à-vis their pride and self-esteem.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Aquino

Volunteer tourism is defined as the process of involving visitors as “volunteer[s] in an organized way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment” (Wearing, 2001: 1). In the case of Rio de Janeiro, many favela-based NGOs have organised themselves to help alleviate some of the effects of poverty and, to this end, have chosen to work with volunteer tourists. Volunteer tourists interact directly with the community in a range of roles such as language teachers, sports and physical activity coaches or tutors, with others working on refurbishing the NGOs or building community gardens.

For comparison purposes, we contrasted the effects of volunteer tours against those of slum tours, which are short guided tours through a community. Slum tours are described by some tourism agencies as an ethical or alternative way of visiting slum communities while creating encounters that promote mutual understanding and respect. However, researchers have argued that just like other forms of tourism, it does not automatically create a positive cross-cultural experience, may not be as ethical as claimed, may reinforce stereotypes, and turn community residents into a commodity (Freire-Medeiros, 2009).

Volunteer tourists: friendship, community pride and knowledge exchange

Both the NGOs and community groups agreed that they enjoyed working with volunteer tourists and saw the benefits of volunteer tourism.  While some indications of negative impact were found, here we focus on the constructive perceptions of the community.

Community members expressed that they had made life-long friendships and hoped to get to know more volunteers in the future. One community member explains it best when asked about how she felt about the volunteer tourists in her community:

I think it’s wonderful, because through that everyone has the opportunity to exchange experiences; make new friends. From there a world opens up for you, the doors open for you, because you sometimes make a friendship in a short time but it is for the rest of your life…. (24 year old female from Rocinha)

According to the accounts of favela residents the contact between volunteer tourists and community members also stimulated self-esteem and community pride. For example, many mentioned that they enjoyed hosting volunteers in their community because they have a chance to show them all the good things about their community and about themselves, which is often conflicting with media portrayal of the favela. They acknowledged that those in power are the ones creating the images of their community. By having volunteer tourists in the favela and presenting their community to them, favela dwellers are able to offer their own image to the rest of the world and challenge outside representations.  Volunteers, in turn, may help empower the community by actively trying to get to know its residents and by later spreading the word about their experiences.

The community especially valued the exchange of knowledge and ideas with volunteer tourists. It was reported that volunteers not only come to work and teach, but that it is more of an exchange of ideas in which the knowledge held by the community is also valued and considered on equal footing to that of outsiders. This exchange is seen as reciprocal: the community learns just as much from the volunteers as the volunteers learn from them.As one of the residents noted:

Very important. This exchange of information, and of experiences, this exchange in life habits, is very enriching for us, to the children and I believe that it is to [volunteers] too; it’s an experience that they acquire here too…(60+ year old woman volunteer from Barreira do Vasco)

Brief comparison with favela tours

The perception of volunteer tours as largely beneficial stands in stark contrast to how the community perceived favela tours. For example, because of the aforementioned ‘exchange’, the community felt that there was equality between the volunteers and the community, whereas in their accounts they referred to favela tours mostly as exploitive of the community. Similarly, when observing slum tours, we noticed that on some guided tours community members would try to talk to the tourist but because of the language barrier they could not establish a dialogue. Within volunteer tourism, in contrast, volunteers were able to circumvent the language barrier by spending more time interacting and using other forms of communication such as hand signals, pictures, and others who could translate.

Our findings show that volunteer tourism helps recreate the negative way favelas are often portrayed by fostering a more realistic social representation, thereby improving self-esteem in the community, helping break down preconceptions, and aiding in creating community pride. Favela residents feel as equals with the volunteers and describe their interactions as friendships, sharing of cultural experiences, and exchanging of knowledge.

Conversely, while some residents noted the economic significance of favela tours to the community, the majority of them described favela tours as dehumanizing and felt that their community was being sold as a commodity. “We are not an attraction” stated a 32 year old woman from Barreira do Vasco, echoing expressions from other residents who referred to favela tours as ‘safari tour’ or ‘zoo tour’.

Overall, community members saw more positive benefits with, and preferred volunteer tourism over, favela tours. They felt that the more time a person spent working or interacting in their community the more able they were to understand their realities. Slum tourists, unfortunately, only see what the tour guides want them to see.

References
Freire-Medeiros, B. (2009). The favela and its touristic transits. Geoforum, 40(4), 580-588.
Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: experiences that make a difference. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.

Dr Jessica Aquino is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the School of Community Resources and Development, Arizona State University.  Her research focuses on tourism experiences from the perspective of residents and tourists and the potential contribution that tourism has on community development and conservation of protected areas.

Professor Kathleen Andereck is the director of the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, where she is also a Senior Sustainability Scientist with the Global Institute for Sustainability. Her research focuses on tourism experience from the perspective of both visitors and residents, particularly as it applies to sustainable community tourism development.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Aug 7 2014

O urbanismo entre a favela e o chique

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ijYZ0E2M_biggerAs representações de territórios de favelas têm múltiplas camadas de significação. Neste post, Ann Deslandes discute as promessas e perigos de projetos ‘favela chic’, representações particulares e releituras de favelas na Anglofonia. (English version here)

*Tradução por Tábata Ribeiro Reis.

A favela, como Bianca Freire-Medeiros nos mostra, é um referencial itinerante. A favela parece para Adriana Kertzer como uma cifra de brasilidade e para Janice Perlman como uma informalidade urbana. Por outro lado, ela se aproxima de uma espécie de bairro renovado com os prazeres de uma noite de festa.

Sendo um referencial, na “Anglofonia” da língua inglesa a favela brasileira é facilmente reconhecida como um submundo do crime de grande altitude. Mais recentemente, o referencial começou a desvanecer-se em nosso esforço em reimaginar cidades acessíveis, sustentáveis e socialmente justas.

Em 2009 o futurista e colunista da revista Wired, Bruce Sterling, baseou-se em ambas as ideias da favela – a sua ilegalidade, bem como a sua sustentabilidade – para definir sua versão do termo “favela chic” (favela chique). Uma extensão do futuro de “alta tecnologia e baixo nível de vida” do cyberpunk, a favela chic marca a infraestrutura de um mundo “pós-escassez”. Sterling mobiliza a favela, neste caso, para sinalizar um urbanismo em rede de caráter temporário, com baixo custo e provisoriedade “sempre-em-beta”. Sua consideração inclui aplausos por um projeto bem-sucedido de renovação urbana, na costa leste da Austrália. “Renovar Newcastle”, que se tornou um protótipo para projetos semelhantes em centenas de cidades, utiliza edifícios comerciais desocupados e os “ativa” para um uso criativo de forma temporária e de baixo custo. Sterling destaca, no “Renovar Newcastle”, a reutilização de prédios abandonados, sua utilização das mídias sociais e o fornecimento de internet sem fio gratuita, e suas iniciativas de atividades sem fins lucrativos. Menciona que o projeto é possibilitado mediante um planejamento urbano de duração indefinida e um título paralegal de posse de terra, que também se alinham ao futuro da favela chique.

Crédito: Scott Roberts CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Crédito: Scott Roberts CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Desta forma, Sterling estabelece uma ligação entre o urbanismo da favela e as práticas urbanistas de “faça-você-mesmo” da Anglofonia. De fato, o discurso urbanista de DIY (Do-It-Yourself, termo em inglês para faça-você-mesmo) é caracterizado pelo comprometimento com a informalidade e a inovação da favela. Como eu havia especulado, a favela chic e o urbanismo DIY também podem estar ligados no que eles ainda estão por explicar. Como tantas invocações sobre a favela, Sterling se estabelece fora da especificidade histórica das favelas do Brasil. A questão sobre se os favelados poderiam reconhecer a si mesmos ou ao seu ambiente construído sobre as ruas de uma cidade pós-industrial australiana ainda está faltando. De forma semelhante, o discurso urbanista de DIY corre o risco de calar os tipos “miseráveis” de informalidade urbana, amadorismo e marginalidade. Urbanistas DIY citam o trabalho duro, o voluntarismo e a recusa de especialistas para a celebração do uso produtivo do espaço abandonado: repovoando-o com uma atividade econômica. Isso, como eu observo no meu artigo, é perseguido como um rebate aos fenômenos abjetos de usurpação, pichação e vandalismo, que, caso contrário, poderiam ocultar-se ali.

Sterling convoca um mundo de “pós-escassez”, mas me pergunto se caso estivéssemos quase lá, se precisaríamos desprezar o uso particular dos usuários do espaço, a fim de reivindicar a produtividade para o uso de nossa preferência. A promessa de devolver capital às partes “abandonadas” da cidade é, sem dúvida, informada devido à ansiedade pela escassez sentida: à medida que sabemos que o abrigo e a sociabilidade estão trancados em regulamentos de propriedade, em preços inflacionados e em experiência profissional. Eu também gostaria de saber se a escassez também diminui a nossa ambição, obrigando-nos a concordar com a degradação da “favela”, a fim de alegar um capitalizável ​​“chique”.

Onde Sterling corre o risco de suprimir a especificidade histórica da favela, o discurso urbanista de faça-você-mesmo põe em risco a eliminação de pessoas muito facilmente rotuladas posseiros, grafiteiros e vândalos – pessoas criminalizadas que podem também merecer viver em nossas cidades. Talvez esta também seja uma forma de como podemos vir a ter uma discussão sobre o significado da favela sem participação nenhuma das pessoas que vivem lá.

A Dra. Ann Deslandes é uma pesquisadora e  escritora freelance baseada em Sydney. Atualmente ela investiga a significação mundial da favela nos discursos do urbanismo de “faça-você-mesmo” e placemaking. Mais informações disponíveis em XTerraFirma.


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Aug 7 2014

Urbanism between favela and chic

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ijYZ0E2M_biggerRepresentations of favela territories are multilayered and contested. In this post, Ann Deslandes discusses the promises and perils of ‘favela chic’ projects, particular representations and reinterpretations of favelas in the Anglosphere. (Versão em português aqui)

The favela, as Biance Freire-Madeiros shows us, is a travelling signifier. The favela appears for Adriana Kertzer as a cipher of Brazilianness and for Janice Perlman as urban informality. Elsewhere, it approximates some kind of renovated-neighbourhood combined with all-night-dance-party.

As a signifier, in the English-speaking ‘Anglosphere’ the Brazilian favela is easily recognised as a high-altitude gangland. More recently, the signifier has started to melt into our own struggles to re-imagine cities as affordable, sustainable, and socially just.

In 2009 futurist and Wired magazine columnist Bruce Sterling drew on both ideas of the favela – its lawlessness, as well as its sustainability – to coin his version of the term ‘favela chic’. An extension of cyberpunk‘s ‘high tech and low life’ future, favela chic marks the infrastructure of a “post-scarcity” world. Sterling mobilises the favela, in this instance, to signal a networked urbanism of temporariness, cheapness, and ‘always-in-beta’ provisionality. His account includes applause for a successful urban renewal project on the east coast of Australia. ‘Renew Newcastle’, which has become a prototype for similar projects in hundreds of cities, takes empty  commercial buildings and ‘activates’ them for creative use on a temporary and low-cost basis. Sterling points up Renew Newcastle’s re-use of abandoned buildings, its use of social media and provision of free wireless internet, and its invitations to non-profit activity. That the project is fundamentally enabled by open-ended urban planning and para-legal land title also aligns it with a favela chic future.

Crédito: Scott Roberts CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Scott Roberts CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In such a way, Sterling incises a correspondence between the urbanism of the favela and Anglosphere practices of ‘do-it-yourself urbanism’. Indeed, the discourse of DIY urbanism is characterised by commitments to favela-esque informality and innovation. As I recently speculated, favela chic and DIY urbanism may also be linked in what they are yet to account for. Like so many invocations of the favela, Sterling’s takes place outside the historical specificity of Brazil’s favelas. The question of whether a favelad@ would recognise themselves or their built environment on the streets of a post-industrial Australian town is missing in action. The discourse of DIY urbanism similarly risks silencing the inhabitants of cast-off, or ‘abjected’ types of urban informality, amateurism and marginality. DIY urbanists cite sweat equity, voluntarism and refusal of sanctioned experts to celebrate their productive use of abandoned space: re-populating it with economic activity. This, as I observe in my article, is pursued as a counter to the abjected phenomena of squatting, graffiti and vandalism, which might otherwise lurk therein.

Sterling calls up a “post-scarcity” world, but I wonder if we’re quite there yet if we need to abject particular use(r)s of space in order to claim the productivity of our preferred uses. The promise to return capital to ‘abandoned’ parts of town is surely informed by the anxiety of felt scarcity: the extent to which we know that shelter and sociality is locked up in property regulations, inflated prices, and professional expertise. I have wondered, too, if that scarcity also shrinks our ambition, compelling us to assent to the abjection of the ‘favela’ in order to claim a capitalisable ‘chic’.

Where Sterling risks eliding the historical specificity of the favela, the discourse of do-it-yourself urbanism risks the omission of those too easily labelled squatters, graffitists and vandals – criminalised people who may yet deserve to live in our cities too. Perhaps that is also how we can come to have a discussion about the meaning of the favela entirely without the input of those who live there.

Dr Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher in Sydney. She is currently investigating the global signification of the favela in discourses of ‘do-it-yourself’ urbanism and placemaking. More info available at XTerraFirma.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Aug 4 2014

Sobre o impacto social e sua avaliação em organizações baseadas na favela

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Daniel LacerdaNão basta ter boas intenções para realizar intervenções sociais nos territórios de favelas. Neste post, Daniel S. Lacerda discute a importância de avaliar o impacto social em seu contexto, explicando por que as ONGs instaladas em favelas devem garantir que suas ações e objetivos correspondam às demandas do espaço onde atuam. (English version here)

Com freqüência, organizações sem fins lucrativos são confrontadas com a questão sobre qual é o seu impacto, ou seja, o que eles estão contribuindo para a sociedade por meio de sua existência. No caso das organizações de favelas não é diferente. Em uma época em que o mercado constantemente ultrapassa os seus limites, as organizações muitas vezes são levadas a medir quantitativamente seus resultados, ou avaliar seu sucesso usando os parâmetros que o mercado aprecia (tais como reputação ou eficiência operacional). Para os que não simpatizam com essa abordagem, geralmente a alternativa é o Humanismo, para o qual a emancipação individual está além das possibilidades de medição, controle e prescrição das organizações modernas. Mas essa dicotomia (Mercado vs. Humanismo) não representa as únicas formas possíveis de avaliação de impacto. As organizações devem prestar contas de seus recursos, mas prestar contas a quem? Irei apresentar a seguir algumas considerações espaciais sobre a avaliação de impacto e suas implicações para a análise dos contextos locais.

Avaliação do impacto social contextualizada

Um argumento possível nessa questão é o de que as organizações privadas não precisam prestar contas a ninguém que não sejam os seus proprietários/acionistas. No entanto, toda organização consome recursos e, no caso de organizações que não arrecadam receitas com os serviços, esses recursos vêm de fundos “públicos”. Os subsídios do governo são a forma mais direta, mas isenções fiscais também são concedidas a quem contribui com doações privadas, e até mesmo as verbas corporativas inevitavelmente irão encarecer os preços que pagamos coletivamente nos produtos e serviços. Portanto, considerando que organizações consomem recursos, e esses recursos são muitas vezes provenientes de fundos públicos, eles devem ser responsáveis pelo uso que fazem de tais recursos.

Crédito: Fernando Freitas CC BY-NC 2.0

Crédito: Fernando Freitas CC BY-NC 2.0

Em organizações sem fins lucrativos que estão em favelas esta premissa é talvez ainda mais verdadeira. Isso ocorre porque qualquer organização em uma favela usa um recurso muito raro: espaço físico. Muitas vezes, o espaço é concedido pelo Estado (por exemplo, através de concessão de uso de espaços públicos) e, ocasionalmente é alugado, diminuindo a oferta do mercado interno local para moradores. Em ambos os casos, a organização consome o recurso mais escasso em favelas, que são territórios caracterizados por ocupação densa e falta de espaços públicos gratuitos. Por conta disso, mesmo que uma organização seja completamente financiada com fundos privados, em uma favela sua existência traria um custo coletivo para seus moradores.

Ocupar uma instalação com um serviço público significa também muitas vezes ocupar o papel do Estado naquele espaço (uma lacuna que, é verdade, provavelmente permaneceria aberta caso contrário). Em democracias mais amadurecidas, organizações sem fins lucrativos devem unir forças a instituições governamentais e ao setor privado para produzir mudança social, em vez de simplesmente substituir o Estado em um papel que ele já exerce. No entanto, na realidade das favelas, quem não estiver exercendo uma função do Estado (ou exigindo essa presença) estará provavelmente “perdendo o foco” sobre as reais necessidades do território de favela. No Brasil, os direitos sociais constitucionais incluem educação, saúde e trabalho. Constituem, portanto, obrigações do Estado, mas são na maioria das vezes precariamente disponíveis em territórios de favela.

As implicações do impacto social na realidade das favelas

Esta é, portanto, a importância da avaliação do impacto social para as organizações sem fins lucrativos em favelas: responderem pelo uso de recursos e por seus resultados. As organizações não podem ser alienadas do espaço social onde estão inseridas (nesse caso, favelas) e, com isso em mente, o impacto pode ser avaliado.

Não é difícil encontrar exemplos reais para ilustrar esta idéia. Pense sobre o impacto de uma organização que promove atividades que envolvem a dança de balé ou a música clássica em uma favela onde a maioria dos jovens preferem o passinho e o funk. Ou em uma organização que goza de projeção nacional, mas mantém vínculos precários com a comunidade local. E ainda, em qual o impacto social para a favela de uma organização que tem como objectivo identificar novas celebridades (artistas ou jogadores) para que eles sejam capazes de deixar a favela como profissionais. Estes exemplos provavelmente se referem a boas intenções e resultados legítimos, mas a suas ações podem representar uma força segregadora para o território.

Vamos comparar estes casos com organizações sem fins lucrativos que prestam apoio educacional abrangente para as crianças e jovens da favela. Ou com organizações que não oferecem apenas aulas, mas também promovem a consciência política entre os membros sobre sua realidade local. Considere também as organizações que oferecem ensino técnico para a comunidade em geral. Tais exemplos estão alinhados com as demandas e necessidades das pessoas em tais espaços, ou seja, “respondem a” tais requisitos. Dessa forma que a “responsabilidade social” deveria ser avaliada: estas organizações estão levando em conta o espaço social em que estão inseridas.

A questão do impacto poderia ser (e geralmente é) abordada em termos de um questionamento fundamental da sua essência: “o que é o impacto?” Este desafio pode ser usado para justificar praticamente qualquer ação que é promovida voluntariamente. Mas quando localizamos impacto no contexto espacial da organização avaliada, vemos que a questão do impacto não pode ser alienada da comunidade específica em que a organização atua. No caso das favelas, impacto social está ligado à materialidade das condições precárias que afetam esses territórios.

Daniel S. Lacerda é doutorando no Departamento de Organização, Trabalho e Tecnologia da Universidade de Lancaster, Reino Unido. Sua pesquisa se concentra na produção discursiva e espacial de favelas por parte das organizações. Seu mais recente trabalho analisa o discurso em favelas produzidos pela sociedade brasileira e consumidos no campo político da administração pública local.


Os pontos de vista e as opiniões expressas neste post são de exclusiva responsabilidade do autor e não representam as do Blog Favelas@LSE nem da LSE. 

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Jul 31 2014

On social impact and its appraisal in favela-based organisations

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Daniel LacerdaIt is not enough to have good intentions when deploying social interventions in favela territories. In this post, Daniel S. Lacerda discusses the importance of assessing social impact in context, explaining why favela-based NGOs must ensure their actions and objectives respond to the material space where they operate. (Versão em português aqui)

 

Nonprofit organisations constantly face the question of what their impact is, i.e. what are they adding to the society by means of their existence. In the case of organisations from favelas, this is no different. In times when the market constantly overreaches its boundaries, organisations are often expected to quantitatively measure their results, or to assess their success using the parameters that market values (such as reputation or operational efficiency). For the ones who do not believe in this, the typical alternative is to invoke humanism, according to which individual emancipation is beyond the possibilities of measurement, control and prescription of modern organisations. But this dichotomy (market vs. humanism) does not represent the only possible ways of impact appraisal. Organisations should be accountable for their resources, but accountable to whom? I will present below spatial considerations for impact appraisal and their implications for the analysis of local settings.

Assessing social impact in context

One could argue that private organisations should not be accountable to anyone else other than their owners.  However, each organisation consumes resources, and in the case of organisations that do not collect revenues, these resources come from “public” funds. Government grants are the most direct way, but also tax exemptions (credits) are claimed by whoever contributes with private donations, and even corporate funds inextricably compose the prices we pay later for products and services. Thus, if organisations consume resources and these resources often come from public funds, they should be accountable for the use they make of such resources.

Credit: Fernando Freitas CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: Fernando Freitas CC BY-NC 2.0

In nonprofit organisations based in favelas this is also, and perhaps even more, true. This is because any organisation in a favela uses a very rare resource: physical space.  Many times the space is granted by the State (e.g. using rights for public spaces) and occasionally it is privately rented, pulling off from the internal market a spacious room/building. In either case, the organisation consumes the scarcest resource in favelas, which are territories characterised by dense occupation and lack of free public spaces. On that account, even if an organisation were completely supported with private funds, in a slum its existence would bring a collective cost for its dwellers.

Occupying space with a public service is often a claim for legitimacy as occupier of the role of the State (a gap that would probably remain open otherwise).  In developed democracies, nonprofit organisations are supposed to team-up with governmental institutions and the private sector to produce social change, rather than supplanting a role that the State has. However, in the reality of favelas, they either supplant an existing role of the State or they are probably “missing the point” about the real needs in the favela territory. In Brazil, constitutional social rights include education, healthcare and work. All these comprise State obligations but are often precarious in favela territories.

The implications of social impact in the reality of favelas

This is, thus, the importance of social impact appraisal for nonprofit organisations in favelas: to be accountable for the use of resources and responsible for its outcomes. Organisations cannot be alienated from the social space where they are located (in the discussed case, favelas), and with this in mind impact should be assessed.

It is not difficult to find real examples to illustrate this idea. Think about the impact of an organisation that promotes activities involving ballet dancing or classical music in a favela where the majority of young people prefer funk music or samba. What about an organisation that enjoys high projection with campaigns on a national scale but holds loose links with the local community? What is the social impact for the favela of an organisation that aims at identifying new celebrities (artists or sports) so that they are able to leave the favela as professionals? These examples probably refer to good intentions and legitimate results, but their emergence might mean a segregating force for the territory.

Let us compare these cases with nonprofit organisations that provide comprehensive educational support to children and youth from the favela. Or with organisations that provide not only classes, but also promote political awareness among members of their local reality. Consider also organisations that offer universal training and professional tools for the community in general. Such examples are aligned with the demands and requirements of the people in such spaces, i.e. they “respond to” such requirements. This is what “social responsibility” should be about: these organisations are taking into account the social space in which they are inserted.

The question of impact could be (and often is) framed in terms of a critical challenge to its very core: “what is impact”? This challenge can be used to justify virtually any action that is voluntarily promoted. But when we locate impact in the spatial context of the assessed organisation, we see that the question of impact cannot be alienated from the specific community where the organisation operates.  In the case of favelas, social impact is linked to the materiality of the precarious conditions that affect these territories.

Daniel S. Lacerda is a PhD candidate in the department of Organisation, Work and Technology at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on discursive and spatial production of favelas by organisations. His most recent work analyses the discourse on favelas produced by Brazilian society and consumed in the political field of local administration.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Jul 17 2014

Negotiating collective identities towards inclusive social action and change in Argentina

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NaveIn this post, Navé Wald presents the model of social development employed by grassroots peasant and indigenous organisations in Argentina. These organisations are working to revalidate peasant/indigenous ways of life and identity by challenging the political, economic and social marginalisation of the communities they work with. In this context, Wald discusses, the negotiation of collective identities within and outside the organisations is of paramount importance to maintain unity amongst their members.

Over the last few decades, indigenous identity has become a pivotal feature in the emergence of numerous social movements across Latin America (CONAIE in Ecuador, EZLN in Mexico and CIDOB in Bolivia to name but a few examples). This phenomenon has been especially notable in rural areas because of the association between smallholder peasant agriculture producers (minifundistas; campesinos) and indigeneity.

Another important reason has been the association between peasant-indigenous communities and economic and social marginalisation. In this process, the ‘peasant’ identity, which has historically been linked to a class-based framework, emphasising the producers’ social identity, has been de-emphasised in favour of an indigenous identity, which stresses ethno-cultural aspects and a rights-based framework.

Argentina is perhaps not the most obvious Latin American country for examining the relations between peasant and indigenous collective identities within social mobilisation. With only about 2 per cent of its population being indigenous, Argentina is a country often associated with capitalised family farmers and not with peasant producers. What is less known, however, is that there is a peasant sector in Argentina, especially in the north of the country, and that this sector is vibrant and combative.

Jujuy

Jujuy

Interesting examples of such peasant-indigenous organisations in Argentina are the Peasant Movement of Santiago del Estero – Vía Campesina (MOCASE-VC) and the Puna and Quebrada Network (known as Red Puna). These organisations, from the north-western provinces of Santiago del Estero and Jujuy, respectively, are regional peasant-indigenous organisations in two of Argentina’s poorest and least urbanised provinces. Both organisations are members of the National Peasant Indigenous Movement (MNCI) and of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina. Formed in 1990 and 1995, these organisations addressed threats on livelihoods and the marginalisation of peasant communities in the midst of the neoliberal restructuring of the Argentinean economy. Both organisations are fighting to secure communal land-tenure and improve wellbeing for their member communities, and provide insightful and rich experiences of an integral grassroots model of development.

The starting point of this model is a critical analysis of ‘underdevelopment’ and the political, economic and social marginalisation of individuals and communities. This model then seeks to simultaneously address the multiplicity of challenges individuals and communities face and to improve wellbeing by creating non-capitalist economic spaces and non-hierarchical social spaces. In the former spaces preference is given to agro-ecological production, fair trade, more equal distribution of wealth and autonomy of producers and consumers, and in the latter spaces radical democracy and horizontal organisational structures serve as guiding principles.

“Goat milk dulce de leche: Products for food sovereignty; produced by campesinos Santiagueños”

“Goat milk dulce de leche: Products for food sovereignty; produced by campesinos Santiagueños”

Another important aspect of this model is the revalidation of peasant/indigenous ways of life and identities, challenging associated derogative social and economic notions of ‘backwardness’ and ‘inefficiency’.  In other words, it is a politicised model of grassroots development that aims to generate an encompassing change by means of direct democracy and more equitable, cooperative and sustainable modes of production. The latter focuses on both individual family production and on collective or communal production and commercialisation. Examples of such collective economic ventures include cheese making, meat processing, artisan weaving and preparing dulce de leche (caramelised milk) and other sweets. These operations are democratically managed by those who partake in the production.

While working with these two organisations, it became evident that whereas both made reference to socio-cultural identities in framing their demands and objectives, there was a point of difference in the articulation of indigenous vis-à-vis peasant identities. The composition of rural communities in Santiago del Estero is more ethnically diverse than in the highlands of Jujuy. Therefore, while in the former province some peasant communities self-identify as indigenous and some do not, in the latter province virtually all rural communities self-identify as indigenous. The word campesino (peasant) was rarely mentioned in Jujuy, unlike in Santiago del Estero where it was frequently used.  This is important because it may pose some political and organisational challenges for consolidating and maintaining an effective social movement. Within such movements (for example, MNCI in Argentina and La Vía Campesina globally) identity and class politics need to be negotiated in order to preserve and preferably enhance unity.

The role of collective identity within social organisations and movements is of even greater magnitude for MOCASE-VC and Red Puna since both also have a number of members who are neither peasants nor indigenous. NGOs were involved in the mobilisation and formation of both organisations and in subsequent years had dissolved into the grassroots organisation, with some of their members becoming integral members of MOCASE-VC and Red Puna. This partnership, where predominantly non-indigenous, middle-class, urban and university educated individuals became part of grassroots peasant-indigenous organisations, is a little explored phenomenon within development studies, but one that has bearings for identity politics as an enabling political tool. First, there is a class, or socioeconomic, divide separating the peasants and the predominantly middle-class militant activists. Second, the importance these grassroots organisations give to indigenous identity highlights an ethnic divide in relation to the often non-indigenous activists. To overcome these differences individuals and groups need to bridge both class and ethnic categorisations.

Artisan weaving, Red Puna

Artisan weaving, Red Puna

In this partnership, the ‘expert’ activists bring their diverse personal and professional knowledge and skills that act to increase the autonomy of the organisations and allow them to better direct resources and manage development projects. However, some members of other peasant-indigenous organisations have criticised the involvement of these ‘foreign’ activists, arguing that they manage MOCASE-VC and Red Puna, a claim that was unanimously rejected by members of the latter. In Santiago del Estero, the role of these activists also caused some tension when one of the Federal State’s development agencies demanded that its experts accompany development projects, whereas MOCASE-VC maintained that it has the required expertise and therefore there is no need for external experts.

Thus, these grassroots rural organisations need to negotiate not only peasant and indigenous collective identities but also, albeit at a different level, the involvement of non-peasant and non-indigenous activists. The main challenge of this ostensible ‘problem’ is not within these organisations but with external people and institutions, where issues of representation, legitimacy and authenticity are being questioned. MOCASE-VC and Red Puna are aware of these issues, but for them working towards bridging these identity divides and being inclusive in their struggles is valuable as a means and as a goal.

For more on these and other issues see:
Wald, N. (2013)Politicising development in northwest Argentina: Peasant initiatives for integral change. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of Otago.
Wald, N. (2013). Bridging identity divides in current rural social mobilisationIdentities, 20(5): 598-615.

All photos courtesy of  Navé Wald.

Navé Wald has recently completed his PhD at the Department of Geography, University of Otago, New Zealand. His work focuses on issues of rural development and grassroots organisation. His research examines the struggle of marginalised peasant and indigenous organisations in Northwest Argentina for generating a comprehensive social, economic and environmental change.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Jul 3 2014

Representing Brazil’s favelas through the lenses of community photographers

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© Walter Mesquita

© Walter Mesquita

Community photography is being implemented around the world to enable socially disadvantaged communities to represent their everyday lives from the inside. In this post, Alice Baroni describes how community photographers in Rio de Janeiro not only have successfully achieved a portrayal of favelas that often challenges the images presented in the mainstream media, but have also fostered dialogue and enhanced self-esteem amongst their neighbours. 

 

The term community photography includes a wide range of grassroots photographic initiatives. In Rio, where journalistic reporting has usually regarded favela territories as “exclusive spaces of violence” (Ramos & Paiva, 2007: 77), community photography has recently helped to productively account for favela dwellers’ dissatisfaction with the mainstream media’s negative portrayal of their communities.

I began my research with a specific problem in mind: the absence of favela dwellers’ voices and perspectives in the mainstream media. I focused on community photographers ― favela dwellers who have taken part in institutional photographic initiatives ― and to understand their attempts at creating new representations of favelas and their residents, I explored their working practices, identities, and discourses.

© Walter Mesquita

© Walter Mesquita

The Viva Favela portal was founded by the NGO Viva Rio in 2001 as a response to favela dwellers’ desire to have a magazine produced by the people, for the people, and with the people. Its newsroom combined experienced mainstream journalists and favela residents, who later became active media producers. The portal marked a new way of looking at and talking about the favelas because, for the first time, favela residents could tell their own stories, using their own language and codes. Since its foundation, the initiative has inspired the creation of other projects, such as Imagens do Povo (Images of the People), which was set up in 2004.

Imagens do Povo is a project inspired by renowned Brazilian photographer João Roberto Ripper, who was invited by the NGO Observatório de Favelas to document favela communities from a different perspective. At that time, Ripper met photographers from Complexo da Maré, including 17 different favela communities, who were starting out on their journeys as photographers. This encounter made Ripper realise that those photographers were the ones who could produce images of favela communities from an insider perspective because they were rooted in their communities. Hence, Ripper suggested to the Observatório de Favelas creating the agency-school Imagens do Povo, which would include a photographic agency, an image database, and the School of Popular Photographers.

The project Viva Favela , and later on Imagens do Povo, were conceived with the idea of enabling favela dwellers to generate images and representations of their own homes and themselves to provide Rio’s society and authorities with different perspectives with regard to the favelas and their residents (see Jucá & Nazareth, 2008; Lucas, 2008; Ramalho, 2007; Silva 2009; Valladares, 2005; Zaluar & Alvito, 2006).

By documenting the favelas in a positive light, community photographers have come through a process of rediscovering their neighbourhoods. Furthermore, through the interaction with the people and the sharing of the images, photographers have provided their communities with the possibility of seeing themselves portrayed from the inside. This has fostered the dialogue between photographers and their neighbours. AF Rodrigues (2010), a photographer at Imagens do Povo, explained how his photographic practices, which happen through an intense dialogue with his neighbours, have enabled them to look at themselves in a different light, strengthening their self-esteem:

The woman has always been insulted. What she sees on TV is a paradigm of beauty absolutely distorted, surreal, so she doesn’t want to be photographed because she doesn’t understand that there is beauty beyond the traditional paradigm, and so she doesn’t believe she is beautiful as well … in her act of working, studying, fighting to achieve things in life. However, when you begin shooting and then you present the photographs to her, she starts realising your proposal and valuing things that she didn’t value before.

This kind of initiatives, however, is not exclusive to Brazilian favelas but rather a movement in other socially disadvantaged communities around the world. Similar to community-based initiatives in Rio, Italian non-profit organisation Fotografi Senza Frontiere aims to provide local youths from extreme regions in Nicaragua, Algeria, Argentina, Panama, Uganda, and Palestine with the skills to document their own communities in order to tell stories from their own perspectives. Regarding the way these community-based organisations operate, unlike Fotografi Senza Frontiere’s photo labs that are run by the locals themselves, Viva Favela is run by the NGO Viva Rio. Imagens do Povo, in turn, has some degree of independence from the NGO Observatório de Favelas, although it is still subjected to its institutional framework.

© Walter Mesquita

© Walter Mesquita

By analysing the initiatives of Imagens do Povo and Viva Favela, we come to understand that community photographers in Brazil have in common with those in Uganda and Palestine an attempt to document, store and communicate their cultural heritage: they strive to generate a positive visual record of the development of their communities for future generations. Their work shows that documentary photography in marginalised communities is about the recording of the daily struggles for survival that emerge through a myriad of images of the everyday life of forsaken communities. These images call for an acknowledgement that everyone has a right to be portrayed in a context of dignity and integrity. Or in Lucas’ words, “everyone has a physical life, an intellectual life, a spiritual life, an emotional life, a life of the senses and an aesthetic life” (Lucas, 2012: 13), which are the core values of human dignity.

Alice Baroni holds a PhD in Journalism, Media and Communication from the Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests include journalism, participatory content creation, ethnography and discourse analysis. 


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Jun 26 2014

A little hill with big impact: Favelas, art and social relevance

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Many forms of artistic expression have stemmed and taken inspiration from favela culture. In this post, Simone Kalkman introduces Morrinho, a grassroots NGO based in Rio de Janeiro, to argue that the distinctiveness of this venture lies in its giving voice to favela dwellers, and in effectively showing that these voices should be taken seriously.


We portray the favela by making art, trying to show what a favela is and what it doesn’t have yet. When you are creating, it becomes your own world. So you do what you want. It is a place of reflection on the favela but also on ourselves.

We hear Nelcirlan Souza de Oliveira, founder of Morrinho (literally translated as little hill), a 350 square feet miniature favela model in the Pereira da Silva neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. In 1997, he started using bricks and recycled materials to make miniature reproductions of the houses in his community. Seventeen years on, the project has been part of prestigious international art events (including the 2007 Venice Biennial) and has become an official NGO.

Credit: Simone Kalkman

Credit: Simone Kalkman

The combination of visual art and favelas is by no means new. Major Brazilian artists such as Tarsila do Amaral and Helio Oiticica have been inspired by favelas. More recently, the international “hype” surrounding favelas has triggered both Brazilian and international artists to do projects in these neighbourhoods that combine artistic and social goals (e.g. Vik Muniz, JR, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn as Favela Painting). In a different but related development, various NGOs are now employing artistic techniques such as photography to give residents a means of self-representation amidst the variety of favela representations circulating the world (e.g. Olhares do Morro). What makes Morrinho stand out, however, are its grassroots origins combined with its current position in the (global) world of so-called ‘high art’.

The Morrinho Project has four ‘branches’:
1. TV Morrinho: producing short films and documentaries in and about the model.
2. Exposição Morrinho: making reproductions of the model in both local and international exhibitions.
3. Turismo no Morrinho: guiding tourists through the original model and its community Pereira da Silva.
4. Morrinho Social: organizing temporary social projects (often in collaboration with other NGOs.

As such, the project facilitates a two-way crossing of the borders of Rio’s so-called ‘broken city’. Tourists visit the favela, guided by its artists rather than by foreign tour agents, and focusing on these youngsters’ achievements rather than on their poverty. Morrinho’s participants not only travel the world, but also participate in prestigious artistic events in Rio itself, which – considering the stigma favela residents still bear in the city – might be even more significant. In exhibitions and film festivals, they bring the favela to the art world, not just symbolically but also literally by their own presence.

In this context, the project’s participants, especially its founder Nelcirlan, occupy an interesting position. Valued as artists and social workers, but still (in other situations) discriminated as favela residents, they are continuously shifting roles and actively reflecting on this process. From this position, they provide us with a highly original and creative representation of their neighbourhood and of favelas in general. They incorporate common stereotypes, turn them around and upside-down, mix them with fictive elements, and do so in a highly humorous manner. Morrinho’s favela models make us aware of how we see the favela – often through prejudice and stereotypes – and show us how we might see it without these preconceived ideas.

To realise exactly how unique this is, at least in the domain of visual art, a short comparison with other social and artistic projects in Rio’s favelas is relevant. Looking firstly at ‘outside’ artists working in favelas, we clearly see a distinction. For while these artists raise awareness of both the favela’s problems and its qualities and strengths, often by collaborating with local people, the voices of favela residents remain embedded in a framework provided by the artist. By this I do not mean that local artists automatically provide a more ‘authentic’ representation. However, no matter how nuanced and informed ‘outside’ representations may be, these projects ultimately reproduce existing power relations in which favela residents are silenced because others do the talking for them.

Credit: Simone Kalkman

Credit: Simone Kalkman

What about social organisations and NGOs that use art as a means of self-expression? Without a doubt, these projects are valuable in many ways and quite often bottom-up initiatives. Nevertheless, the images they produce are usually presented only in their social and often therapeutic contexts. In other words, they are not taken seriously as artworks in their own right. To a certain extent, the same can be said for Morrinho. In the words of Bianca Freire-Medeiros and Lia de Mattos Rocha (2011): “Morrinho’s artists are never just artists, but always necessarily ‘artists-favelados’”. Considering the exhibitions Morrinho has been part of, however, it is clear that their international reception is inherently different than the majority of works produced by artists from favelas.

Should we conclude, then, that Morrinho houses the most talented artists to be found in Rio’s favelas? Well, probably not. Rather, we should consider how they got to this point. These favela teenagers did not appear at the Venice Biennial unexpectedly. A few years after they started, they were ‘discovered’ by two Brazilian film producers who decided to start working with them on short films in and about the model. This led to an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro and the ball kept rolling from there. Throughout this process, Morrinho’s participants developed into clever and articulate spokespersons for their project. At this moment, Nelcirlan talks as seriously and reflectively about his art as any artist. In other words, mediation is no longer necessary for him to frame his project’s social and artistic relevance.

In most accounts, Morrinho is mainly praised for its temporary projects with favela children and for serving as a positive example to local youth. While these concrete social projects are the least active branch of the project, their significance lies in the way participants redefine their role as ‘artists-favelados’ in an international and city-wide perspective. The importance of this redefinition becomes evident when considering the recent (and often problematic) popularity of artists working in favelas and social programmes employing art. What distinguishes Morrinho in this context, as I have tried to argue, is that they not only let the world hear their voices without mediation or framing, but also prove that what they have to say should be taken seriously. Perhaps even more than an example to local youth, Morrinho should thus serve as an example to the art world and international NGOs, whose members, albeit unwillingly, still all too often underestimate and silence the favela residents they are trying to help.

References
Freire-Medeiros, B. & de Mattos Rocha, L. (2011) “Uma pequena revolução: Arte, mobilidade e segregação em uma favela carioca.” XV Brazilian Sociology Congress, Curitiba, Brazil, 26-29 July 2011: 1-20.
Kalkman, Simone. (2013). Reality in Miniature: The Morrinho Project as a Community-based and Site-specific Artwork from a Rio de Janeiro Favela. World Art, 3(2): 275-295.

Simone Kalkman has an MA in Art History and an MSc in Latin American Studies. She will start her PhD, focusing on participatory art projects in Rio’s favelas, at the University of Amsterdam this September. 


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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Jun 19 2014

On unplanned urbanism: How Mídia NINJA are disrupting mainstream politics in Brazil

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In today’s socially effervescent Brazil, social media are being used to mobilise communities for social action. In this post, Lea Rekow introduces journalist collective Mídia NINJA to show how they are capitalising on these tools to radically change the way news and information are produced and shared in Brazil.

No matter on which side of the social divide one resides, the reality of living in Brazil is inextricably intertwined with issues of social exclusion. For informal and under-represented populations, the use of social media is proving to be an effective communication tool through which to mobilise, act, reveal, and visibly inject into this complex social reality.

Brazil’s informal and low-income communities, though subject to intense socio-economic disadvantage, are galvanising through the use of basic social media platforms, to mobilise in ways that are resulting in significant impact on the formal city. Popular sites such as Facebook and YouTube have already fundamentally changed the way these communities galvanise around social issues. In fact, Facebook users were principally responsible for energising Brazil’s massive protests during the summer of 2013, in which more than a million people in over one hundred cities took to the streets in massive demonstrations.

Sparked to contest a 20 cent hike in bus fare, the protests quickly spread to rouse demonstrations about the extensive political corruption which permeates much of Brazilian government. A violent series of police crackdowns ensued, spurring further public resentment that opened up a whole range of grievances about critically inadequate public services, the extreme divide in wealth, pervasive racial discrimination, and the endemic nepotism that permeates throughout the country.

Credit: Mídia NINJA CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Credit: Mídia NINJA CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The protests, largely networked through the Anonymous movement’s Facebook page, also led to the rise of the guerrilla journalist collective, Mídia NINJA, who used basic networked platforms as a response to, and a protection mechanism against the police brutality perpetrated on demonstrators. The phenomena of the Mídia NINJA movement grew out of a mix of amateur and expert journalists armed with smart phones, cameras and gas masks – the new tools of street protest reportage in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.  During the protests, which occurred mostly in June and July, Mídia NINJA were on the very dangerous frontlines of this explosive protest movement.  They recorded and live-streamed almost every conflict with police in the ongoing anti-corruption demonstrations outside the home of Rio state’s governer, Sérgio Cabral. At the same time, they were at the forefront of the long-running occupation of the city council, and in the marches at the doors of the TV Globo media conglomerate headquarters.

Though the demonstrations largely dissipated by the end of August 2013, the journalists’ collective continues to grow in influence and size, providing a channel for popular discontent with politics – and a public voice of dissent.  Mídia NINJA now claims over 2,000 collaborators in more than a hundred cities, with a Facebook page that has 282,000 likes.

Mídia NINJA has also exposed a slew of illegal police infiltrations and unlawful arrests.  In Rio, a member of the group filmed an alleged police officer (disguised as an activist) throwing a molotov cocktail into the crowd to incite violence. Though police denied the claim, the coverage was broadcast by Globo TV and others — and later served as evidence for the defense of a wrongfully arrested protestor.

As amateur content creators, the NINJAs are leaving the mainstream in their wake, fearless in the face of being tear gassed, beaten, shot, and even being hit by grenade fragments. This, together with their staunch commitment to not cutting or censoring their footage has promoted deep respect and gained the group a devout following.

Mídia NINJA was originally formed in 2011, and grew out of the communications arm of a cluster of student cultural collectives known as Fora do Eixo (“off-axis”).  In Portuguese, the NINJA acronym stands for independent narratives, journalism and action.  Its initial role was to broadcast concerts and conferences, but it rapidly began covering incidents in the favelas, small-scale protests, and other political events that mainstream media did not report on.

As the group continues to grow, so does their impact.  Anonymous continues to point to their work, they are collaborating with The Bar Association on issues of media freedom and police brutality, and even Brazil’s mainstream television and print media, Globo and Folha, now follow the movement and acknowledge their impact on the country’s media framework.

The Mídia NINJAs rely heavily on volunteers and donations for living and travel expenses, accommodation, equipment, and even a communal wardrobe. By working as cheaply as possible, with methods that are easy to replicate, they can encourage participation by a range of collaborators.

What they exemplify is how the overwhelming amount of corporate, profit-driven and lowest-common-denominator media is being displaced by consumer accessible, networked forms of storytelling and information dissemination. This access to ubiquitously available tools is allowing, and perhaps even motivating, a diverse mix of content creators to participate in changing the world outside their front doors.

Credit: Yuri Barichivich/Mídia NINJA CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Credit: Yuri Barichivich/Mídia NINJA CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For those communities who suffer from social exclusion, as numerous studies have shown, the caricatures presented by today’s industrial-entertainment com­plex can be particularly destructive. Yet easily accessible social media, and low-cost ubiquitous consumer platforms, are the perfect tools to circumnavigate the often treacherous mainstream media.

By democratising digital storytelling, the NINJAs are challenging Brazil’s traditional oligarchical gatekeepers stranglehold on the nation’s print, radio, and television media. In doing so, they are changing the country’s media landscape. At the same time, groups like Mídia NINJA are announcing the active presence of local, networked communities that are determined to make an honest attempt to disseminate important information about Brazil’s critical issues, to make them accessible and available to the general public and, in particular, to its under-represented majority.

No doubt they will constitute an important part of the reportage we see over the next month as the World Cup unfolds.

This text was adapted from a contribution made to the pending publication, “Urban Interaction Design: Toward City Making.” licensed under CC BY-SA.

Lea Rekow is founding director of Green My Favela, an urban gardening project based in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.


The views expressed on this post belong solely to the author and should not be taken as the opinion of the Favelas@LSE Blog nor of the LSE. 

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