Four Years In The Real World (Mundo Real)

Andre Sales Batista
Andre in Macega, Rocinha

Mundo Real emerged from the idea of combining our considerable experience living in Rocinha with our significant knowledge of other marginalized urban communities. Most of Mundo Real’s team was either born in these urban environments or has lived significant time in them. This organic knowledge together with years of studying urbanization, inequality, human rights, sustainable development, etc, has helped us apply experiences, theories and methods to actual projects. We started in Rocinha. In late 2006 we began studying the real unaddressed needs of the community and how a small but determined team like Mundo Real could fit into the scenario. Rocinha is a community teaming with development work, public, private and civil society. Founding a new organization that would attend to areas already being addressed by other development initiatives is counterproductive, so we began researching neglected areas to concentrate on. We discovered several areas in need of urgent attention, but only a few we felt we could effectively address.

Primeiros Passos meeting (2007) for family members of those with special need

One of these areas is the critical lack of services available to Rocinha’s disabled, elderly and/or chronically ill residents (after this, special needs residents). This is particularly true in regards to research focused on Rocinha’s special needs residents and topics related to prevention, transportation, accessibility and advocacy. Along these lines we began our first initiative, the First Steps Project, or Projeto Primeiros Passos (PPP), [short video about PPP] with Cely Ferreira de Oliveira as PPPs director. We framed PPP as a public health project with two initial objectives; (1) acquiring two handicapped equipped vans exclusively for transporting Rocinha’s special needs residents to and from medical visits and other essential outings, like physical therapy,  recreational activities and even helping with crucial errands they are unable to realize by themselves. (2) Another objective was opening Rocinha’s first Rehabilitation and Recreation Center specifically for the community’s special needs residents. These worthy cause were well-liked and a number of people kindly supported them. Mundo Real did not acquire the funds necessary for these two rather cost intensive objectives. The funds raised were instead directed towards transporting special needs residents to and from appointments, distributing food parcels for needy families, critical home repairs, community research projects and to a lesser degree for operational costs like Mundo Real’s transit, telephone, internet and printing costs.

The lack of community-based research projects is another area our initial investigations indicated were absent in Rocinha. There exists an abundance of academic, journalistic and documentary material focused on diverse issues here in Rocinha. There is no deficit of published material on Rocinha and other favelas as Bryan McCann points out in his 2006 article The Political Evolution of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas:

You’ve probably heard the one about Eskimo demography: how many Eskimos in the typical igloo? Five—a mother, father, two kids, and an anthropologist. The same joke might be made about Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, but it would vastly undercount the anthropologists, to say nothing of the sociologists, political scientists, and assorted external agents of nongovernmental organizations. For the past forty years, Rio’s squatter settlements have been among the most studied low-income neighborhoods in the world.

What is severely lacking, however, is published material produced by or in collaboration with residents of Rocinha and other favelas in which they receive equal recognition. Little to none of the material produced on favelas is credited to the residents of the community, especially when considering the material published in English. This is an issue we have been paying close attention to since 2001, before Mundo Real was officially formed. There is a concept to describe this unfair exchange, we call it Cultural Property Theft, especially when the material produced and published is extracted from favela residents in ways that primarily or solely benefit parties that do not remain in the community. We very proud, that as far as we know, Mundo Real’s André Sales Batista is the only resident of Rocinha, born and raised, to have ever published an academic article focused on the community as well as an ten page encyclopedia entry on Brazilian Gangs (a topic we began studying long before the recent wave of violence erupted). Collaborative community-based research is an issue Mundo Real is dedicated to and one that few if any organizations in Rocinha are addressing. Additionally, there is wise saying that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ This symbolized the importance of community-based research and the need to tackle imperative issues while avoiding ‘feel-good’ development/humanitarian work which frequently causes more harm than good. Click here to find out how you can help us improve our research efforts.

We have matured individually and organizationally since our founding in 2006, continually learning from daily life in the favela and from continuing research. Mundo Real’s plans for the handicapped equipped vans and rehabilitation center (still nonexistent in Rocinha) began before the PAC was launch by the Federal Government in 2007. PAC (translated as Program for Accelerated Growth) is the largest socio-economic development program in Brazil’s history, comparable to The New Deal in the US. Most of PAC is aimed at major infrastructural improvements in Brazil, such as roads, dams, bridges, sanitation infrastructure, etc. Some of the funds, however, have been reserved for slum upgrading projects. In Rio 5 of the roughly 1000 favelas were chosen to receive PAC resources, Rocinha one of them. PAC has significantly changed the development landscape here in the community. PAC comes in phases. PAC I designated approximately $160 million to Rocinha. Early estimates for PAC II, planned for mid to late 2011, set aside roughly $240 million for Rocinha, (http://fisenge.org.br/2010/11/10/pac-2-devera-melhorar-vias-de-acesso-a-rocinha/). One of PAC’s aims is to coordinate and consolidate all other development work through its top-down strategy. In a sense this is good because development work in Rocinha is unorganized with groups/organization often addressing similar issues without knowledge of each other. On the other hand PAC could prove detrimental if development work in Rocinha is overly top-down, centralized and government regulated. Only time will tell how PAC will affect grassroots organizations in Rocinha.

Feeling increasingly like tiny fish in an enormous pond of development work we began viewing our most useful role in Rocinha as community-based researchers, educators and rights advocates, areas that PAC and other initiatives do not adequately address. A small community-based organization (CBO) like Mundo Real will never have the 100s of millions of dollars allocated to PAC in Rocinha, along with the power to influence that comes with support from the Federal Government. However, the even the smallest fish are vital to ecosystems, and in a similar way grassroots organizations and community movements are essential to sustainable development work. Mundo Real has extensive reach within Rocinha, a quality larger NGOs and governments seldom share. We decided to use this advantage to focus on areas that do not require significant financial capital but are essential. Mundo Real does have considerable human, cultural and social capital, as well as unequaled access to all corners of Rocinha. This allows us to report on pressing issues without delay, something that newspapers, governments and large NGOs often take weeks or months to do (e.g. the forced evictions and substandard living conditions in Macega). We are also the only English language news source regularly reporting on development work and urban policies here in Rocinha, (with plenty of room to improve).

Rocinha
Rocinha

Another important discovery we have made while working in Rocinha, that was brieflyalluded to above, is in regards to the disconnect that exists between the bustling development work and the local residents. There are cliques in Rocinha, comprised mainly of residents involved in local politics and with the residents associations, which keep acutely up to date on issues concerning Rocinha. These groups tend to keep information fairly guarded within their circle of friends and family. They and their networks are the ones who tend to benefit the most from investments in the community. This is unfortunate because these cliques are mainly comprised of Rocinha’s better off residents. Experience and research clearly indicate that most residents of Rocinha are not adequately informed on what is taking place in their community, who is responsible for it and who it will involve. When residents do have knowledge of development work in Rocinha it tends to be when the top-down planning has already finished. Even then residents are only informed if the project directly concerns them. In other words, multi-million dollar development plans, interventions and policies are prepared with little to no community collaboration, and then implemented. The interventions may be good or bad, and usually longitudinal studies are necessary for evaluation. One thing is certain, public sector and large NGO development work in Rocinha is not participatory as is often asserted. Jose Martins de Oliveira, long time community crusader and friend of Mundo Real and Laboriaux, was recently quoted in London’s The Guardian as saying in regards to development projects, that “Residents must be heard. If they don’t listen to the community it can be a very dangerous process.” This is an issue Mundo Real takes seriously and one of our main roles is holding top-down development initiatives responsible while simultaneously serving as a informational bridge between these large interventions and the community. We rigorously investigate all development work/plans for Rocinha and discuss them with residents, mainly in Laboriaux and Macega. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/05/rio-de-janeiro-favelas-brazil

Four years of working in Rocinha has made us aware of few grassroots organizations and community-based movements exist here. Development work is largely top-down with limited grassroots activity. local initiatives tend to come and go as funding and energy evaporate. The few local groups that persist are generally small and mainly voluntary. The Women’s Association for the Improvement of Roupa Suja, (UMPMRS) located in one of Rocinha poorest areas, is an example of an important community-based organization that has endured. They and other similar local civil society organizations survive on little to no funding, making it difficult for them to achieve their often very worthy objectives. Community-based organizations are fundamental to development work, as Paulo Freire allude to, because no one can understand the difficulties and needs of the poor better then the poor themselves. The democratic participation of the poor (a broad spectrum of local resident) is essential when drafting interventions and policies that will ultimately affect their lives. We advocate for the democratization of the development process as we work alongside residents in bettering their living conditions, using the tools of research, education and community service. Click here to see how you can be a part of this process.

Rocinha Alleyway
An alleyway or "beco" in Rocinha

Rocinha is an complex urban labyrinth with literally thousands of alleyways, some very steep and narrow. Our team is able to navigate this maze like community with ease. In Rocinha the larger NGOs and government programs are located on or near the community’s main road, Estrada da Gávea. Their members rarely have the familiarity of the community that is needed to reach the most remote areas and residents residing far from Estrada da Gávea. This results in the decision making/information disconnect mentioned above, as well as a significant portion of Rocinha’s residents who would normally qualify for government benefits/services (retirement, disability, Bolsa Família, Minha Casa, Minha Vida, social housing, etc) not receiving them. Many of the poorest, most socially and physically isolated residents of Rocinha are not benefiting from development work and social services because essential information does not reach them. Related to lack of information and accessibility, many of Rocinha’s most vulnerable residents are also missing important personal documents and certificates which in highly bureaucratic Brazil can be agonizing to renew, in turn becoming a major stumbling block for receiving needed assistance. (http://1mundoreal.org/our-work/direct-services/project-primeiros-passos). Mundo Real has helped several residents of Rocinha through this often difficult process but for the most part this important issue continues unaddressed in Rocinha, and in most of Rio’s 1000 favelas. This results in significant segments of favela communities not being reached by existing development work.

Mundo Real is an important community-based organization (CBO) with global reach. Our aim continues to be fostering sustainable development and empowering CBOs. We are committed to remaining grassroots and community-based. This is why we live and work in Rocinha, despite the everyday challenges this involves. Many organizations allege to work along similar lines of sustainable development, capacity building, etc, but few do so while living and working in marginalized communities. This is one attribute that sets us apart and has earned us tremendous respect and trust within Rocinha and other favelas.

While our work falls under the general theme of ‘development’ we are primarily concerned with sustainable practices that improve health, education and housing. The right to the city is a concept uniting much of what we believe in. The urban sociologist Robert Park famously wrote and we agree, that the city is:

man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.

Our world is increasingly urban. Eighty-four percent of Brazil’s population now lives in cities while in the US roughly 80 percent of the population is urban. In Brazil and the US increasingly few people live in rural agricultural settings. Whether we live in cities of 20 million inhabitants like São Paulo or 100,000 like Wilmington, North Carolina, we are becoming increasingly urbanized. Ordinary citizens need to play a larger role in creating livable, enjoyable, sustainable cities that do not exploit the countryside and which provide opportunities for all their inhabitants to realize their dreams and goals.

Paul Sneed, a comrade and one of the founders of Two Brothers Foundation, an educational institute located in Rocinha, once described their organization as functioning like an organic university that serves as a space for stimulating cultural and educational exchanges between Rocinha’s residents and their volunteers from around the world (www.2bros.org). Since 2006 Mundo Real has also welcomed a steady stream of volunteers from various nationalities and backgrounds. Like Two Brothers we view one of our roles in Rocinha as serving as an organic university where volunteers can come live, work and study in the community for varying periods of time, contributing to our work and helping shape our ideas and agenda. In return they have the unique opportunity to experience daily life in one of Brazil’s largest favelas. Volunteer  also get the chance to learn Portuguese and the local culture, while taking with them priceless memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. We learn from each other during these education exchanges and gain so much in the process.

Dona Luzia Cooks a meal for Volunteers
Dona Luzia in her kitchen preparing a meal for volunteers

Just the other day Dona Luzia, Andre’s mother, proudly mentioned to us that in the last few years she has received guests from roughly 25 countries, learning basic phrases in various languages and typical meals from the world over. Dona Luzia and André live in the middle of Rocinha, a favela considered off-limits by many. These exchanges teach us about how others live and help break negative stereotypes. Click here to find out how you can support or participate in this organic university.

After four years of hard work we continue believing in the possibility of a better world with sustainable cities and communities, a world where the opportunities needed in order to improve life conditions are equally available. Most people agree that we need to work towards creating a better world even if there are competing views on how to accomplish this.

Among our unifying beliefs is the firm conviction that ordinary people, when united and dedicated, can make the world a better more peaceful place for us and for future generations.