While arriving up top of Vidigal–one of Rio’s most scenic South Zone favelas–by moto-taxi on Saturday, I couldn’t help but notice the high concentration of Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) officers with each turn of the moto. This new physical presence is a marked difference to the Vidigal I visited last month. Famously located above the Sheraton at the end of Leblon overlooking the ocean, Vidigal was occupied by the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) the morning of Sunday, November 13th, along with Rocinha and Chácara do Céu favelas. The police occupation, dubbed the “Shock of Peace Operation,” marked the 19th UPP installation in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Today, 280,000 of the city’s residents live under UPP programs.
The UPP, also referred to as the “Peace Police” (Polícia da Paz) or community policing, represents an important instrument for the state government as it recuperates territories lost to drug trafficking. The promise being made by the state is that the police presence then allows government to deliver social inclusion and peace to the most deprived sector of the population. This new model of public security and policing was created to promote the relationship between the population and the police, as well as the fortification of social policies in various favelas.
Fortunately the State doesn’t start from null when developing social programs in communities like Vidigal. Numerous important community-based organizations exist with vast experience in supporting residents. One of these is GASCO (Community Social Action Group), founded by Bernadete Soares Pereira in 2007 to promote the social inclusion, citizenship and self-esteem of families and individuals living in Vidigal. GASCO develops social, educational, cultural and athletic projects and programs, as well as events and competitions. The organization also carries out projects that defend and expand the rights of women, children, adolescents and elders.
Last Saturday, November 26th, when the moto-taxi dropped me off at the Vila Olímpica–the outdoor sports complex open to the community that borders GASCO’s headquarters–I was greeted with the same positive energy that I encountered with my first visit just months prior. This particular Saturday GASCO held a volleyball tournament for the children and adolescents of the community who regularly participate in weekly lessons and games. The playful scene of overjoyed youth, and equally enthusiastic instructors and volunteers, receiving trophies and medals for their accomplishments captured and epitomized GASCO’s mission. As the celebration dispersed to other areas of Vidigal, I accompanied Bernadete to the community NGO’s space, consisting of six rooms that occupy a two-story building. Previously abandoned, GASCO took over the space in 2007 and gave it purpose as its headquarters, investing in its development. Since then, Bernadete has continually attempted to receive title according to Brazil’s strong adverse possession (squatter’s rights) legislation.
It was with great excitement that Bernadete received news of the UPP installation in her community. When I saw her Saturday she told me, “I felt very happy, I thought that now we would get public policies in our community that’s been abandoned for many years. Everything’s Rocinha, Vidigal gets nothing. There’s just us here, doing the state’s work, without money, with a lot of sacrifice. So I thought now…our quality of life will improve.” On her November 13th Facebook post, she had announced: “The news here is encouraging. Now it’s time to get to work immediately on social actions: education, health, sanitation, leisure, digital inclusion, employment generation, support and nurturing of entrepreneurship… We’ll all be united in this task.” Bernadete expected that with the arrival of the UPP and UPP Social to bring social programs to the community once the police have occupied, that her NGO would be a natural ally supporting incoming social programs.
But instead, last Friday, November 25th, two men working for the city visited GASCO and delivered Bernadete with an eviction notice, requesting that GASCO vacate the premises by Monday, November 28th (two days ago). The NGO’s existence is now jeopardized. No alternative space was offered. As Bernadete and I sat in one of the organization’s meeting rooms, surrounded by a plethora of donated computers, she relayed that her main concern and question for the two men who delivered the notice, was what she would do with the equipment that she had gathered over the past four years.
According to the notice, the City wants to renovate the building and utilize it in order to set up public projects. The investments and renovations already carried out by GASCO to improve the building’s infrastructure appear irrelevant. Since when GASCO first occupied the building, an abandoned public property, four years ago, until the recent “pacification” of Vidigal and arrival of the UPP, city government has shown no interest in occupying or renovating the abandoned spaces. According to Bernadete, the new interest in Vidigal stems from public officials’ desire to positively portray Rio de Janeiro, and its favelas, as safe, welcoming and prepared to host major events in the upcoming years. Consequently, the conclusion she and others are reaching of the City’s motives for improving the situations in some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, such as Vidigal, is not really a question of bettering the lives of residents, but a question of vanity, appearance and politics. The President of Vidigal’s Neighborhood Association was recently filmed explaining that little is being done by government except providing title, which is already triggering gentrification.
The more I spoke with Bernadete the clearer it became that GASCO was completely unaware and unsuspecting of the City’s plans, as were residents who continued to flow in and out of the room, continually shocked by Bernadete’s news. This was confirmed when Bernadete explained that she previously believed and hoped that the implementation of the UPP would finally allow for the presence of the State and thus more facility, access and programs for the community. Moreover, Bernadete had expected that city government would attempt to integrate itself with the already existent community leaders and institutions. Through collaboration they could fortify what had already been accomplished by years without compensation or the presence of the City and State, yet with the unyielding sacrifice and determination of volunteers in the community to improve the quality of life for Vidigal’s residents.
I asked Bernadete whether or not she believed that the City would succeed in improving the quality of life in Vidigal. She explained that although a possibility, the government will have to gain the trust and support of residents, which requires the participation of actual residents who are inside the community and who know and can effectively communicate the actual needs and wants of fellow residents, eliminating many of the approaches the City assumes are needed.
On Monday the 28th, the first meeting took place of a newly created forum that some community leaders and institutions launched to form committees which will present the community’s wants and needs to City Hall. The Neighborhood Association, GASCO, Women’s Association, VDG TV, the NGO Ser Alzira de Aleluia and the VDG Jiu Jitsu project were in attendance. In addition to actively participating in the Forum, Bernadete is requesting legal support from Rio’s public defenders, for whom she has already gathered documents. GASCO is also reaching out to politicians and using social networks like Facebook to spread the word and gain support. Yesterday, Tuesday the 29th, a protest took place inside the community in favor of GASCO remaining in its present location.
The City’s approach to this situation, taking over a space it had previously abandoned which has since been given a powerful social function by GASCO, was carried out with zero participation, no attempt to listen or talk to community residents. There was also no attempt to take into account the implications of its actions, whereby community-based organizations are now feeling threatened by a program that was supposed to support them. As a result, despite the potential positive role the arrival of the UPP and the public sector could play in the community, one community organization and one steadfast community leader have been left with no alternative but to fight to guarantee the survival of a solution they know to work–their own initiative–and a program that has already proven itself, GASCO.