Knowledge to Create Solutions in Complexo do Alemão: Instituto Raízes em Movimento

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Instituto Raízes em Movimento (Roots in Movement Institute) is a community-based NGO in Complexo do Alemão in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro focused on human rights and local social, cultural and human development. Frequently partnering with other civil society organizations and social movements in Complexo do Alemão, the Institute’s work is oriented along two principal axes: critical communication and engagement with diverse forms of knowledge. Over the years, Instituto Raízes em Movimento has hosted and participated in public debates, events, projects, seminars and courses in areas including media and technology, public policy, environmental sustainability, and creative arts.

The “Roots” of Instituto Raízes em Movimento

The organization was established in 2001, evolving out of a group of youth participating in a college entrance exam preparatory course in Complexo do Alemão, initiated by Alan Brum Pinheiro in 1997. Alan—who co-founded and currently coordinates the organization—was born and raised in Alemão, and studied anthropology at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

Alan Brum Pinheiros, co-founder and general coordinator of Instituto Raizes em Movimento

Alan describes the origin of Instituto Raízes em Movimento’s name:

“When we chose the name, we thought about a name that would reflect us, that would say what we are. Raízes has the connotation of being a group about racial issues—of course, we engage and work with Black movements but we don’t define ourselves as a movement with this central theme. So, we thought about something complementary. The em Movimento plays a bit with the idea of a root being something fixed, and “in movement” has to do with the imaginary walls that are created that separate the favela from the rest of the city. To think about breaking walls—building bridges—is to engage with diverse spaces in the city. It’s inserting Complexo do Alemão in the city, and the city in Complexo do Alemão.”

The Center for Research, Memory and Documentation of Complexo do Alemão 

In 2015, Instituto Raízes em Movimento formed the Center for Research, Memory and Documentation of Complexo do Alemão (CEPDOCA) with the intention of bridging academic and experiential knowledge. CEPDOCA consolidated a number of ongoing local knowledge projects initiated in recent years, principally Vamos Desenrolar and the Collective of Researchers in Movement, both launched in 2010.

Vamos Desenrolar—which loosely translates to “let’s untangle” or “let’s talk it out”—is an initiative in which researchers and residents of Complexo do Alemão unite to discuss and debate relevant issues on a monthly basis. Alan explains: “Vamos Desenrolar is a discussion group circulating in Complexo do Alemão. We go to public squares, to the streets of Alemão. Beforehand, we choose a theme that’s important in that moment and call one or two researchers and one or two people from the community who have substantial grassroots knowledge about the topic, and they are the facilitators. They begin to present their experience—one academic, the other lived—they face one another, and then the debate opens up.”

While the meetings began in 2010, Vamos Desenrolar became a university extension project linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 2013. Formalizing the discussion group into a university extension course entailed some changes to the debate format—participants, who are principally residents of Complexo do Alemão, would be selected through an application process, and sessions began to include classroom instruction in addition to discussion and debate in public spaces. Nonetheless, the debate forum maintained its original concept: bringing together academic experts and residents of Complexo do Alemão, rich with experiential knowledge of the topic at hand.

Over the years, topics have included public security, the criminalization of culture, media as an instrument of political action for youth, public education and health policy, LGBT rights, and “Rooting and Uprooting”—a theme that reflected on the memories of migrants who have settled in Complexo do Alemão while also addressing forced evictions that have uprooted people from Complexo do Alemão and other favelas in Rio in recent years.

Secondly, the Collective of Researchers in Movement, a monthly meeting for researchers conducting fieldwork in Alemão, emerged out of the sensation that there existed insufficient communication between researchers, particularly as many university-affiliated researchers who study Alemão are not from the favela. Alan explains: “Every time they spoke with residents, with us, they would try to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ and the same things would surface.” The Collective, bringing together researchers in diverse fields including history, geography, anthropology and architecture—along with residents of Complexo do Alemão attending university—seeks to enhance collaboration in the research process and enrich the quality of academic studies produced about Complexo do Alemão and its inhabitants.

Beyond Vamos Desenrolar and the Collective of Researchers in Movement, two major projects have been developed through CEPDOCA. Firstly, Social and Political Life in the Favelas is a compilation of ten studies conducted by participants of the Collective, published by the Institute of Applied Economics Research (IPEA) and launched on June 30, 2016.

Book cover of Vida Social e Política Publica nas Favelas
The second major project is the forthcoming publication of an annotated bibliography of Complexo do Alemão, expected to be completed in 2017. Alan describes the project as a catalogue that will contain “everything that has been produced on Complexo do Alemão. We are mapping everything, past and present.” Firstly, the annotated bibliography will serve as a reference for residents, community organizations and future academic researchers. Secondly, it’s also intended for public schools, such that, as Alan envisions, “teachers can better understand the context of their own students, because teachers usually come from outside [of Alemão].” Finally, Alan describes the bibliography as “a weapon of political pressure” that will hold public administrators accountable for creating more consistent and contextually appropriate public policies for Complexo do Alemão.

Public space in the aftermath of the Growth Acceleration Program

While on the one hand the production and exchange of knowledge occurs in the arena of research and public dialogue, on the other it takes place through physical interventions in public spaces. Identifying the need to make public spaces in the community more available and functionally useful for residents, Instituto Raízes em Movimento has engaged in a series of community upgrading projects in partnership with the Architecture and Urbanism School at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (FAU/UFRJ) and other groups.

Alan describes: “These interventions in public space have a direct relation with the negative experience of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), in which residents and institutions tried to influence the project according to local demand for public works, but we weren’t able to see changes in the issues that we brought up—the priorities of the community.”

Beginning in 2008, Complexo do Alemão received over R$800 million in federal and state investments for public works including mobility, housing, infrastructure, and health, education, and sports facilities through the PAC, a federal program established by President Lula in 2007. In its first phase of implementation in Rio de Janeiro (known as PAC 1), the program targeted Complexo do Alemão along with two other large favelas, Rocinha and Manguinhos. Despite the promise of improvements—particularly to physical infrastructure in the favelas—as Alan points out, the PAC intervention process was entirely non-participatory: “The upgrading from the government was an upgrading without engagement with the community. When we would ask to do something, or wanted to influence the project—they would say, ‘No, that’s not technically viable. It’s because you don’t know—it’s not possible to do that here.’ We weren’t allowed to participate in the process.”

Of the total PAC 1 budget allocated for upgrading works in Complexo do Alemão, approximately R$210 million in federal and state funds were spent on Complexo do Alemão’s cable car system—often criticized as a beautified tourist attraction lacking social integration and failing to meet residents’ actual transportation needs. Discontentment with the cable car led Instituto Raízes em Movimento—together with Rocinha Sem Fronteiras—to sue the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2013 for failing to comply with Law 10.257 (which mandates participation in public works) in Complexo do Alemão and for failing to implement PAC 1 interventions in Rocinha.

Public square revitalized in 2015

Beyond the cable car, the PAC 1 upgrading projects implemented in Complexo do Alemão left a great deal of empty space in the community. For example, houses and buildings—including Instituto Raízes em Movimento’s former headquarters—were removed in the process of widening roads, but plots of land often remained abandoned following the construction work. As such, Instituto Raízes em Movimento began to reclaim and repurpose public space in Complexo do Alemão through collective action projects, known as mutirões, starting in July 2015 with the construction of a public plaza located opposite the organization’s new headquarters on Avenida Central, Morro do Alemão.

Most recently, Instituto Raízes em Movimento has collaborated with Permanências e Destruições (Permanences and Destructions), a public art project funded by the Rio de Janeiro Culture Secretariat and telephone company Oi. Together with residents, Instituto Raízes em Movimento identified Travessa Laurinda as an optimal site for intervention given the state of neglect and precariousness of the stairway—which descends from Morro do Alemão to Olaria—and its underlying ruptured drainage piping. A project to fix up the stairs and the drainage began in June 2016 and will continue into mid-July.

Mutirão at Travessa Laurinda, Complexo do Alemão

In August, Instituto Raízes em Movimento plans to carry out a tree-planting project at the entrance of Avenida Central, which will provide greenery and shade in an area otherwise enveloped in concrete.

Alan explains that, equipped with intimate knowledge of their own communities, “people from the favela, who often have less education, are the ones orienting how things are done. This brings together Roberto, who is 30 years old and a bricklayer, with Pablo who is 30 years old and studying architecture.” As Alan points out, coupling local know-how with academic and technical expertise offers an excellent example of a best-practice for upgrading physical space in the favela, particularly in the aftermath of the non-participatory PAC interventions.

Highlighting the value of community participation and designing and implementing public works, Alan says: “We want to prove that it is possible to achieve technical quality while at the same time taking into consideration what residents want for the space. The result will also be a political weapon, to be able to say, ‘You told us that it’s not possible to take into account what residents want—and how they want things—and at the same time maintain technical quality. It is possible.’”

Creating alternative urban solutions

Instituto Raízes em Movimento’s activities are premised upon the idea of producing and exchanging knowledge without hierarchy. As Alan expresses, it’s critical to avoid the pitfall of “placing academic knowledge above grassroots knowledge—that is, experiential knowledge. Engagement between academic knowledge and grassroots knowledge offers the possibility of restructuring the social fabric, in regard to the development of Complexo do Alemão.”

As such, the experiences that have shaped favela history—characterized by resistance, creativity, and solidarity in the absence of the right to fully exercise citizenship—are fundamental in considering future urban solutions.