History of Urban Renewal ‘Project Rio’ in Maré Part 2: Allies Join the Fight

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This is the second article in a three-part series on the history of the Projeto Rio urban renewal program in Maré, from 1979 to 1981.

Efficient resistance on the part of Maré’s residents proved even more critical as hoped-for support from the Catholic Church failed to materialize in opposition to Project Rio in June, July, and later months, forcing Maré’s residents to lean even more on their own efforts.

In the meantime, the government did have good reason to hope for one imposing academic ally. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) is visible from parts of Maré, located just off the mainland on an island known as Ilha do Fundão, an earlier aterro project carried out between 1949 and 1952. DNOS and the Interior Ministry expected UFRJ to support a project that promised to clear favela residences out of the bay and hoped that it would grant scientific stamp of approval to Project Rio; to that end, authorities asked the university to put together a working group examining the plan’s environmental ramifications. At the roundtable with Maré’s leaders in June, the head of DNOS revealed that the government was waiting on the university’s report to discuss any serious modifications to the proposed plan. Both authorities and observers evidently expected UFRJ to support Project Rio and help overwhelm protest with its expertise. An early piece from June published in the newspaper Última Hora even went so far as to run the news of the creation of the university working group under the heading “UFRJ supports the project.”

UFRJ’s evaluation of Project Rio, though, pulled the rug out from under DNOS and the Interior Ministry. Published in early September, the report condemned the project for the negative impact it would have on the ecosystem of Guanabara Bay. A second report, completed in October, demanded that the project make no major changes to the current layout of the northwestern edge of the bay, whether on the mainland or Fundão. A professor and member of the working group responsible for the studies criticized DNOS in the press for its lack of a plan for preventing further pollution of the bay and advocating the conservation of the mangroves that bordered the water. Rather than bolstering DNOS’ claims to be providing an environmental service to the area, UFRJ joined Niemeyer and the Brazilian Institute of Architects (IAB) as a respected technical expert publicly questioning the wisdom of Project Rio.

The university’s official opposition to the project, however, though unambiguous and heavily publicized throughout the months of September and October, placed environmental concerns above social ones. The ten demands included in the October report did not once mention the residents of Maré, the last one only alluding vaguely to “assuring a bettering of the quality of life of the inhabitants” of Brazil’s “large metropolises.” The first five items in the report, by contrast, showed a great deal of concern for the University City island (Fundão) stressing that the government must not narrow the channel between the island and the mainland or create public beaches on Fundão. A good deal of UFRJ’s opposition to Project Rio thus stemmed from its potential to affect the university’s setup on its island in the bay. UFRJ’s distinctive take on Project Rio, however, though self-centered, demonstrated that there were multiple legitimate types of criticism of the project and indicates that some of the opposition pressing the government had little or nothing to do with the favela.

Some of the residents’ university supporters, though, did focus on the human element of the issue. Project Rio apparently became something of a cause célèbre among university students, even as their professors preferred to stress the initiative’s environmental risks. The presence of Manoelino da Silva, President of the Committee for the Defense of the Favela of Maré (Codefam), “was very much applauded” by students of the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in Niterói at a debate there attended by representatives of DNOS and chaired by military officers in April 1979. Students from the Silva and Souza Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism also accompanied Niemeyer on his visit to Maré and expressed their support for the residents in terms even stronger than his.

When one of the institute’s professors attempted to soften Niemeyer’s stance by remarking, “It should be made clear that our presence here does not signify a collision with the government’s plans, since we are not familiar with the details of it,” the students quickly “emphasized that the professor spoke ‘not for the Faculty, only for himself.’” The students’ fearlessness in challenging government policy, like the slew of opinion pieces published around Project Rio’s announcement in June, suggests an eagerness to take up the favela’s cause and stand in solidarity with the marginalized in a moment of increased opportunity for activism.

Occasionally, though, opposition to the project blurred the line between pro-favela attitudes and anti-government ones. One particular article published in September decried the project’s lack of transparency and the vagueness of its plans, attitudes shared by many, including the IAB just a month later. Its author, however, was Sandra Cavalcanti, a notorious advocate of favela removal since the 1960s. Three years after penning that piece, Cavalcanti ran for governor of Rio de Janeiro State on an opposition party ticket. Her condemnation of a project that would seem to fit well with her priorities back in 1979 underscores the political opportunism running through the beginning of abertura (democratic opening), as she seized on Project Rio less as an important issue in itself than as a point of government vulnerability.

It is worth mentioning, moreover, one ally that Maré’s residents rather surprisingly did not find in their corner. Notably absent from resistance in Maré was the Church, which at the time was playing a major organizing role in other favelas through the Pastoral das Favelas program. 1979 was the year in which the Pastoral staged a comeback of the Federation of Favela Associations of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Faferj), galvanizing a once-powerful organization that had fallen into apathy during the dictatorship. Yet there is only a single mention of Cardinal Eugenio Sales, a staunch opponent of evictions, attending an unspecified number of meetings with representatives from the Interior Ministry in June, gatherings at which it is not clear that any Maré community leaders were present. Codefam did reach out to the National Congress of Brazilian Bishops in the same month, but also made overtures to the Order of Lawyers and a number of congressmen at the same time. In fact, the roundtable in June mentions Sales as having advised DNOS “not to desist from the project,” apparently having bought into the government’s promise that Project Rio represented a better alternative to removal.

The number and variety of active supporters that Maré actually counted on against Project Rio, then, was unusually small for a favela in 1979. Tellingly, all of the representatives of Codefam at the all-important roundtable in June were residents of Maré. Niemeyer and the Silva and Souza students were apparently the only outsiders actively engaged in the favela, and then only at Codefam’s invitation; IAB and UFRJ, meanwhile, conducted their opposition to the project outside the Complex. Maré owed its ability to organize without a great deal of outside help to its long history of community mobilization. The Complex’s success in shaking off the threat of Project Rio with a comparatively small number of outside supporters—and a number of those with agendas of their own that had little to do with the fate of the favela—illustrates how extraordinary an achievement the modification of Project Rio was.

In fact, the difference between the residents’ focus and their purported allies’ varied purposes highlights a key aspect of Maré’s fight against Project Rio. For the Complex’s residents, abertura in 1979 did not chiefly represent a moment to stretch the limits of Brazilian democracy; rather, it marked yet another installment, albeit this one with a happier ending, thanks in part to political changes, in the fight for survival that had been continuous since the 1940s. While university students and would-be politicians agitated for more voice in government, Codefam made use of abertura, not as an end in itself, but as the means to accomplish the most basic of purposes and prevent the destruction of homes. Practical divisions between the favela and the formal city persisted throughout the fight against Project Rio, despite the links forged between Codefam and various outside groups, due to a fundamental discrepancy between what Project Rio signified to the residents and to their allies.

This is the second article in a three-part series on the history of the Projeto Rio urban renewal program in Maré, from 1979 to 1981.

Research for this piece was conducted at the archives housed in the Museu da Maré. Newspaper sources used were: Assessoria de Comunicação Social (1980), O Dia (1979-1981), O Fluminense (1979), O Globo (1979-1980), Isto É (1979), Jornal do Brasil (1979-1981), Jornal do Comércio (1981), Luta (1979-1981), Tribuna da Imprensa (1979), Ultima Hora (1979-1981).

Other Sources:

  1. Barbassa, Juliana. Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
  2. Freitas, Jânio de. “Imprensa e democracia.” Folha de S. Paulo (June 3, 2012).
  3. Guillermoprieto, Alma. Samba. New York: Vintage, 1990.
  4. Jacques, Paola Berenstein. “Cartografias da Maré.” In Maré: Vida Na Favela. Rio de Janeiro: Casa da Palavra, 2002.
  5. McCann, Bryan. Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.
  6. Perlman, Janice E. Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  7. Silva, Cláudia Rose Ribeiro da. Maré: A Invenção de um Bairro. Master’s thesis. Fundação Getúlio Vargas: Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil, 2006.
  8. Williams, Daryl; Chazkel, Amy; Knauss, Paulo, editors. The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press, 2016.

Full Series: History of Urban Renewal ‘Project Rio’ in Maré

Part 1: A Siren’s Song
Part 2: Allies Join the Fight
Part 3: Government Breakdown