Marielle Franco and Sérgio Besserman: Two Sides of the Favela Evictions and Environment Debate

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“The favela is not the problem. The favela is the city. The favela is the solution.” These were Rio City Councilwoman Marielle Franco’s opening remarks as she appeared on an episode of Canal Brasil’s Cidade Partida (Divided City) program, which aired just two days after her brutal assassination on March 14. The series features debates on polemical topics between experts representing divergent positions. Franco was on the show opposite Sérgio Besserman, economist, environmentalist, and president of the Rio Botanical Gardens Research Institute (IPJB), to address the question “Is evicting favelas a necessary measure?”

Franco, who grew up in Complexo da Maré and dedicated her career to defending the rights of favela residents—including their rights to housing and safety from the threat of forced eviction—took the position that since eviction exclusively affects lower-income favela residents, it represents a biased attempt at “reordering the city” by public officials and the wealthy. “It’s the maintenance of power,” she said. In contrast, Besserman, who is actively attempting to expel the residents of the community of Horto on the border of the Botanical Gardens, defended eviction. In favelas located in “areas of risk” or representing threats to the “assets of the city,” defined primarily as natural areas and preserves, the practice is necessary, he argued.

The debate boiled down to a discussion of the sustainability of favela communities. Besserman implicitly defended a hundred-year-old discourse of favelas as a “threat” to the city, reframing this view through an upper-class brand of environmentalism that is blind to issues of social injustice. Environmental protection necessarily will have favela casualties, he argued on Cidade Partida, while downplaying the environmental harm perpetuated by the rich. Yet RioOnWatch has collected ample evidence of favelas and quilombos working to preserve the environment and promote sustainability. Let’s take a closer look at how Besserman framed his argument (and how Franco responded) to understand how environmentalism is weaponized against favela residents—and why it shouldn’t be.

“Resettlement with dignity”

Words have power to shape what is considered acceptable and what is not. Besserman clearly understands this. He opened the Cidade Partida episode by explaining that he thinks eviction, synonymous with ‘removal’ in Portuguese, is a “disgusting word.” Franco agreed, joking that people “remove makeup or trash”—not other human beings. Besserman explained that he prefers the term “resettlement with dignity,” a phrase he has resorted to in other interviews, and which recalls Mayor Crivella’s new preference for the word “resettlement” over “eviction.” Besserman was short on the details of what exactly this would look like, but presumably it would involve compensation and relocation to a comparable residence in another area of the city. According to Besserman, of the two million residents of irregular occupations in Rio, only “20 or 30,000” should be relocated because they present a threat to the natural “assets” of the city or live in an “area of risk,” an amorphous designation that has been used to justify favela evictions in the name of “protecting” communities built on inclines or facing a risk of natural disasters. “For this .1%, resettlement with dignity,” Besserman said, “for the rest, land title security.”

How do Besserman’s euphemism and minimization of the costs of eviction match up with reality? His words ring hollow considering his own efforts to expel the residents of Horto in the South Zone from their homes on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, which their ancestors labored to build. Besserman went on the record to Agência Pública, saying Horto’s presence is “incompatible” with the functioning of the institution he runs and that the community was always an “occupation” on the Botanical Gardens’ land. Like Globo‘s erroneous characterization of residents as “invaders,” his rhetoric ignores that Horto families were invited by the Botanical Gardens itself to live on the land as they built and maintained the park next door. Horto residents have not been offered compensation for the potential loss of their homes and livelihoods. Instead, shock troops violently expelled one family and demolished their house—a far cry from “resettlement with dignity.” In Rio, eviction orders are more often enforced by rifles and bulldozers than benevolent social workers. Besserman is complicit in these rights violations in Horto. “Resettlement with dignity” is an empty ideal coming from him.

On Cidade Partida, Franco wondered how favela residents can be treated with “dignity” if their resettlement means frayed community and family ties, longer commuting times to their places of employment, or losing their jobs altogether. These risks are significant even in cases in which the government offers evicted residents alternative housing, since both in the era of evictions under the military dictatorship and in more recent history, alternative housing has tended to be located far from evictees’ original homes, often in peripheral areas of Rio’s distant West Zone. When asked, Besserman acknowledged that “there has never been a resettlement to improve the lives of residents,” throwing into question the possibility of a “dignified resettlement.” In this segment, he referenced the community of Vila Autódromo, claiming that the majority of its residents wanted to be resettled, an assertion disputed by Franco on Cidade Partida and contradicted by the internationally recognized activism by Vila Autódromo residents in favor of protecting their homes. Besserman’s insistence on the possibility of a just “resettlement with dignity” contradicts not only his own actions, but an entire history of favela dispossession.

Green evictions

Whether or not Besserman’s defanged version of eviction is possible or probable given Rio’s history, his argument rests on problematic assumptions about favela communities and environmental protection. When one of the hosts of Cidade Partida asked Besserman what role the “public good” plays in his support for the practice of eviction, his response ignored the possibility of a sustainable favela that co-exists with and protects its environment. When favelas overlap with designated Conservation Units, then “the destruction of the environmental area will create more poverty and loss of income than the resettlement with dignity,” Besserman claimed.

One example he gave was the supposedly “criminal scheme of irregular occupation” around the Pedra Branca State Park, one of the world’s largest urban forests. In an interview in 2006, Besserman complained of the “very violent pressures” on the park and later argued it was “fundamental to contain the pressure by the informal population of Pedra Branca,” referring to the favelas and quilombos in the areaRioOnWatch has repeatedly profiled one of these communities, the Quilombo do Camorim, built by freed and runaway slaves and maintained by their descendants. The Camorim Cultural Association (ACUCA) regularly hosts reforestation and park cleaning events and works to preserve the African and Indigenous heritage of the land. It is ironic, then, that Besserman labels communities in the park a threat. The real “violent pressures” come from real estate developers, such as Cyrela. Cyrela felled trees within the buffer zone around Pedra Branca to build the Barra Media Village 3, which hosted journalists during the 2016 Olympics, on land that was sacred to Quilombo do Camorim residents as it was thought to contain a grave of African slaves. This follows a trend of encroachment on the park by luxury condominiums, mirrored in the Jardim Botânico neighborhood in the South Zone. Despite this, it is favela communities that receive eviction notices, while developers are given a free pass.

On Cidade Partida, Besserman even went so far as to argue that only the poor and vulnerable should face eviction. “For the rich you don’t have resettlement with dignity,” he said. “For the rich you simply have to say, you did something illegal. Your fine is this much.” Besserman single-mindedly regards favelas as environmental threats, while giving the condominium dwellers a relative pass. This ‘green’ justification for favela evictions weaponizes an extremely class-biased brand of environmentalism against favela communities.

Upon hearing Besserman’s justifications for eviction based on the protection of natural lands, Franco asked him directly about the case of Joá and Barra da Tijuca, coastal areas in the West Zone that experienced deforestation and pollution with the rapid development of luxury condominiums and gated communities in the 1980s. They are now home to wealthy neighborhoods organized around shopping malls and highways—not the picture of sustainability. Many condominiums in the area dumped raw sewage into the ocean or local lagoons before the City finally began to crack down on the practice (though the City does not consistently maintain this vigilance). In response, Besserman argued that areas like Barra da Tijuca “should have had more preserved areas,” but since Conservation Units did not exist when the majority of this development took place, nothing could have been done. Yet the same could be said for most of Rio’s favelas and certainly all of its quilombos, which have been around for decades (especially Horto and Camorim, which have been around for centuries). His unwillingness to condemn the environmental crimes of the rich, while advocating for the eviction of the poor and vulnerable, betrays a bias against the poor.

The favela is the city

The brand of environmentalism Besserman put on display in the Cidade Partida segment contains no element of environmental justice, a concept and movement for the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, as well as the equitable enforcement of environmental regulations. It gives a relatively free pass to the environmental harm perpetuated by the rich and powerful, while inflicting the life-shattering punishment of eviction on poorer communities. His “area of risk” and “city asset” designations have been and continue to be applied almost solely to the land occupied by residents of low-income communities. They are vague labels easily hijacked by real estate interests or public officials, bringing bulldozers to bear on favela homes and families.

A more just and productive environmentalism might heed the words of the late Marielle Franco. We have to “understand that the favela is the city,” Franco said at the end of the program. Investment in favela communities results in truly sustainable development, in which favelas are not treated as threats to the city. The fact is that they are incredibly resilient, sustainability’s sister concept. Even in the face of mainstream stigmatization, they demonstrate high levels of social cohesion, while some are at the vanguard of sustainable urbanism (for example, in the areas of community gardening, pedestrian access, ecotourism, and waste management). Rather than using environmentalism to justify the destruction of these communities, environmentalists should use these strengths to guide the development of the city as a whole.