On Friday, April 26, a demonstrative crowd of community organizers, favela residents, academics, and activists gathered to denounce and protest City authorities’ alleged negligence during the deadly floods that took place on February 6 and April 8 at a public hearing organized by the Rio de Janeiro City Council’s Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) on Flooding. City councilor Tarcísio Motta of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), head of the CPI, had invited Mayor Marcelo Crivella to attend the meeting to address the acute impacts that the recent floods had on vulnerable communities. In anticipation of the mayor’s attendance—or lack thereof—attendees circulated pro-environmental petitions and signs protesting Crivella’s administration amongst themselves before the meeting began. Cries of “Favela Lives Matter!” echoed throughout the large gallery where the event was held. The hearing was also live-streamed on Facebook.
The session began with a brief introductory speech from Motta, who announced to the gallery that the mayor declined to attend due to “prior commitments.” The crowd, doubting the veracity of Crivella’s excuse, erupted in opprobrium of his refusal to participate in the public hearing. Motta, however, insisted that the invitation to Crivella was an open one and that implementing public policies to “reduce the likelihood that rains will turn into tragedies” would require buy-in from Crivella. He then introduced Renato Cinco of the PSOL, the CPI’s official rapporteur, along with Marcelo Arar (Brazilian Labor Party–PTB), Rosa Fernandes (Brazilian Democratic Movement–MDB), and Tiãozinho do Jacaré (Brazilian Republican Party–PRB), who serve as committee members. Before concluding his remarks, Motta made a point to express his gratitude for “the presence of all those residents from areas flooded by the rains in February and in April,” especially those representing Rocinha, Vidigal, Horto, Manguinhos, Jacarezinho, Fazenda Botafogo, Rio das Pedras, Jardim Maravilha, and Barra de Guaratiba who had been invited to testify before the CPI.
Motta then gave the word to Maria Júlia Miranda, coordinator of the Land and Housing Nucleus (NUTH) of the Rio de Janeiro State Public Defender’s Office, who demonstrated contrition for the inadequacy of the City’s response to the floods on February 6 and April 8. Miranda recounted her experience visiting residents in Laboriaux, the uppermost part of Rocinha, who had successfully prodded the City to improve public infrastructure in their neighborhood. She encouraged residents of other vulnerable communities like Laboriaux to feel emboldened to hold public officials accountable for their inattention and to demand equal protection under the law. Miranda’s pivotal point was that because “almost 25% of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in favelas,” the City cannot afford to treat these communities like they are impermanent or separate from the rest of the city. Favelas will remain inordinately vulnerable to extreme weather events, Miranda argued, until City authorities begin to provide them with the basic services to which they are legally entitled.
Subsequently, Motta initiated a dialogue between favela residents and the CPI. He gave each resident five minutes to speak and encouraged them to feel “absolutely free” to share their feelings with the commission, without fear of retribution. The first resident to share his story was Felipe Paiva of Vidigal, who told the CPI that on February 6, his house had collapsed while he was inside. The neighborhood’s alert sirens were not activated and Paiva was consequently unable to evacuate the area in advance. “I can’t rebuild my house and I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to my home,” he said. Rio de Janeiro has “had this problem for many years,” Paiva lamented, but deaths and damages occur “principally in poorer communities.” In Vidigal, according to Paiva, full scale public services have yet to be resumed in the community. Trash remained on the streets for weeks after April’s floods, consequently impacting residents’ health. “I would like a response—an objective, practical response” from the City about these issues, concluded Paiva as he left the podium.
André Gosi, representing the Vidigal Residents’ Association, corroborated Paiva’s testimony about the state of their neighborhood after the floods. “Favelas are part of the city of Rio de Janeiro… and I don’t like to differentiate between a resident of [neighboring wealthy neighborhood] Leblon and a resident of the favela of Vidigal,” he shared. He implored the CPI to consider that “we don’t live in favelas because we want to, but because we need to… do City authorities lack the competence [to provide public services], or do they just not care?”
During her five minutes at the podium, Maria Consuelo Pereira dos Santos from Rocinha told the CPI: “Everything good that has happened in my life happened in the favela of Rocinha.” She wanted to contradict the negative narratives constructed about Rocinha by the media and was proud to speak on behalf of her friends and neighbors who had been harmed by flooding and landslides. Santos then read an open letter from residents of Rocinha to the CPI that, among other demands, requested improved environmental education programs, inclusive city planning efforts, and functioning alert systems to warn residents about extreme weather events. “Crivella’s campaign slogan was ‘the time has come to care for people’—but who?” Santos called out, “because many people are not getting anything.” She received a resounding ovation as she left the podium.
A particularly heart-wrenching testimonial was then given by Vanda Ventura, a Rocinha resident and mother of three. Verging on tears, Ventura told the crowd that a tree had fallen on her house and that she stood on the bed with her three daughters as the water level rose and swept away all of their possessions. “I have no house, no money… and I never heard a warning siren,” she implored. She and her children were living on the streets and were unsure where they would go next. Ventura did not anticipate that the social rent assistance for those who lost their homes—in the amount of R$400 (US$100)—would improve her situation. “How am I supposed to find a home in Rio de Janeiro with R$400?” she cried, before abruptly stepping away from the microphone in exasperation. Motta, appealing directly to Ventura, thanked her for sharing her story and promised that the CPI would fight to prevent similar injustices from happening to favela residents in the future.
Residents’ testimonies continued along these lines for about two hours, with almost all of the residents condemning Crivella’s inaction during the floods in February and April and expressing fear of experiencing similar tragedies in the future. Laura dos Santos Paiva from Horto demanded to know why the “city can’t organize itself to help all of its residents,” while Clarice da Paz from Barra de Guaratiba asked why the City had not installed emergency sirens in her neighborhood. Paz told the CPI that in Barra de Guaratiba, “we always remember that at any moment, this could happen again.” Rosilane da Silva, also from Barra de Guaratiba, was dismayed by the city’s lack of willingness to inspect her home and ensure its structural soundness per her request. Her house was severely damaged in the flood and the City sent her an expensive invoice for damages that could have been prevented by an inspection. “Is this the reality in Brazil? People who could help us but won’t?” asked Silva at the end of her speech.
As the cascade of tragic stories increased the sense of urgency and irascibility in the room, community representatives began calling for inter-favela solidarity in their testimonials. Wesley Piedade, representing Jardim Maravilha in Campo Grande, commended his community for “forgetting that they have lost things and banding together.” He expressed frustration that the complacency of City and state officials had forced Jardim Maravilha’s residents to assume responsibility for their own post-flood reconstruction efforts, but praised his community for its resiliency and urged other favelas to take pride in their own self-mobilization in the wake of tragedy. Antonio, a representative of the Rio das Pedras Residents’ Commission, then called for a moment of silence on behalf of all victims of the February and April floods. “They were abandoned by public authorities,” he said, but they “still live” and deserve to be remembered with dignity. Antonio reminded the gallery that residents of Rio das Pedras and other favelas “work for the rest of the city” and deserve to be “appreciated” for this hard and honest labor.
After the testimonies from favela residents concluded, Teresa Bergher of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) spoke about the City’s failure to allocate a sufficient portion of their budget to flood prevention and drainage systems. Next, CPI rapporteur Renato Cinco gave an emotional speech about the culpability of City authorities in the marginalization of favelas. In a scorching critique of Crivella’s insistence that the illegal and “disorderly” nature of favela settlements are the cause of flood deaths, Cinco pointed out that many mansions and wealthy neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro were initially constructed illegally. He remarked that “it is always the poor who are responsible for the problems of the city,” and the rich are never held accountable for their actions. “Informality is not the problem” in Rio de Janeiro, Cinco insisted. “Why is our city not one with adequate housing? Why do we have this level of inequality?” He condemned the city’s “shameful” desire to displace favela residents in the name of real estate development and called upon the attendees to join him at a public hearing on May 10 to protest Crivella’s plans to construct buildings on protected lands.
Finally, various representatives from the City were called upon to speak before the CPI. Roberto Nascimento da Silva of Rio’s Conservation Secretariat was first to present his department’s response to the floods on February 6 and April 8. Silva stated that his office would “work together alongside the mayor” to improve flood prevention and response measures. He pointed to a river conservation program that his department had implemented in Rio das Pedras as evidence of their commitment to improving health and education in favelas. The crowd grumbled in response to this perceived mendacity, and shouts of “liar” circulated, but Motta ameliorated the tension by urging attendees to “try to listen” to what Silva and other officials had to say in order to encourage them to work in partnership with residents. Representatives of the Municipal Infrastructure and Housing Secretariat and the Municipal Social Assistance and Human Rights Secretariat and the executive director of Resilience and Operations for the City of Rio were all permitted to give brief presentations on the measures that their offices had taken to mitigate the impacts of the February 6 and April 8 floods.
Ultimately, according to Motta, the City’s actions are insufficient to prevent future disasters. In a concluding statement, he argued that “we are facing a situation in which the municipality says ‘we are doing things,’ but they aren’t making structural changes. It is very important for City authorities to go to Barra de Guaratiba and see the infrastructure that is lacking, to visit Vidigal to resolve the issue of trash collection, to go to Horto, and to solve the Macacos River drainage problem, for example.”