On October 22, Catalytic Communities’ Sustainable Favela Network held its first ever mayoral debate, with eight candidates in attendance, and livestreamed on Zoom and Facebook. In the absence of televised debates in 2020, the event allowed this year’s candidates to debate their proposals and visions for a more sustainable future for the favelas and the city of Rio de Janeiro. On Facebook, the event reached 7,000 people live and has now been viewed by over 11,000. On the next day, it also became available on YouTube.
The event did not take the format of a conventional electoral debate. The focus was not on the customary interactions between candidates, but rather on the interactions between candidates and favela residents, an underrepresented demographic in Brazilian politics. The candidates were invited to speak in a concrete and propositive way, committing to, if elected, work toward sustainable development policies together with favelas.
The debate, organized by the Sustainable Favela Network (SFN), was moderated by urban planner Theresa Williamson who is founder and executive director of Catalytic Communities*, and included the presence of candidates Clarissa Garotinho (PROS party), Cyro Garcia (PSTU), Eduardo Bandeira de Mello (REDE), Fred Luz (NOVO), Henrique Simonard (PCO), Luiz Lima (PSL), Renata Souza (PSOL), and Suêd Haidar (PMB).
Glória Heloiza (PSC) informed the organizers, soon before the event began, that due to a delay caused by earlier commitments, she was stuck in traffic and could not participate in the debate. Martha Rocha (PDT), whose presence was confirmed, did not appear and did not communicate to the SFN that she would be absent. Benedita da Silva (PT), who had confirmed her presence, also did not appear, sending a note to the SFN during the event in which, among other declarations, she said “I could not come to the debate today, and I apologize for this, but I want to say that I fully agree with the terms of the commitment letter presented to the candidates.” Former mayor Eduardo Paes (DEM) and current mayor Marcelo Crivella (Republicans) accepted the invitation, but cancelled three days prior. The SFN did not at any time receive a response to its invitation letter from Paulo Messina (MDB).
The central pillar of the debate was the Sustainable Favela Network’s commitment letter, which was distributed to the confirmed candidates a week prior to the event. The letter was written by 60 members of the network, representing socio-environmental projects in 38 favelas. The letter encourages the candidates—and asks for their commitment—to base plans for their administration, should they be elected, on 21 proposals (and 82 sub-proposals) from community organizers who are active in the favela territories and understand their potentials and challenges. The letter, “full of inclusive and impactful policy proposals,” aims for candidates to recognize favelas as “factories of solutions,” with consolidated sustainable initiatives and micro-enterprises—and which should be included in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of the city.
Reflecting about the relationship between the Sustainable Favela Network’s commitment letter and the UN’s 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Williamson explained that “it is as if we had taken the SDGs and gone through a consulting process with the most engaged local actors of these communities, resulting in a tailor-made proposal so that Rio could in fact achieve the SDGs.”
Pledges to the Commitment Letter
All of the candidates present at the Sustainable Favela Network’s debate referenced the commitment letter when they spoke, and some committed to the letter or to holding a meeting with the SFN in the first 100 days of their administration, agreeing with the letter’s last item: “If elected, in the first 100 days of my administration, I will schedule a day to learn and develop proposals with the Sustainable Favela Network.”
Haidar declared that she had already signed the letter, showing her signature, and Garcia declared that he wanted to “be clear that we are committed to signing the Network’s commitment letter.”
Souza confirmed her “commitment with all of the items in the letter presented by the Sustainable Favela Network.” Bandeira de Mello said, “Much more than accepting the invitation for this meeting in the first 100 days, I propose that we have periodic meetings, and I want this document to be a reference for our administration.”
Luz confirmed that as of now he “commit[s] to hosting during the first 100 days of [his] administration… the Sustainable Favela Network to debate and learn its priorities and [make] adjustments in the government plan.” Simonard said, “About the commitment letter, I would like to emphasize that the majority, the essence of the letter, is perfectly in line with the platform that the PCO party approved in its electoral congress.”
Lima said, in the vaguest terms, “I make the commitment to be with you and I congratulate your initiative.” Garotinho did not affirm that she would be open to having a meeting with the Sustainable Favela Network if she were elected, but said, “I am open to us discussing the issue of the cooperatives, the issue of training for work and income, and the issue of solar energy.”
Environmental Education and Community Gardens
One of the most-discussed issues during the two-hour debate was how environmental sustainability and social resilience can be reached through education. Haidar, the first candidate to speak, said, “People from northeastern Brazil, who make up the majority of occupants of the territory of favelas, like me, always were very creative, very innovative, very economical with their product, with their life…with everything that is around them.”
The SFN’s commitment letter takes a clear position in relation to environmental education with a focus on public schools in the favelas in the midst of the pandemic: “We are facing an uncertain future, where it is necessary to invest in creative and interdisciplinary modes of education, with the purpose of empowering children, young people, and adults to build a world based on environmental issues.” With this, the letter asks that candidates concentrate on youth, to generate a more sustainable future for the communities as a whole.
Bandeira de Mello, who was director of the Environmental Secretariat of Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES), spoke much about environmental education. Responding to a question posed by Lidiane Santos of Alfazendo in the City of God favela, about how the candidate “intends to utilize, take advantage of, and strengthen the already-existing projects and programs for socio-environmental education in favelas,” Bandeira de Mello said that “environmental education will have to be present in the curriculum of 100% of students.” The candidate also spoke about how his government will incorporate healthy food in schools as part of this effort. “We will incentivize organic food in school cafeterias,” he said, adding that children will be educated about the benefits of eating organic. Because of this, the candidate affirmed that already-existing municipal gardens programs, like Hortas Cariocas, will be improved and amplified.
In response to the same question, posed by Ailton Lopes of the Trapicheiros Residents’ Association, in Tijuca, Lima responded that “sadly, we do not have effective trash collection in needy communities… I intend to act with people in the community who already do this work… involve [municipal] secretariats together with the community… [secretaries of] education, the environment, together with residents’ associations, together with NGOs, so that we can develop and take care of the environmental part, making it so that… the community feels proud to be part of that environment.”
In addition to Bandeira de Mello, other candidates also spoke about food security. When asked by Rosana Mendes of Harmonicanto in the Cantagalo favela about “What do you propose to do to guarantee and promote food security among the favela population?” Haidar spoke about the importance of food produced for communities, by communities: “In my administration, the city government will encourage resources so that the communities, through their cooperatives, their residents’ associations… organize and create a food bank.”
As stated in the commitment letter, a recent study shows that when it comes to the generation and distribution of solar energy, the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region has the most potential to benefit economically. The letter says, “Rio has the potential to be a global protagonist in solar energy.” The candidates were asked about what they will do, if elected, to guarantee that favelas are at the center of the movement in the direction of sustainable energy.
Agreeing, Bandeira de Mello emphasized Rio’s potential in alternative energies and praised the initiative Revolusolar in Babilônia, in the South Zone. The candidate said he would do what is necessary in order to scale this project, including obtaining financing.
Adalberto Almeida of Revolusolar, the first installer of photovoltaic panels in Rio’s favelas, was coincidentally one of the members of the SFN to ask a question in the second part of the debate. He emphasized that, in 2019, Brazil occupied 8th position in the global ranking of countries that most generated employment through solar energy. Almeida asked candidate Simonard what his proposal would be to turn Rio into a protagonist of solar energy, and, at the same time, generate jobs and income for favelas and their residents.
Responding, Simonard said that, above all, his proposal was to end privatization of the energy sector that, according to him, inhibits the growth of solar energy. The candidate said that his party defends the end of the corporate energy monopoly and would nationalize the sector: “These monopolies are what maintain communities in this situation, underdeveloped.”
Memory and Culture
As presented by SFN member Bruno Almeida of the Historic Orientation and Research Nucleus of Santa Cruz (NOPH) in his question to candidate Clarissa Garotinho, the vast majority of elements valued in Rio de Janeiro’s culture are born, cultivated, or preserved in favelas, quilombos, and peripheries of the city. However, public authorities appear not to recognize this cultural contribution, and the SFN, in its commitment letter, asks the candidates to put a stop to this. Questioned about how they aim to strengthen projects around culture and memory in favelas, Garotinho emphasized the importance of culture. She affirmed that together with her running mate, actor and filmmaker Jorge Coutinho, she promises to put what is on paper into practice, starting with continuing the project of the Open Air Museum of Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro’s Port Zone.
“We have to designate a percentage of grantmaking to carry out small-scale events in the communities, destined at their own culture, Afro-descendent culture.” Garotinho defended that this could be done through the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Law of Incentive for Culture, that, according to the candidate, will allot R$60 million (US$10.4 million) to cultural projects next year. These words align with the commitment letter, which seeks to guarantee that at least 24% of resources destined to culture by municipal secretariats are for initiatives in favelas (which correspond to 24% of the urban population).
Referencing the abandoned industrial sheds on Avenida Brasil in the North Zone, Garotinho defended the creation of a nucleus for urban art to celebrate street artists and those from favelas, with courses for producers and graffiti, respecting the commitment letter, which emphasizes the importance of street artists.
Garcia, who responded to the same question from Emilia Maria de Souza of the Horto Residents’ Association and Horto Museum, emphasized that “lines of support for culture have to arrive at their destination.” He said that today, we are seeing the privatization of culture, as only already established artists receive financing through tax incentives, and favela artists do not. Garcia also condemned the criminalization of funk music.
Water and Sewerage
The year marked by the Covid-19 crisis and the water crisis unmasked the precarious reality of sanitation in favelas, and the commitment letter introduces a series of measures to rectify the current situation, prioritizing centralized as well as decentralized systems for full sanitation services to be carried out in favelas. For Souza, the only candidate at the debate who was raised in a favela, the revised Basic Sanitation Legal Framework, which has been heavily debated in Rio in recent months, does not meet the favelas’ needs.
Responding to a question about sanitation posed by an SFN member, Otávio Barros of the Vale Encantado Cooperative, a community that created its own ecological sewerage system in Alto da Boa Vista, Souza said, “we need people to have access to sanitation, but also for the amount paid for that service to be accessible. We have a reality in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro where the privatization of sanitation was there in the concession contract, signed by Eduardo Paes and maintained by Crivella, exactly so that this service would not be offered to unserviced areas—this means that favelas are excluded.”
The candidate denounced the outbreaks of tuberculosis in Rocinha and Maré. When she was questioned about how she aims to achieve basic sanitation in favelas, Souza defended that basic sanitation be public, with structural works in favelas that would be carried out by residents themselves, generating employment. “We saw, in the midst of the pandemic, the whole situation of lack of water in favelas, and we saw also how much this hurt not only the hygiene and sanitation in favelas, but also how it could have caused a greater proliferation of coronavirus. So… we defend public basic sanitation and clean water… fundamental for human dignity… in our [party] platform… [and that] these basic sanitation works are realized by residents of the area… generating income through a structural project of basic sanitation.”
Fred Luz had the same incredulity, comparing current access to sanitation to that of lesser-developed countries. He said, “Sanitation is an embarrassment in the city of Rio de Janeiro because the mayors of past and present never truly cared. The question of water which is insufficient, or [at times] nonexistent, and the issue of sewage treatment… it is shameful that the city of Rio de Janeiro does not treat even 50% of its sewage, and is comparable to a Third World country.” He suggested local solutions, such as are done by condominiums.
On the other hand, Luiz Lima, who voted in favor of the revised version of the Basic Sanitation Regulatory Framework, was confident, and said: “We have to act differently to seek different results. I am sure that this [revised] regulatory framework will bring a big advance, starting with the privatization of [Rio de Janeiro state water utility] CEDAE.”
Solid Waste and Income Generation
The last question was posed by Luis Cassiano, of Green Roof Favela in Parque Arará, revealing the concern of the SFN in relation to the collection of solid waste. He said, “Seeing as 54% of our waste is organic, this corresponds to more than R$600 million (US$103.8 million) to collect organic waste and bury it, losing money and prime resources for gardens, and filling our streets with trash trucks.” Bandeira de Mello agreed, defending the reduction of solid waste through circular economy initiatives and also because of the Seropédica landfill, where the current management is set to expire in 2026.
In the commitment letter, the SFN asks for more attention to waste pickers, responsible for 90% of recycling in Brazil, on the part of public authorities. Garcia, in the last minute of his speech, presented his proposal of municipalization of all of the waste picker cooperatives, as well as giving more labor rights to waste pickers, including the delivery of better protective and hygienic equipment.
For Luz, who responded to a question about income generation through the solidarity economy and in favelas, posed by Valdirene Militão of the Ricardo Barriga project in Maré, entrepreneurship is the response to generate more income, and for this, it is necessary for the city government to support favela residents through simplification of bureaucracy, something called for in the commitment letter. He recycling as an activity to explore, and remembered a resident of Vila Cruzeiro who took a piece of land that was full of trash and generated income by collecting the waste and putting an end to the landfill. The candidate added: “The favela is a source of creativity and entrepreneurship, and public authorities, instead of complicating this, should incentivize it.”
Lima took a similar view, saying, “Today, we have seven collection points in our city. We spend R$600,000 (US$108,300) per day transporting [trash] from these points to Seropédica. If we had 52 points where we could collect trash, in the communities, doing recycling, doing organic waste, it would also serve our power plants in producing energy, as happens in Singapore, Portugal, and Spain.”
In the words of Souza, who grew up in the favelas of Maré, in the North Zone, “the favela needs to be recognized as [being] the city. The favela is the city!” Rio’s favelas are central to urban life and, as such, they should be an integral part of sustainable urbanism.
At the end of the debate, the audio was turned on for all those present at the Zoom event to bid farewell, and the mood was of celebration in this exercise of demorcacy.