The Sustainable Favela Network (SFN) is a project of Catalytic Communities (CatComm) designed to build and reinforce solidarity networks, bring visibility and develop joint actions to support the expansion of community-based initiatives that strengthen environmental sustainability and social resilience in favelas across the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region. The project began with the 2012 film Favela as a Sustainable Model, followed in 2017 by the mapping of 111 sustainability initiatives and the publication of a final report analyzing the results.
In 2018, the project organized intimate on-site exchanges among eight of the oldest and most established organizations that were mapped in the Sustainable Favela Network, followed by a full-day exchange with the entire network that took place on November 10, 2018. Watch the video that accompanies the exchanges featured in the 2018 series by clicking here.
In 2019, the project is organizing the second round of on-site exchanges—this time open to all SFN members and the general public alike—at projects based in Babilônia, Maré, Manguinhos, Pavuna, São João de Meriti, and Vila Kennedy. The first exchange of the year featured visits to RevoluSolar and Favela Orgânica in Babilônia, followed by a lightning round of capacity-building on approaches to project development presented by SFN members. The program is supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Brazil.
The Morning of the First Exchange
On Saturday, April 27, 85 individuals came together in Babilônia, in Rio’s South Zone, to engage in a day-long dialogue on socio-environmental sustainability hosted by solar energy initiative RevoluSolar and zero waste gastronomy project Favela Orgânica for the first Sustainable Favela Network (SFN) exchange of 2019. In the morning, the Sustainable Favela Network group gathered at the entrance to the community, where participants were met by volunteers from RevoluSolar and representatives of the Babilônia Residents’ Association. After a brief introduction, the group set out for a walk through the community. The first stop was a central community space, the Tia Percília School. There, Adalberto Almeida—the first photovoltaic panel installer in Babilônia and co-founder and current president of RevoluSolar—described the initiative’s role in the community effort to support the school, which recently suffered a loss of funding and significant drop in enrollment. By installing solar panels on the rooftop, RevoluSolar aims to help empower and revitalize the space. The solar panels allow the school to produce a significant share of its own energy—65% of the school’s normal consumption—and to generate savings equivalent to R$5,000 (US$1,250) per year or R$125,000 (US$31,250) over the panels’ expected 25-year lifetime. These funds that would otherwise be paid to Light, Rio’s electric utility, can now be invested in the school itself. In addition to providing solar panel installation services, RevoluSolar advocates for environmental education and solar energy and hosts monthly workshops on sustainability topics for children and youth.
Following this initial presentation, participants were divided into two groups. One group began a community tour led by André Constantine, a community guide and activist, member of the Favela Não Se Cala (“The Favela Will Not be Silenced”) movement, and former president of the Babilônia Residents’ Association. The other group set out to learn more about RevoluSolar from Almeida and other volunteers.
Constantine is widely known for his powerful oratory, strong statements and unadulterated opinions, which lead him to provide sincere, politically charged and brutally honest favela tours which begin with his showing a sign that proclaims “Favelas are not Zoos!”. Throughout the tour, he spoke passionately about the racism and state-imposed violence and neglect that he believes produce favelas. “We have to change our discourse and reflect on this together. We, the people, have the possibility to collapse the invisible wall that divides this city,” he said.
Pointing out RevoluSolar’s pilot projects at the Babilônia Rio Hostel guesthouse and the Estrelas da Babilônia restaurant along the way, Constantine continued to expose the challenges that favelas face in terms of access to basic services and the militarization of public space in the favela.
Finally, the group arrived at the site most severely impacted by April’s heavy rains, with such extreme damage resulting from the “lack of decent housing policy,” as relayed by Constantine. In Babilônia, the storm and resulting landslides killed three residents. Landslide risk is among the issues that members of the Sustainable Favela Network are engaged in identifying and finding paths to remedy, but government prevention strategies are fundamental. Recently, funds set aside for such prevention have not been applied in Rio de Janeiro.
RevoluSolar Presents Sustainable Energy Solutions for Babilônia
After the walk, the groups switched activities—the second group embarked on Constantine’s guided tour while the returning group visited the rooftop of the Babilônia Residents’ Association to hear from RevoluSolar. RevoluSolar representatives and volunteers exposed their primary objectives in making renewable energy—specifically solar energy—attainable and affordable for residents of Babilônia. One of the main goals of the project is to empower community members by providing career opportunities in the growing solar energy sector. In fact, RevoluSolar has established partnerships to give scholarships to local residents to participate in professional and technical training in solar panel installation; five residents have already completed apprenticeships. They also seek to address the participation of women by including them in vital debates about sustainable energy technologies.
As RevoluSolar’s representatives explained, energy independence relates not only to environmental sustainability but also to the community’s financial sustainability. As such, the initiative aims to tackle the soaring electricity bills that they explain have been “irresponsibly calculated” by Light based on estimates, rather than real consumption, causing residents to overspend. RevoluSolar also seeks to address the clandestine use of energy, which, as the initiative’s representatives noted during the discussion, “is risky and comes at a very high price.” By creating a local source of energy derived from solar power, RevoluSolar’s installations provide safe and clean energy for communal spaces in the community like the Tia Percília School while preventing the outward flow of resources, thus strengthening the local economy.
Currently, RevoluSolar is working on a survey of one hundred households in the community to better understand energy consumption and its impacts in Babilônia. During the presentation, Almeida spoke about some of the initial lessons that the team has gleaned from the study, which will be published on RevoluSolar’s website by the end of the year. One of the most shocking results, he recounted, was the fact that several residents are struggling to feed their families in order to pay exorbitant electric bills.
Questions from the group provoked an enthusiastic discussion about how RevoluSolar can serve as a model for other communities in Rio de Janeiro and beyond. For instance, Mariluce Mariá de Souza and Cleber Araújo—organizers of the Favela Art initiative and residents of Complexo do Alemão in the city’s North Zone—inquired about RevoluSolar’s organizational structure, financial sustainability mechanisms, and community engagement strategies. “Is it an NGO, an association, a project, or a company—and how are residents going to be able to access it?” asked Araújo. He continued: “I don’t know the exact cost [of solar panels], but I know that they’re expensive and therefore inaccessible to poorer people. So, how are you going to convince residents to contribute and be engaged?”
In response, Almeida described the importance of dedicating RevoluSolar’s resources to projects located in public spaces in order to benefit the community as a whole: “The support that we receive—for the school, for example—can’t be for one resident. We don’t receive support in order to go ahead and select one person’s house [to receive the solar installation]. It has to be a public and collective space in the community.”
Vitor Chelles, a volunteer at RevoluSolar, emphasized that while solar energy is perceived as expensive, it’s truly an investment given the long-term savings that the panels generate for the community. Chelles described: “How are we going to give continuity to the project? By having a financial impact. There are several organizations, companies, and governments that have funding available for social projects [in the field of renewable energy]. One of the fronts that RevoluSolar is working on is obtaining funding for projects here. The idea is to have a solar energy cooperative and with this, the cost of energy will decrease, thus allowing people to use this money for other things… We think about ways of empowering residents—how they can control their own futures and their own destinies. It’s not sufficient to depend on the government for everything. When residents have power in their own hands, they can impact society as a whole. This is our motto: ‘The power is ours.’”
Araújo congratulated RevoluSolar’s representatives for their highly innovative project and expressed support for the idea of restructuring as a social business—adopting some business practices with the primary objective of tackling a social challenge and generating benefits for the community. “Becoming a social impact project is the best thing you can do right now. Congratulations. I hope that you expand to other favelas as well.” The exchange of thoughts and ideas nourished the exchange and proved highly valuable for visitors and RevoluSolar’s team members alike.
Sustainable Gastronomy: Regina Tchelly’s Favela Orgânica
The exchange continued over lunch at the headquarters of Favela Orgânica, where chef Regina Tchelly welcomed the Sustainable Favela Network group with open arms and big smiles. Tchelly recounted her personal journey—from her home state of Paraíba, in Brazil’s Northeast, to the favela of Babilônia—and spoke about how her passion for sustainable gastronomy catapulted her to national and international stages. Through her award-winning initiative, Tchelly aims to change the ways in which her community and society as a whole view food, and food waste.
After her presentation, Tchelly and her staff served each participant a dish of vegetable risotto, persimmon salad with lemon-garlic dressing, and hibiscus juice. Among other products that Regina prepared for the SFN were persimmon jelly, biomass dough, hibiscus- and persimmon-flavored popsicles, and finally—at the request of those fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to taste the delicacy on previous occasions—Tchelly’s famous savory jackfruit pastries.
After lunch, Tchelly carried out a cooking workshop, demonstrating the preparation of a delicious banana peel patê. At her public workshops, Tchelly teaches both adults and children from the community to use virtually all parts of fruits and vegetables—even the peel, stalks, seeds, rinds, and pits. Regina affirmed that at Favela Orgânica, she “works with the circle of life.” Participants learn not only how to use commonly discarded parts that are left over when cooking but also to compost the parts that are truly unusable. In doing so, locals are able to eat food that is healthier, more affordable, and environmentally responsible at every stage of the process, from production to disposal.
The language that Tchelly speaks is the language of love. Hers is a respected voice in the community of Babilônia, to whom she has been completely dedicated and devoted. It’s where her roots are planted. “We sometimes want to save the world, but we stop looking at what is around us. We want to do so many things, but we forget to work with what we already have,” Tchelly stated.
Creating Alternative Solutions: Sharing Experiences and Strengthening the Network
To wrap up the day, four members of the Sustainable Favela Network spoke about their experiences with project development and management, a topic identified through a survey of SFN members’ priorities and desires for training and skill-sharing. In a format that combined mini-lectures with an informal discussion circle, community leaders and project coordinators took advantage of the space to share and exchange experiential knowledge and engage in a horizontal dialogue based on mutual enrichment.
The speakers were inspiring and provided sound advice, especially for attendees in the early phases of launching a new initiative or expanding an existing project. Gustavo Cunha from Mundo Livres opened with a talk on entrepreneurship and strategies for planning and adapting projects. Carlos André do Nascimento (a community organizer from Pavuna, in Rio’s North Zone) spoke about the creation of the Graffiti Museum—the first of its kind—and the importance of perseverance and building partnerships. Suzana Mattos of the Brazilian Support Service for Small and Micro Businesses (SEBRAE) shared her experience with fundraising and emphasized the importance of “problem-solving methodologies.” Thaís Aguiar, a recent graduate in environmental engineering, wrapped up the conversation by discussing the need for schedules and other planning tools to ensure projects’ success. Support materials from each of the presenters were made available to participants following the event.
The exchange embodied the Sustainable Favela Network’s mission to strengthen and expand on the sustainable qualities and community movements inherent to Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities. Shaped by its history of resistance and resilience, Babilônia is home to creative projects like RevoluSolar and Favela Orgânica that will continue to pave the way for the development of socio-environmental solutions in Rio and beyond.