The Sustainable Favela Network (SFN) is a project of Catalytic Communities (CatComm) designed to build 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 on-site exchanges among eight of the oldest and most established organizations that were mapped in the Sustainable Favela Network (one of which is the subject of this article), followed by a full-day exchange with the entire network that took place on November 10. The eight participants in the on-site exchanges featured in this series include six community-based organizations: the Vale Encantado Cooperative in Alto da Boa Vista, EccoVida in Honório Gurgel, Verdejar in Engenho da Rainha and Complexo do Alemão, Quilombo do Camorim in Jacarepaguá, ReciclAção in Morro dos Prazeres, and Alfazendo’s Eco Network in City of God. In addition, the exchanges visited two broader initiatives focusing beyond favelas with extensive experience in sustainability: Onda Verde in Nova Iguaçu and the Sepetiba Ecomuseum. The program is supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Brazil.
The First Exchange: Onda Verde, Nova Iguaçu
“This network has diversity. This network has experiences. This network has successes and mistakes… The network is this collaborative construction of people, souls, feelings, and hard work.” So began Hélio Vanderlei, founder of NGO Onda Verde, speaking at the first Sustainable Favela Network exchange on September 1, 2018. On this sunny Saturday, participants spent the day sharing experiences and learning from the 24-year history of the host organization in Tinguá, in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense. It was a trek to get to Onda Verde: the cutting-edge environmental organization is located over an hour by car from the final stop of Rio de Janeiro’s metro line at Pavuna.
The first exchange brought together representatives from Vale Encantado, Ecco Vida, Verdejar, Quilombo do Camorim, ReciclAção, Alfazendo’s Eco-Network, the Sepetiba Ecomuseum, and host organization Onda Verde—in addition to CatComm team members and collaborators.
Environmental Education, Green Building, Sustainable Gastronomy
The day began with brief introductions by each organization, allowing participants to recognize the commonalities among their projects and values. Notably, a number of initiatives at the exchange promoted community empowerment through environmental education, sustainable tourism, and organizing around waste and recycling. Project representatives also shared their greatest successes to date; many noted increased recognition and demand for their initiatives within their communities and increased self-esteem of residents participating in their programs.
Following introductions, Vanderlei presented Onda Verde’s history, followed by a tour of the organization’s site. Onda Verde, which translates to “Green Wave,” is situated in Tinguá—a rural neighborhood at the northern edge of the municipality of Nova Iguaçu neighboring Rio. The organization has run sustainability projects ranging from environmental education programs for thousands of students and educators to reforestation initiatives that train and pay locals to plant trees in the Atlantic Forest all around the nearby Tinguá Biological Reserve. Over one million trees have been planted thus far and the NGO has the capacity to produce seedlings and plant millions more, pending financial support. Describing the NGO’s trajectory, Vanderlei said, “We have never closed this building in the last twenty years. With every crisis that we have gone through, we have survived… We always think like this: Brazil is not a straight line. Onda Verde isn’t either.”
Onda Verde’s commitment to sustainability is evident in the organization’s headquarters and projects. One highlight of the site is Onda Verde’s concept house, a building made entirely of sustainable materials that has hosted visitors and researchers from across the world and is open to the public. Made from shipping containers, the house is energy independent—making use of both wind and solar. Its sanitation system makes use of captured rainwater and transports sewage to an on-site biodigester.
In addition to its core projects, Onda Verde supports independent initiatives including workshops in a house made of bamboo, known as the “Hummingbird Space of Human Ecology.” Additionally, Onda Verde is launching a new sustainable gastronomy project with the support of a new volunteer chef whose participation Vanderlei attributes to the organization’s growing network of supporters. He described the network as a “net” of connections, saying, “I’m ‘fishing’… I threw the net [and] she [the new volunteer chef] fell in… That is what’s interesting about this network. We launch the net… and these ‘fish’ end up forming a beautiful aquarium of experiences, lives, and cultures.”
Sharing Successes and Challenges, Strengthening the Network
Following the tour of Onda Verde, SFN members participated in a question-and-answer session with Vanderlei, discussing challenges and shared experiences. Noting that many SFN initiatives work with recycling, Danielle Gomes of Ecco Vida asked the network about their greatest difficulties with recycling programs and strategies to overcome them. Vanderlei identified public authorities as the greatest challenge to waste collection, sparking widespread agreement and a discussion about formalizing and training waste collectors and creating community-managed collection methods outside of government constraints.
Alexandre Telles from Quilombo do Camorim asked Vanderlei how he managed his professional life in order to sustain Onda Verde in the beginning, before gaining support and funding for the initiative. The question reflected a common struggle that many community leaders face between financial stability and passion for their projects. Vanderlei attributed Onda Verde’s initial survival to his wife’s support while he dedicated himself to pursuing this dream. It was notable that the majority of those present on Saturday were women, and that over 50% of initiatives in the entire Sustainable Favela Network are led by women.
Speaking to the importance of creating networks, Vanderlei explained that he learned how to write project proposals over time and began building a network of contacts by collecting the names and business cards of everyone he met. “It’s the story,” he said, of a “factory worker who turned into an environmentalist, who didn’t know anyone, who wasn’t in a network, who did not have a university education… but who had a dream.”
After a delicious lunch produced by Onda Verde’s gastronomy project, the day concluded with participants sharing stories of how their initiatives began. They spoke of challenges—from conflicts with local government to struggles mobilizing community members—and successes, outlining how both their projects and their passion for the initiatives have grown over time. Though each story was unique, common threads emerged, strengthening the network’s formation. In this exchange, a piece of wisdom from Vanderlei rang true: “You have to have a voice. The network is a voice. A network without a voice isn’t a network, it’s just a web, and a web is fragile. The network means linked arms, united hearts—different goals, a common purpose.”
View our slideshow (or album) from the exchange:
The themes that emerged over the course of the first exchange were:
- Environmental risk as the initial trigger for action
- Economic opportunity as a driver of action
- Large role of women in projects and mothers supporting families
- Conflict role with the public sector: rarely helps, often gets in the way
- Primary challenge is often how to engage and mobilize residents
- Primary challenge for organizers is often how to balance work and home life
- Primary challenge for organizations is often fundraising, writing proposals, realizing each group’s full potential
- Common themes across two or more of the eight initiatives:
- Socio-environmental education and community engagement
- Recycling and waste collection / waste pickers
- Agro-forestry and reforestation
- Adaptive reuse of trash and handicraft production
- Connections between environment and history of a community