Is it still sustainability if you don’t have a choice?


Before I came to Berkeley I spent a few years managing an environmental remediation and community gardening project in Rio de Janeiro called Green My Favela. Through this work, I became very familiar with the conditions in Rio’s favelas, informal settlements that low-income residents and rural migrants built over the past century as a response to the city’s affordable housing shortage. About one fifth of the population lives in these neighborhoods, and they are the fastest growing segment of the city. In most favelas, residents build piped water and sewage systems, hook up electricity, create transportation networks, and build roads, with minimal assistance from the government. Because of the piecemeal nature of self-built infrastructure, favela residents are accustomed to conserving their resources carefully and sharing them when they can. Many residents save water in buckets to prepare for shortages, do their laundry by hand during blackouts, and cultivate small gardens or raise chickens to supplement their groceries.


Informal infrastructure in a Rio favela: rooftop water tanks for rationing water, self-built electrical wiring, and roof gardens

The daily environmental practices I encountered in Rio went far beyond what I thought of as a sustainable lifestyle. Growing up in San Francisco, I was raised to see myself as a staunch environmentalist and to view conservation of natural resources as one of my most central personal values and political convictions. My elementary school inculcated great concern in its students for the rainforest and the whales, and taught us that recycling and picking up litter were our civic duties. The environmental consciousness I was familiar with framed environmental concern as a moral imperative: you should care about reducing your carbon footprint simply because you’re a good person, not because it affects your life, your health, or your livelihood. It ignored the fact that people around the world–as well as in our own city–have no choice about whether or not to conserve resources because they have so little access to begin with. This made it difficult for me to grasp that ecological destruction and societal injustice are deeply intertwined. Scott Campbell identifies this snobbery as “the ‘environmental elitism’ that besets many suburban, white-oriented environmental organizations.”

The comparison with liberal, environmentally aware cities like San Francisco is interesting because Rio’s favelas achieve many of the goals that US cities strive for. To use Graham Haughton’s characterization of sustainable urban development types, they combine elements of the self-reliant city and the redesigned city. Like self-reliant cities, favelas have limited resource consumption, raise some food locally, and produce relatively little waste. Because many of them are built on hillsides at the edge of the rainforest, they are closely integrated with nature, and residents coexist with a host of other species (whether they like it or not!). Migrants from the countryside bring extensive knowledge of agriculture and herbal medicine. Social organization is very participatory, and people work together on public works projects in lieu of government assistance.


Residential density

Favelas also adhere to the principles of redesigned cities (which are similar to smart growth): they are extremely dense, walkable, and incorporate a staggering array of mixed uses–the same building might contain apartments, a nightclub, a pet store, a doctor’s office, a restaurant, a community center, and a tattoo parlor. Hardly any residents own cars and many ride bicycles. Although favelas can be far from the city center, they are well served by formal and informal public transit. Best of all, since favelas were built this way, they do not need to be redesigned to correct the mistakes of the past.

Catalytic Communities, a media watchdog and human rights organization, produced a documentary called “Favela as a Sustainable Model” in 2013, showcasing the environmental infrastructure in favelas and profiling prominent neighborhoods activists and practitioners. The documentary premiered at the Cúpula dos Povos, a parallel summit to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

I love how this documentary showcases the incredible environmental work being done in the favelas “to shed light on the aspects of favela life that the broader society could and should model in terms of sustainability.” This approach is especially important because Rio’s government often uses environmental justifications for illegally demolishing favela communities. Favela residents are at the forefront of integrating dense urban neighborhoods and natural habitats, with dozens of projects on reforestation, eco-tourism, food security, permaculture, and water management flourishing in the city. The low-impact lifestyle common to favela residents offers many important lessons for city planners, and elements of it should be adopted elsewhere.

However, I feel uneasy about celebrating Rio’s favelas as sustainable communities because of the deep social and economic inequality that underlies their development. Unlike the self-righteous environmentalists that I meet in San Francisco, favela residents do not give up luxuries purposefully; they had no access to them in the first place. Favelas are dense and walkable because the government confines the poor to small plots of land that must accommodate migrants pouring in from impoverished northern Brazil, and this density can lead to high levels of stress and tuberculosis. They are well-served by informal public transit and buses because Rio’s metro primarily serves wealthier neighborhoods. Residents consume less water because supplies are strictly rationed, and the government does not provide enough for the community. In the face of this deprivation, the functional and sustainable aspects of favelas are a testament to the residents’ resourcefulness.

Despite residents’ best efforts, favelas face severe environmental challenges. Government negligence leaves neighborhoods to contend with open sewers, trash build-up, and flooding–all of which exacerbate public health crises like dengue and zika. In the past few years, protesters have attempted to leverage the mega-events in Rio to bring more attention to the infrastructure needs in their communities, but to little avail.

Without diminishing the considerable accomplishments of environmental practitioners in Rio’s favelas, I question how sustainable these communities really are–socially and economically as well as environmentally. The phenomena that connect the favelas to Haughton’s models of sustainable cities do not correspond to equity–in fact, they stem from severe inequity. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals directly address equity by including poverty eradication and the reduction of inequality, although references to racial or ethnic discrimination are notably missing. The Principles of Environmental Justice, developed at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, make it clear that sustainability must strive for the “political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples.”

As Chantal pointed out in her post, current inequity has deep roots in history. Brazil is one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, and its history is marked by horrific institutional racism. It was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, in 1888, and more kidnapped Africans were taken to Brazil than any other country in the Americas. The legacy of slavery and colonialism are clearly visible in the environmental conditions in Brazil today. Of the 77 million Brazilians who lack a reliable source of water, 67% are mixed race (of African or indigenous descent). Favelas populations have lower incomes, lower education levels, and higher percentages of people of color and Afro-Brazilians than the rest of the city. Much like in the US, black youth in the favela are targets of police harassment and violence. Favelas are at constant risk of displacement, violating their human rights and undermining their ability to amass wealth through home ownership. Although favela residents are rightly proud of their communities, the stigma associated with living there (combined with racial prejudice) can restrict their access to job opportunities and maintain generational poverty.

I believe that true sustainability requires those with more power and greater access to give up some of what they have and work towards a more equitable distribution of resources. The environmentalists I knew in San Francisco are willing to part with small luxuries like driving a car every day, but they do not recognize the extraordinary privilege that allows them to make such choices. Favela residents are consuming less, but what does this matter if the rich in Brazil and beyond are eating up much more than their fair share? This places an unfair burden on an already overburdened population. Environmental practices in favelas provide a stellar example for planners everywhere. But without addressing the underlying power structures that confine low-income and Afro-Brazilian residents to informal settlements with inadequate services, they cannot truly be called sustainable.