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New LSE book launched on life in Rio's favelas

Favela-book-originalA new book which analyses how favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro’s slums break free of their backgrounds has been launched in Brazil.

Underground Sociabilities: identity, culture and resistance in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas” is the result of a collaborative study led by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in partnership with Brazil’s UNESCO office, Itaú Social, Itaú Cultural, AfroReggae and the Central Unica das Favelas (CUFA).

The book, launched at Itaú Cultural Institute on Tuesday October 22, explores the social fabric of Rio’s favelas, explaining how its citizens build a strong and positive identity, despite living with poverty, violence and discrimination.

The lessons gleaned by a pioneering research team - including academics, social movements, the Brazilian government and the private sector – could help improve the lives of the urban poor across the globe.

Professor Sandra Jovchelovitch and Dr Jaqueline Priego Hernandez from LSE’s Department of Social Psychology co-authored the book, which includes interviews with 204 community members of Cantalago, City of God, Madureira and Vigario Geral.

Interviews with the leaders of 130 social development projects are also analysed, along with an evaluation of specialists, observers and partners of two organisations – including the police.

Contributions are also included from  Professor Silvia Ramos, of  the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; Celso Athayde, founder of CUFA; and Washington Luís de Oliveira Rimas, known as “Feijão”, representative of Afroreggae, where he works as an agent of community projects in Vigario Geral and Parada de Lucas.

The book launch was followed by a discussion with the study authors and members of the partner institutions, mediated by Zeca Carmago.

The study and some results

The study was launched in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro during the international seminar “Underground Sociabilities: Identities, Culture and Resistance in Marginalized Communities”. The research found that social life in the favelas is complex, composed of the family, the drug trade, the absence of the State, the church, and the NGOs such as AfroReggae and CUFA.

Highlights of the study include the following:

  • Ever since the 1990s new social actors - youngsters, blacks, slum inhabitants – made their presence known in the public sphere with organised responses to poverty, violence and segregation, defying traditional models of non-governmental organizations and repositioning the slums in the agenda of Brazilian society.
  • The family is central to the favela dwellers, despite being an unstable reality in their lives. Almost 70% of 12 to 17 year-olds report having an absent father, more than 25% report an absent mother and almost 20% report the absence of both parents. Grandmothers and mothers play an important role in providing a stable influence.
  • The centrality of the drug trade is unequivocal: drugs have been the provider, legislator and organiser of everyday life in the favelas, offering a parallel system of behavioural codes as well as a 'professional career'. They also define the right to the city.
  • The police - the main representative of the State - are seen by favela dwellers as persecutory and aggressive, failing to distinguish between the mere inhabitant and the drug smuggler, the criminal.
  • Security is a central matter in the favela universe and the ways of socialising. There are complex relationships between the area’s residents, the police and the traffic factions.
  • The slums’ residents live with two sets of security norms: those dictated by drug traffic and those imposed by the police. In order to survive, they must learn to recognise them and to adopt either one according to different situations in their daily lives.
  • The residents feel more threatened living outside the favela than inside them. The outside world is the unknown; discrimination and prejudice are very much present and the rules of the city are seen as strange and unreliable.
  • The favela dweller avoids crossing the slums/streets frontier because the city limits are seen by the individual as a source of stigma and discrimination.
  • People in the slums rarely talk about their right to public security. They report frequent abuse from the police and they know they are often seen as criminals.
  • There is scarce reference to the concept of citizenship and to the fact that it is the State's duty to offer a safe environment for its citizens.
  • The Police Peace Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora - UPPs) represent change in the relationships between favela residents and the police. There is a new dialogue between the police and the community, bringing forth a new sense of security.
  • 93% of participants enjoy living in Rio de Janeiro, but the effective bonds that link favelas to the city are marked by ambivalent representations of Rio as both a beautiful and a violent city.
  • Favela dwellers cope with a divided society by developing two sets of representations: they perceive the city as a place regulated by ambivalent rules, where one is just an isolated and vulnerable 'individual'; the favela, to the contrary, have clear rules and one is a 'person' supported by family and friends.
  • The favela residents inhabit a world apart, with fragile institutions and the presence of an illegal enterprise (drug traffic) that until recently represented a public order parallel to the State.
  • Most favela dwellers fight to keep themselves within the legal framework and show determination to escape the appeal of drug traffic.
  • Results show that resisting crime is possible in the favela world if individuals are helped to build a strong identity, look at alternatives for their own lives and face difficulties within their environment.

Among the conclusions and recommendations of the study are the need for investment in girls’ education; the creation of sponsored programmes for women and the development of male role models.

Notes to editors

Underground Sociabilities: identity, culture and resistance in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas” is published by UNESCO Brasilia and is available in both English and Portugese. For more details go to: http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/publications/books/2013/UndergroundSociabilities.aspx

To request an interview with Professor Jovchelovitch, please contact Candy Gibson, LSE Press Office, c.gibson@lse.ac.uk

24 October 2013