RIO DE JANEIRO — Global leaders have departed, and the media spotlight has moved on. But in one small corner of Complexo do Alemão, an agglomeration of some of the most notorious favelas in northern Rio, the 2012 Earth Summit is just beginning to bear fruit. Or more accurately, herbs and vegetables, for now. The fruit will come later, along with tubers and, eventually, trees that could occasionally be clipped for construction wood. And one of the lucky beneficiaries, a 25-year-old who is fresh from prison and still wearing an electronic-monitoring device on his ankle, has a job tending to this new garden.
“I’m proud,” says Darlan Francisco de Carvalho, nicknamed Peu, pictured above looking down on the garden during a recent visit after Rio+20. “A lot has changed, and the community has embraced our work.”
In front of Peu (pronounced ‘pay-oo’), terraced rows of young greens extend across a hill that just months ago served as the local garbage dump. It will take years for the garden to fully develop, and Peu’s job, as well as that of the community he lives in, is to ensure that it does. This might have seemed outlandish just a few short years ago, but today many things are possible here on the appropriately named Morro de Esperança, or Hill of Hope. Peu disappears into a maze of houses and then returns with a handful of crisp radishes, which he passes out to me and other visitors.
The garden is one of three initiatives brought to Complexo do Alemão by the Brasilia Botanical Garden and a collection of non-profit groups, with support from the private sector and the federal government. Nearby, where pipes once released sewage directly onto the hillside, the groups buried a simple treatment system that relies on microbes and old tires; an elevated planter featuring banana trees sits on top, fed by grey water from sinks and showers. The groups also installed a solar water heater on one of the local buildings; at a cost of less than US$250, the device uses readily available polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials and provides enough hot water (200 litres) for about six showers at a go.
One of the project organizers is João Amorim, a film-maker and son of Brazil’s current defence minister, who is now working with the Brasilia Botanical Garden. Amorim says the initiative grew out of a desire to push the scientific expertise within the botanical garden out into the real world, and Rio+20 provided the impetus. The groups approached government agencies and were quickly directed to Complexo do Alemão, which is in the final phase of a massive pacification programme designed to wrest control from warring gangs of drug traffickers. The government, having built an extensive gondola system intended to integrate the area with the rest of the city, was eager to bolster its investment with other social projects. When the team arrived to begin work, Amorim says, they stayed in barracks at the base that the military established when it rolled in with tanks in November 2010.
The term “favela” is often equated with “slum”, but this is oversimplifying things. With some 250,000 residents, Complexo do Alemão is a city unto itself, complete with commercial corridors and a diversity of housing developments, only some of which would qualify as slums. “This was a middle-class neighbourhood in the 1950s,” Amorim says on the ride in, gesturing towards rows of gated houses that have been tagged by ubiquitous graffiti and long since fallen into disrepair. It was among the most dangerous areas in Rio before the pacification, he says. “We would not be here two years ago.”
For Amorim, the project helps to demonstrate how the “green economy” can be developed on a local scale throughout the favelas. The potential is every bit as large as the challenges ahead. As it stands, untreated sewage is dumped into ditches and ravines throughout the favelas, eventually making its way into the heavily polluted Guanabara Bay. And cheap electric water heaters are typically responsible for 40% of the electricity usage in local households. For those residents who pay for their electricity, an investment of $250 could pay itself off in 10 months, he says, and after that it’s an extra $25 per month that the families can spend on other things.
The problem is that many of these households have tapped into electricity lines illegally and do not actually pay for their electricity, says Carlos Rufín, director of undergraduate international programmes at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. Rufín has been working with Rio’s power company, Light, on energy access and conservation issues for several years; some 20–25% of the city’s power disappears en route to paying customers. Most of that is because of theft, and energy efficiency among illegal users is extraordinarily low. Rufín says that the solar water heaters represent yet another tool that could be deployed as an incentive to reduce electricity demand while bringing people into the system at a reasonable cost.
Amorim says the botanical garden and its partners compiled a list of more than a dozen possible projects, and members of the community selected these three. The team then then offered classes to train community members to both build and manage the projects. One of those trained was Peu, who was fresh from prison on charges of armed assault (he had a gun but says he didn’t shoot). Peu’s older brother was killed by police when he was 14, and he spent four years working with a local gang before striking out on his own brand of independent criminality. But today he is enjoying the benefits of a regular salary that brings in around $300 per month, and now he talks about returning to school. “I’m thinking high now,” Peu tells me. “God gave me another chance.”
On our way back from Complexo do Alemão, I asked Amorim what comes next. The political will is there for this kind of work today, but the challenge is securing resources to scale up, he says. He ended with a common refrain from Rio+20 and other global environmental negotiations: “Show me the money.”
Photo: Jeff Tollefson