A steep climb leads to the top of the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer is visible to the right and the ocean can be seen over the roofs of hundreds of homes below. The residents of the cluster of houses on the summit, O Pico, surely have one of the best views in Rio. But they are fighting efforts to evict them and demolish homes that the city says are in an area of risk.
"For years, the authorities did nothing when it was so dangerous to live here. Now that the area is finally safe, they want us to move out," says resident Veronica Mora, gesturing at the view from steps that wind down a narrow alley outside a two-storey brick house that took her family 20 years to build. Many of the houses are draped with banners reading: "No to removals" and "Santa Marta is not for sale".
Rio officials claim O Pico is vulnerable to landslides, but residents point out that the landslides that did occur and caused deaths in 1966-67 and 1988 affected no one at the summit.
About 2,000 people who had left the community of 6,000 returned after police pacification units (UPP) arrived in 2008 to regain control from drugs gangs, because "now it's a good place to live", says Mora. Five relatives from three generations live in her house and none of them wish to leave neighbours or live apart. Hers is among 150 families that dispute claims that O Pico's steep location brings geological hazards, as cited in the city's risk assessments that are being used to justify evictions.
The assessments are just one controversial area of the upgrading of Rio's favelas on the eve of the World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016. Campaigners argue it should be an opportunity to reconsider these communities as a permanent model of affordable housing that preserves human diversity rather than temporary housing that is unfit, unsafe and only of value to property developers.
"No informal settlements in the world are more stigmatised and have more negative connotations than Rio's favelas," says Theresa Williamson, a British-Brazilian urban planner and director of NGO Catalytic Communities. The organisation campaigns for empowerment of the communities that are home to around 22% of the population and are an enduring feature of the landscape, but whose inherently sustainable qualities, she says, are under threat.
"[In the runup to the World Cup] international media are presenting Rio's favelas either as violent no-go areas or cheap places for tourists to stay. They can't be both, so which is it?" says Williamson. Rio's favelas could not only offer a model amid the growing need for affordable housing worldwide but enhance a city already famed for its natural beauty with 600 unique communities with distinct cultures, she says.
Instead, hosting the sporting events has led to a rush for gentrification of many favelas and to displacement for many residents. Removals and evictions linked to the mega-events have been criticised by the UN.
"The UPP programme is basically state funding of gentrification," Williamson says. Gentrification has brought rent rises, demolitions and evictions in areas such as Vidigal, Tabajaras and Vila Autódromo, where local groups say residents prefer to stay rather than move to public housing that is offered as an alternative.
Rio's 2013-16 strategic plan envisages a 5% reduction in favelas in Rio.
Charles Heck, an American academic and former resident of Santa Marta, has been researching the city's remapping of favelas, agrees with Williamson that the UPP programme has recast the priorities for urbanisation. "Post-UPP, urbanisation has focused primarily on land titles and new businesses rather than health, sanitation, education and other infrastructure," he says.
At the summit, resident Victor Lira is telling some urban planning students crowded between houses built a few feet apart on a sandy path that the city is "denying services", including lighting and rubbish collection, to O Pico in an attempt to force residents out.
"From the militarisation [UPP] came the greed of people [and] companies, and now they want to take us out of here," says Lira, who since 2011 has led resistance efforts to fight demolition of homes in the courts and the media.
Williamson says favelas offer an example of sustainable communities – low-rise, high-density communities whose properties mix business with housing and are geared to pedestrians, and who don't have to travel far for their basic needs.
In a world where the UN estimates a third of the population will live in informal settlements by 2050, we can learn from Rio's favelas, Williamson says, and they must cease to be seen through "a negative and sensationalist lens".
A starting point would be better consultation with residents about changes to their communities in which they have invested for decades, and a comprehensive survey of their assets, she adds. "A city cannot be built sustainably in exclusion of large social groups, and a healthy, vibrant city depends on citizen participation and social justice."
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- Photo source: © Mario Tama/Getty