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Rio+20: where are the favelados?

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The Participation of Favela Youth in the Rio+20 Conference

Cidade_UnidalogoCurrently thousands of world leaders, government delegates and civil society representatives are pouring into the city of Rio de Janeiro to participate in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio+20, held from 20-22 June. The conference is organised jointly by the UN and the Brazilian government and a follow-up of the UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Eco-92) which was seen as a milestone in sustainable development, producing important treaties, such as the Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter.

Whereas the conference’s official participants embark every morning on a two-hour bus ride from their hotels to the RioCentro convention centre in Barra da Tijuca, most of Rio’s local population remains uninformed and uninvolved in the event. Reinforcing the impression that the conference is an exclusive event, on the night before the preparatory meetings of the Rio+20 conference started, a dubious poster signed by the municipal government appeared on the streets of Rio de Janeiro: “During Rio+20, keep the city clean, stay at home”. Although on the next morning the city hall denied having produced these posters, the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has still announced a five-day school holiday for the peak period of the conference to avoid chaos and traffic and guarantee the security of participants.

Nevertheless, the conference’s organisers and the Brazilian government have made some effort to include civil society representatives and young community leaders from the Rio’s more than 1,000 favelas [slums] in the Rio+20 process by encouraging and facilitating a number of side events, such as the Youth Blast and Rio+20 in the Communities.

The Youth Blast, organised by the UNCSD — Major Group for Children and Youth, was the official young people’s preparatory event for Rio+20 and was held from 7-12 June. It gave Brazilian and international youth under the age of 30 the opportunity to present the work of their organisations and to gather to discuss the “Future We Want” – the official slogan of Rio+20.

Rio20_in_the_Communities_Construction_sites_in_BabilniaChapu-MangueiraRio20 in the Communities, Construction sites in Babilônia,Chapéu-Mangueira, Credit: Felicitas RöhrigHowever, most international participants came as part of their countries’ official youth delegations and there was very little participation from Rio’s favela youth. The session held by the Cidade Unida [United City] movement, an urban social movement that brings together young local leaders in the city of Rio de Janeiro in order to monitor public policy development in the favelas and advocate for the rights of marginalised citizens, attracted a bigger audience. The movement was founded in October 2011 as a youth-led initiative in response to the social challenges that emerged from 30 years of governmental neglect in the favelas and the recent pacification policy. “There is a huge interest to sell Rio de Janeiro as a peaceful city. But a silent favela is not a pacified favela. In fact, there is a militarisation of daily life taking place. Our city was constructed for the elite. Capitalism transformed the city into a product that is too expensive for a big part of Rio’s population,” says one of its members, Raul Santiago, resident of the notorious Complexo do Alemão. His critique resonates with the fears of many conference participants who believe the outcome document of the Rio+20 conference gives insufficient emphasis on reducing poverty, advancing social equity and building sustainable cities.

Despite this uneasiness with the conference’s outcomes, there have been some positive achievements at the grassroots level. As part of the Rio+20 in the Communities event, eight pacified favelas in Rio de Janeiro were invited to organise an Open Day in which conference delegates and other international visitors could learn about their communities.

The Open Day in one of these favelas, called Babilônia/Chapéu-Mangueira, located on the hillside overlooking Leme and Copacabana, started with a debate about sustainable development, organised by the local NGO ICA (Information – Knowledge – Attitude) (Link: http://www.nucleoica.com/). “It is the role of the youth to define the political agenda for a sustainable society. It is time for us to think about what we want our future to look like,” says its president, Álvaro Maciel. Attended by both local residents and foreign visitors and under the motto “My World on the Planet”, the discussion evolved around topics such as transport, consumption and waste reduction, and was a chance to discuss and elaborate a list of proposals, which will eventually be presented at the Rio+20 summit.

Another chosen favela for the Rio+20 in the Communities was Vidigal, located next to the prosperous neighbourhood of Leblon. Here, the focus was directed at bringing the numerous local organisations and activists together to jointly plan the day’s programme: “It was a great challenge for us but a big success to learn how to organise and coordinate an event of this scale,” said one of the residents in Vidigal. Visitors embarked on a journey through the whole favela, enjoying the performances of various local youth clubs and artists, as well as a handicraft market and talks about the community’s history. Felipe Paiva, a member of Vidigal’s organising committee, explains the idea behind the event: “The municipal government approached us four months ago with the idea of hosting a cultural community event in Vidigal during the Rio+20 Summit. We received financial support but had the freedom to create the programme ourselves. It is a small but important step for us to present our community to the outside world, as well as a chance to inform our own residents about the Rio+20 conference and ways of sustainable living.”

Although the Youth Blast and the Rio+20 in the Communities are positive examples of how young urban leaders from Rio’s favelas can participate in the Rio+20 Conference, they represent only isolated cases. The vast majority of the poorer population continues to be excluded from the decision-making process. It remains to be seen whether in the final days of the conference the heads of states and the Brazilian government will truly create the “Future We Want”.