Social unrest and new patterns of urban segregation in Brazil

by Jeff Garmany

Rapid urban social change in Brazil raises important questions for city dwellers about inequality, social justice and the 'right to the city'

First published: 13 February, 2014 | Category: International

While British politicians may often feel obliged to respond to articles in the country’s tabloids, rarely do foreign politicians make much of a fuss over such matters. Especially when those politicians live in the heart of the Amazon rainforest more than 5,000 miles away. Yet in December 2013, Mayor Artur Virgílio Neto of Manaus, Brazil, took serious exception to an article published in the Daily Mirror. Angry that the Mirror described his city as a “crime-ridden hell-hole” on the eve of the World Cup, Virgílio Neto fired back, saying, “whoever wrote the story was very badly misinformed and painted a totally unbalanced view of this city.” Manaus, he argued, has seen tremendous change over the last few years, and today, “we have modern police cars with modern equipment patrolling the city 24 hours a day, seven days of the week, every day of the year."

Beyond obvious issues of exaggerated claims, the article in the Mirror is concerning for at least two critical reasons. On the one hand, the article is not only inaccurate; it actually works to perpetuate a series of prejudiced stereotypes regarding countries like Brazil. Processes of globalization may be linking more and more people (and places) through commodity-chain networks, yet the Daily Mirror article works to reinforce problematic notions of cultural superiority, geographic difference, and non-Western backwardness. It hardly matters whether the article is accurate or not; it expresses something many people feel to be true, thereby working to reinforce a long history of conceptual misgivings regarding the ‘third world.’

Yet on the other hand, it is also troubling to wonder how Manaus has undergone such drastic changes in recent years, and also why the mayor is likely right that tourists have little to fear should they visit the city. Notorious for extreme levels of socio-economic inequality, Brazil, historically, is also known for peculiar patterns of urban segregation. Rich and poor lead very different lives, yet the physical distance that separates them is often quite small. The Military Police and private security providers are charged with confining ‘danger’ to low-income neighborhoods (and securing space in wealthy ones), and through various social protocols – some formal, others not – street-level crime has more or less remained bound to poor areas for decades. Until quite recently, this arrangement remained tenable for urban elites.

But over the past 10-15 years, Brazil has undergone an extraordinary transformation. Thanks to several public policy (and pro-poor) initiatives introduced by President Lula and The Worker’s Party beginning in 2003, as well as a surging export sector driven by China’s demand for raw materials, Brazil’s socioeconomic landscape is now remarkably different to what it was. At the start of the twenty-first century, nearly 25 million Brazilians faced chronic hunger. Today, that number has been dramatically reduced, and where durable consumer goods (for example, auto vehicles, washing machines, televisions) were once a privilege of upper-class status, today many within the working and middle classes are buying, financing, and mortgaging their way into high-value commodity markets. Changes to the urban landscape in large cities are so striking that, due to so many new buildings, it can be difficult to recognize a given city from one year to the next. And tourists arriving in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro expecting favorable prices due to international exchange rates will be sorely let down: a humble cup of tea in one of these cities costs almost twice as much as in London or New York. To be sure, Brazil is not the sleepy, tropical country some might imagine: almost 90 percent of the population lives in urban areas, and these cities are some of the most rapidly developing places on the planet.

So what do these changes mean for less-affluent urban residents, most of whom provide the labour that keeps these cities and flows of capital moving forward? In one sense, there have been significant improvements with respect to human development and general welfare. Employment numbers are much higher today than they were a decade ago (especially for young people), and while Brazilian education standards still have a long way to go, increasing numbers of people are finishing secondary school and enrolling in university. Birth rates are relatively low in Brazil (even lower than in the UK, with a total fertility rate of 1.8), meaning that many young people today have more disposable income and professional aspirations than did previous generations. For the working and lower classes, careers in the formal service sector are growing, and where issues of food security were extreme only ten years ago, conditional cash transfer programs (e.g., Bolsa Família) have helped enormously to alleviate pressure on low-income families.

In another sense, however, patterns of daily life – particularly in cities – have reassembled at lighting speed and with little democratic process. In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of low-income residents are being forcibly relocated as the city prepares for upcoming sporting megavents (the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics), and in São Paulo, reports of arson have been connected to revanchist gentrification efforts. Federally funded social housing initiatives are at work to address problems of urban (and rural) poverty, but often these homes are built on the peripheries of cities and the structures themselves are poorly constructed. In major cities throughout Brazil, as new flows of capital are directed inward, the less wealthy have little choice but to move outward.

Were efforts to improve public transportation and general urban infrastructure marked with the same intensity that characterizes preparations for the World Cup, the prospects for working class Brazilians would indeed be much better. Granted, there are millions today with formal housing and auto vehicles who never dreamed of such things, but the distances they must travel each day are growing, and the transportation networks they rely upon are insufficient for so many users. This, in fact, was one of the major rallying cries of Brazilian protestors last June: why should so much public money be spent on football stadiums when public hospitals, schools, and transportation facilities show such glaring deficiencies? A multitude of different frustrations brought people together in the streets, yet the one issue that launched the protests – organized by the ‘Free Fare Movement’ (Movimento Passe Livre) in São Paulo – challenged directly the high costs (and poor service) of public transportation in the city.

Why should it be public transportation, among all of Brazil’s problems, that helped to launch a wave of national demonstrations the likes of which had not been seen since the 1980s? To begin, urban mobility is something that confronts millions of people on an everyday basis, and as access to and from spaces of work, leisure, and the home becomes restricted, people’s lives are significantly altered. In many respects, their rights to the city are impinged upon, and their ability to move around urban space becomes increasingly constrained. The transportation links that connect cities are crucial not only to flows of labour and capital; they go a long way towards determining social interaction and economic opportunity as well.

All of this traces back to questions of segregation, and the ways that contemporary Brazilian cities – Manaus most certainly included – are reorganizing in the twenty-first century. Until recently, Brazil was a country where elites and the less affluent were often quite near to one another, yet rarely did they share the same public spaces. For example, simple dress codes and cover charges were enough to discourage (or prohibit) the lower classes from high-end leisure venues, and areas accessible only by private transportation (e.g., beaches, parks, shopping malls) excluded roughly 80 percent of the population who were not vehicle owners. Rich and poor could live in close proximity, and encounter one another on professional terms (employer/employee), yet seldom did they shop at the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, or travel by the same means. The poor, through a host of different mechanisms, were more or less hidden in plain sight.

This history has begun to change in recent years, however, and with these changes have come alternative patterns of urban segregation. In some respects, public space has become more heterogeneous, as formally insurmountable social and economic barriers are increasingly overcome by the lower classes. In restaurants and bars, on the high streets, at holiday resorts, and in airports around the country, working class Brazilians are establishing a presence in spaces from which, only a decade ago, they were informally excluded. The places restricted to elites are not longer so elitist. Yet not everyone is pleased with these developments: to be sure, some wealthy Brazilians are nonplussed to find ‘the help’ sitting next to them on their holiday flight to Orlando.

So do these trends indicate a new, desegregated urban future for Brazil? Not necessarily. In fact, it could be argued that contemporary patterns of urban segregation are actually a simple reversal of previous manifestations: the barriers between the wealthy and working classes might be more opaque, but the physical distances between them are growing. Not only are poorer residents moving further and further from city centers, but the transportation links that connect them also show signs of neglect. Modes of public transportation are overwhelmed and under facilitated, and motorists face gridlock most hours of the day. Moving about in Brazilian cities is becoming increasingly difficult, and with this trend have come new models of urban growth and isolation. For many Brazilians today, the doors to more affluent spaces in large cities may be opening, but the spaces themselves are becoming more unreachable.

Thanks to intensive and militaristic police efforts in Rio de Janeiro, the Zona Sul (i.e., wealthy downtown) has experienced falling crime rates for the last several years. And for tourists and wealthy cariocas (residents of Rio), ‘the city,’ as such, is safer now. But to presume that violence has been extinguished, or that all of Rio is better off would be a mistake. As problems within the city’s center have been addressed, issues confronting the greater metropolis have been ignored. In many cases, crime that once plagued the Zona Sul has now been exported elsewhere; to the urban periphery and to other cities all over Brazil. And this, perhaps, is why one ought to worry over the comments made by Mayor Virgílio Neto in Manaus: if his city has been made safe for the World Cup – thanks to round-the-clock, hi-tech police surveillance (reassuring, no?) – then what might the consequences be for those who live in the greater metropolitan region? (And also for other cities nearby?) Manaus may be reducing crime at the local level, but neighboring cities such as Novo Progresso, Altamira, and Santarém are now some of the most violent cities in Brazil. Crime has not really been stopped; it has simply moved somewhere else.

In Brazil, the problems of the inner city seem cruelly inescapable for lower-income urban residents: the further afield they move, the more the problems seem to resurface. And in much the same way that people and communities have been relocated in preparation for the World Cup, urban violence has also been re-segregated. Manaus and the other host cities will likely be ready in June, but improvements to public security and urban infrastructure are far from widespread or deeply rooted. New levels of development may be reworking historical patterns of exclusion and inequality, but just like in most countries around the world, these issues tend to morph rather than go away. Segregation can take many forms, and in Brazil, urban space may be changing rapidly, but urban social processes are much slower to follow.



After this article was written, the Movimento Passe Livre launched a series of highly organized protests in Rio de Janeiro’s Central (metro) Station. The protests have come in response to news of increased public transportation fares in the city, and protestors argue that increasing fares do not reflect an increased quality of public transportation service.


This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City


Dr. Jeff Garmany is a lecturer in the King’s Brazil Institute at King’s College London. His research focuses upon political geography and urban development, and he has lived on and off, working and conducting research, for the last 14 years in Brazil.

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