The Other Side of the Coin – The Voices of the Slums

Local races, colours, flavours and welcoming people. Belém is said to be more than simply “The Gateway to the Amazon”. Just a stroll through the historic centre (see my previous article), for example, might give the impression that the “City of Mango Trees” is a real jewel and reveals beautiful historic landscapes that contrast with an exuberant nature.
The contrast is there indeed. Walk outside the city centre and you see the shocking contrast. The slums.

Half of the inhabitants of the metropolitan region of Belém live in slums. 1,131,268 people are living under subhuman conditions.

General wisdom says that healthy cities are crucial to economic development and people’s welfare. And if a government is serious about the welfare of its people it has to build communities that allow its members a reasonable and human housing.
So, what happened to the low-income people of Belém during the glorious 396 years of the city’s existence?

31/12/1834 – João Batista Gonçalves Campos masterminding the Cabanagem revolt. Cabanagem (1835-1840) was an uprising in which blacks, mestizos and Indians rebelled against the political elite and took power in the then province of Grand-Pará (Brazil). Among the causes of the revolt are the extreme poverty of coastal communities and political irrelevance to which the province was relegated after the independence of Brazil. The popular revolt had the participation of elements of the middle and upper class of the region, among which stand out the names of Father João Batista Gonçalves Campos and journalist Vicente Ferreira Lavor (“Papagaio”). The photo gives a view of the city of Belém at the time of the conflict. As you can see nothing has changed.

The answer is simple: Nothing. No local government, neither in the past nor in the present has given a damn about the favelas and its inhabitants.
Ahh, the city centre and upper- and middle class neighbourhoods have been upgraded frequently, leaving the favelas sinking further in the mud. Literally.

Hailing the milestone that Brazil reached the sixth spot in the ranking of world economies, Guido Mantega, the Brazilian Finance Minister, declared that it still will take some 10 to 20 years before the Brazilians will reach the same standard of living as Europeans. Saying this, he must have had in mind the ghettos of England or the banlieus of Paris. In case he was trying to refer to human-worth living neighbourhoods, he must have known that that will take, for Pará anyway, at least another 50 years. If ever!
If the local politicians can ever stop and bury their mentality of personal greed and corruption. For the less-fortunate nothing changed in Pará since the Cabanagem-revolt.

The columnist of the “Estado do São Paulo”, Celso Ming wrote, correctly, that the volume of the GDP is relative and does not reflect the quality of life of the country. And that can be seen in the photos.

The next text is partly quoted from an editorial of the Belém daily newspaper O Liberal. A piece that reinforces the view expressed here about the daily tragedy that reaches over one million Belenenses. Read: “As vozes das favelas” (The voices of the Slums).

Belém includes no less than 89% of all inhabitants of the State of Pará who live in substandard, subhuman, technically called, clusters, but we all know them by the word slums. Belém is the absolute champion, as Greater Belém or the Metropolitan Area, includes Marituba (number one of the list) with 77,2% or 83.368 inhabitants living in favelas, and Ananindeua  (number two of the list) with 288.611 inhabitants or 61,2% living in favelas. And “finally” Belém itself (number four on the list) with 758.524 inhabitants or 54,5% of its population living in favelas.

It looks like a dry quantification out of a survey. But it reflects the absolute failure or inexistence of satisfactory public policies to upgrade all these people from subhuman conditions.
The recent survey on favelas (slums or subhuman or substandard agglomerates) by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) scares and shocks when the sheer quantity gives rise to the human component involved.

To say that in a slum live 30,000 to 50,000 people, doesn’t reveal and give essence to the conditions under which these men, women and children live.

Scaling this one or that one as the largest slum of a city, state or country doesn’t have that much impact as long as we don’t hear the story of the villagers, the ones that live in these communities.

Shantytowns are born spontaneously, but not quite. Those who end up in one, don’t have a choice, they don’t end up there out of their own free will.

Citizens who choose to live in slums are herded over there, because they have not even minimum living conditions elsewhere.

These subhuman agglomerates are a real and predictable response to social demands that largely fail to be overcome, not because of a lack of individual efforts, but because the Government is non-existent on concrete actions to reduce these degrading situations. That’s why there is such a huge housing deficit.

The result is what we observe from the figures of the IBGE: thousands, millions of people settling in slums because otherwise, they would live literally on the streets, underneath the mango trees, the marquees, the bridges. They would occupy and live in the abandoned – public or private – buildings.

But do not tell that to this huge contingent of people, living under the bridge or the marquee is so different than living in a slum.

People living in a slum are facing the effects of lack of essential services. They can’t rely on sewerage (there is no), first aid posts (there are none), water supply (there isn’t).

They have to live with stinking water coming through the door and into their dwellings.

They are forced to face violence all day, every day.

“We live here because there is no other way, but I can’t wait to go to a better place. I am very afraid that my children slip, or catch a disease due to this water”, a resident of Terra Firme told the reporter of O Liberal.

“Here at home, we put everyone inside around six o’clock in the afternoon. No one else comes after that time, especially not the children. […] They live trapped inside the house, only leaving to go to school. The truth is that we live isolated, we are stranded. And when it rains, the situation is even worse: overflowing water from the canal and the house itself is flooded”, adds another.

“We sleep in fear. At night, many houses are raided and we only hear the screams. […] I was born and raised here, but I can’t wait to get a better place to live. We can’t wait for the politicians, they only come here during election time or when a complaint comes on TV”, says a resident of the lowlands of Condor, another slum in Belèm.

These are the voices of the slums.

These are the voices that proclaim the dismay of those who are fettered, including electioneering demagogy.

These are the voices of those who are the prisoners of reality and degradation that are far beyond the numbers, far beyond the quantification.

The federal government allocated BRL 54 million (USD 30 million) so that Belém could urbanise the Vila da Barca neighborhood, the largest district on stilts in Latin America. The resources sent from 2003, should be used to remodel the slum with 626 houses of good quality. The Comptroller General's Office found that there were built less than 100 housing units - for the unit cost of BRL 397,000 (USD 221,000). There, with that money, you can build a mansion. The people themselves could easily have built 15 to 20 houses for each unit. Text Leonel Rocha - Photo Sérgio Marques/Agência O Globo

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