Learning from Brazil - Part 2

What do the Heliópolis community (a favela in São Paulo), David Satterthwaite (International Institute for Environment and Development - IIED) and a microbrewer have in common?


(This is not the start of a joke).


Earlier this week we had the privilege of being a part of the ‘Towards Habitat III’ discussions, which were being hosted by the Ministry of Cities here in São Paulo. It was a time of rich engagement and learning, certainly from the perspective of being immediately submerged into the Brazilian context of the urban agenda. UBU was invited to attend by Habitat for Humanity South Africa, for which we are supremely grateful.


Brazil, it seems, is heading the urbanization debate through the simple fact that they have no choice. The metropolitan area of São Paulo alone is home to some 22million people, with approximately 3 million people living in 1,600 favelas, dotted around the outskirts of the city.


As part of one of David Satterthwaite’s presentation he urged Brazil to start translating their revelatory findings of the cities so that the rest of the world can learn from them. It seems as if the mire of the challenge they face is clouding their collective understanding of what they are achieving, which is significant. One of the highlights of the week was a visit to the Heliópolis favela, a community of 200,000 on the edge of the city that was started some 40 years ago when people started building on football pitches.  We heard the leader of the community talk about the struggles of development, the length of time it has taken to see change happen, and about the community’s place in the city. To hear this story sounded depressing, but I was getting frustrated because from the second I got out of the bus all I could see was beauty, opportunity and wonder.


The community had built their own homes, the social leadership structure was incredible mature, and this platform had led to a number of victories in the community in relation to incremental upgrades including street lighting, sanitation, electrification; entrepreneurial activity that encompassed some 3,000 business activities; radio station etc etc. I wasn’t seeing a problem. I was seeing the solution. Yes the municipality had – at a late stage – come in to provide a degree of formality, but the drive and energy and raison d'être belonged exclusively to the community. Every time the community leader spoke about a challenge (and subsequent solution) I was hearing a new chapter in a book that had yet to be published. So naturally I urged her – twice – to write the book of the community. 


On our final evening in the city we decided to go and find some friends that we had made on the first day after we arrived in the city. Daniella and Danilo (Dani and Dani) had embraced us, and had gone out of their way to show us the best of São Paulo. It seemed natural therefore to go and find them and finish well. My own personal agenda entailed a desire to taste the fruit of Dani’s microbrewery initiative, something I am all too familiar with at home in Cape Town. Thankfully for us when we found them on Rua Frei Caneca the bar was closing and they were planning on taking the party to Dani’s flat just down the road. We got to breakthrough the horribly superficial tourist divide and got to taste Dani’s supremely excellent American Pale Ale. To my shock however none of his friends had really ever tasted what he was producing, a depressing reality in the context of a fledgling initiative that finds it hard to keep the price of the product affordable. I took it upon myself to share the fruit of Dani’s labour with the rest of his friends. And then it struck me.


David Satterthwaite was right that the story of the city must be written, translated and shared. But it needs to be done by a lens not part of the grounded reality – but by an external entity that finds it much easier to see and root around for the gold and beauty and wonder that is so prevalent. It needs to be someone who goes around with a mirror, gently putting it in front of a community leader, social entrepreneur or anyone else saying ‘this is who you are, this is what you have done, and you need to know how significant and inspiring your story is…’ The effect will be two fold: necessary stories will be told to inspire the wider global community, but more importantly the encouraging aspect of reminding people of what they have achieved in their own right will give COURAGE. There is simply nothing that they couldn’t do if they realised just how much they have already done.


The Heliópolis community is a place in the city full of wonder and opportunity and the APA produced by Danilo is something no less wonderful. Let’s be the mirrors.