Cases and News

How one Brazilian slum is blurring the boundary between forest and city

Vila Brasilândia, a slum city on the edge of São Paulo, has found unconventional ways to tackle urbanisation, resource scarcity and climate change

Jaguari dam

A man stands at the Jaguari dam during a drought affecting the state of Sao Paulo. Photograph: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

The theme of the first World Cities Day is ‘leading urban transformations’. It is particularly apt for the inhabitants of the Brazilian slum city of Vila Brasilândia, who have shown resilience and ingenuity in the face of urbanisation, resource scarcity and climate change.

In many countries, including my native Brazil, urbanisation has been accompanied by growing numbers of urban poor converging in overcrowded slums that offer few basic services. Around 12 million Brazilians live in slums (favelas) and one of the largest is Vila Brasilândia on the edge of Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo.

The forest invades the city
The growth of Vila Brasilândia, fed by a constant influx of rural and coastal migrants, has been putting overwhelming pressure on the over-stretched infrastructure, and on the local environment.

The local population has been under pressure to find ways to reconcile deficient housing and the sustainable use of scarce natural resources. Bordering one of the remaining green belts of São Paulo, it has been encroaching into the urban forest of Cantareira for decades.

In response, Brasilândia recently launched a city-wide campaign called The Forest Invades the City, designed to redirect the trend of predatory human occupation by planting native trees, installing green roofs, and growing edible plants in abandoned public squares.

The sense of urgency has been heightened by this year’s drought – the worst in 80 years – which has left São Paulo reservoirs nearly dry and the Cantareira water system operating at 3% of its capacity.

Quintino Jose Viama

Campiagner Quintino Jose Viama holds a sign reading ‘The Brave Popular Movement, do not drink this water, take care of nature. Thank you’. Photograph: Sergio Oliveira

In the long term, climate change could exacerbate São Paulo’s drought problem. Quinitino Jose Viama, a local elder who for decades has been conserving Brasilândia wells and streams, believes the work they do is a basis for conservation but also the prelude of an urban revolution.

“We are asking every woman, child and man to keep the seeds of the fruits we eat to support the creation of thousands of seedlings necessary for this forest occupation,” he says.

The right to a good life
Somehow Brasilândia is challenging the notion that only after achieving a certain level of prosperity can one enjoy a quality of life. Its annual sustainable health fair, based on the South American concept of Bem Viver (the right to a good life) has proven hugely popular, attracting around 3000 people at each event.

Bem Viver is not about the individual; it reflects the rights we enjoy as a community, living and sharing life together. Since 2009, eight community gardens have been created and over 160 community health agents tour around the community on a regular basis, promoting local produce and giving demonstrations on how to cook nutritious and unusual meals, using a wide range of vegetables, seeds, flowers, grains, weeds and fruit.

This is just one of many innovative projects taking root around the world as part of the transition movement.

“Brasilândia has established an institute for the acceleration of our social enterprises,” says Mônica Picavea from Transition Brasilândia, part of the transition towns movement which aims to help community projects build more resilient towns.

“We are taking a different route from the traditional concepts of growth and progress. In our strategy, community and environment drive the economy, not the other way round.”

The institute began by developing a deeper understanding of their economy and mapping the existing business, working with dozens of artisan businesses led by community members – bakers, shoemakers, electricians and seamstresses – to create livelihoods and help drive Brasilândia’s growing local economy.

The process of urbanisation has multiplied the capacity of the people of Brasilândia to find their own solutions. By unleashing their creativity, they are blurring the distinction between urban forest and city, water authorities and conservationists, health system and community gardens, local development and social enterprise. And for all their evident problems, they are living the good life.