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The price of a bus ticket…and musings on wealth inequality in Rio

21 Nov

The other day I got stuck in a huge queue on the bus on the way back from the university, not necessarily a strange occurrence but I was struck by the helicopter flying overhead. As we started moving again I noticed groups of people standing at the bus stops across the 8-lane Avenida Preidente Vargas that stretches into the centre of Rio, chanting as the buses passed by and holding placards with R$3.05 crossed out.

Searching on the internet I discovered that this was one of a series of protests against the increase in bus fares from the current price of R$2.75 (about 83p) to R$3.05 (92p) per journey in January. With the price rising from R$2.50 last January. The recent protests were met by the riot military police leading to some nasty looking arrests.

It made me consider some of the issues of wealth and inequality that exist here that are too often hidden. The minimum wage in Brazil in 2012 is R$622 (£100) per month or R$2.83 (85p) per hour. The average wage is R$1588. This puts into stark contrast some of the living costs. For people on the minimum wage, just traveling to and from work everyday by bus will take out 17% of their monthly income before the costs of food, accommodation, electricity or clothing are accounted for, whilst even on the average wage it would be 7%. It is easy to understand why there are protests about the rising fares and why people will wait to be packed into a crowded bus like cattle rather than get a seat in the minivans for 25 centavas extra.

It also highlights the massive geographic divide in the city. Zona Sul, encompassed by mountains and containing all of the sites that most tourists connect with Rio: the beaches, sugarloaf mountain, Christo Redento; is really a small town. The North Zone, an intermingling of favelas and middle-class neighbourhoods stretches out as far as the eye can see on the plain beyond the mountains, stifling hot in the summer. These are two different worlds with a one bedroom flat in the Zona Sul costing at least R$1000-R$1500 a month before condominium rates and rising to eye-watering prices in Ipanema and Leblon, which have the highest square metre prices of anywhere in South America. It is no wonder that the Zona Sul is a different world, where only the upper middle-classes and wealthy can live, unless you live in a favela precipitously perched on the hillside. Now these affordable areas are also under threat. With the pacification of the favelas comes property speculation and eviction pressures, with many of the favelas offering spectacular views. The effects of these changes on the social and geographic divisions in Rio are already beginning to happen.

When we first arrived in Rio we found money tight. Living on one income with rental prices what they are has meant that we have much less disposal income than in the UK. But this puts it all in perspective. My wage is 6 times the minimum, more than twice the average. We are definitely the wealthy. The excesses of the very wealthy are something else to behold. Closing the wealth inequality gap is not something that will happen overnight, but keeping the price of public transport low so that people can still get to work will certainly help.

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Green shoots in the favelas

11 Jul

Following the depressing results of the Rio+20 conference I needed something to buoy my spirits and feel optimism about the potential for humans to use our intelligent creativity to solve the challenges ahead. Luckily, help was at hand through two amazing local organisations, Catalytic Communities and Verdejar. For the past 12 years CatComm has been highlighting the resourcefulness, energy, activities and community resilience within the favelas, supporting the communities to communicate their achievements and needs.

During and followering Rio+20 CatComm arranged visits to several different favela communities and projects. I joined a visit to Verdejar, “Going Green”, a project in Complexo do Alemao, made up 13 favelas in the North Zone of Rio. We were slightly late to meet our host Cicero, a history teacher cum co-ordinator of Verdejar, but he showed only enthusiasm as I rattled out questions (fantastically translated by Felicity from CatComm)  as we bounced along in a tiny van. Walking up the hillside, above us was the Serra da Misericórdia and the last remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest in the North Zone, which Verdejar aims to protect and reforest through its newest project. In what was until recently a dilapidated house and a small patch of open ground the local community has created an education building and a space to test and demonstrate agroecology, green sanitation and solar energy practices. As we walk up the small path towards the house on the left was a pit where they are growing banana trees to clean sewage from the houses, filtering the water, recycling the nutrients and producing bananas to eat. On the other side is a forest garden, where they are gradually reforesting the land whilst producing abundant food such as sweetcorn, fruits and salads for the community.

The sewage treatment system is in the foreground and a little of the forest garden on the right of the picture

In their education centre, recently decorated with greetings from all over the world by young people at the Rio+20 youth conference, Cicero shows us a video from a recent workshop where they built a solar thermal water unit on the roof of the building. All that was needed was to flow the water through tiny tubes in a black plastic sheet,  a few licks of white paint on the water butt to keep the water hot and voila! The roofs of Rio are dotted with blue plastic water butts, with this simple technology free hot water courtesy of the sun could be brought to every house in Rio.

Solar thermal heating system on the roof of the education centre

And they are now not working alone. They have projects with the botanical gardens in Brasilia to study the sewage cleaning process and with the biology and geography departments at UFRJ to study the impacts of the Serra da Misericórdia on the region, including the water and creating a cooling microclimate. In contrast to the secretive approach of many chemistry groups it was refreshing to see such openess to share ideas, communicate and work together with anyone interested. I hope that a new connection with the Green Chemistry Group at UFRJ can be developed!

But it was not only the physical steps that they had taken that was impressive but the community they have built around the project. This seems to have been integral since  Luis the Poet first had a vision of creating a green protected space in Complexo do Alemao, wheeled some plants down to an open patch of ground in his wheelbarrow and protected the space with other local people. Today many people help on the vegetable plot and the harvest is shared.

There are still challenges though. The Serra da Misericórdia is now protected by law but with frustration Cicero described how mining for cement manufacturing still goes on, with the people nearby suffering from the dust produced, let along the destruction of the precious remaining ecosystem.

However, I hope the vision of Luis the Poet will live on. Cicero was surprised by the current interest and enthusiasm from outside the favela in Verdejar, a project that has grown from a small seed and been watered with love and care. But it is these seeds that we need, these green shoots sprouting everywhere to feel optimism that we do have the creativity and will to create a more sustainable world.

For more examples of sustainable projects in the favelas watch the video by CatComm on “The favela as a sustainable model”