Brazil’s Megacities

Globalization, poverty and some reasons for hope

Erminia Maricato

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Belo Horizonte – photo ms

After a century of urban development concentrated on the coast or areas near the coast, above all in the south and south east of the country, urbanization patterns in Brazil are showing clear signs of change, with a process of internal migration towards the centre-west and north. In 1970 in Brazil there were five cities with a population of more than one million: São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Recife and Salvador. In 2000 this population figure was reached by two cities in the centre-west – Brasilia and Goiania – and two in the north – Belem and Manaus, as well as Porto Alegre, Curitiba and Fortaleza.

The decentralization of industry, starting from the south east, the expansion of agribusiness, and the exploitation of minerals and forestry have had a hand in these regional transformations, but it remains impossible to say that regional disparities have been overcome.

over half of the inhabitants of all Brazil’s slums live in just two cities: São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, revealing the coexistence of the greatest concentration of wealth alongside the greatest concentration of poverty

Despite producing a decreasing percentage of Brazil’s GDP, in 2002 the São Paolo Metropolitan Region – SPMR – continued to participate in the country’s industrial production, at a rate of 23% (compared to 44% in 1970). The drop in wealth produced by industry does not detract from SPMR’s leadership in economic terms, albeit in a new guise.

In 2002, according to the Central Bank, 41% of Brazilian banking investments was made in SPMR. The city, and above all the province of São Paolo, have established themselves as the national financial hub of the global era. The creation of other cities in the vicinity of SPMR, such as the Metropolitan Region of Baixada Santista, and that of Campinas, are part of this scenario of economic and social change. These metropolises, home to 24 million people, are responsible for 40% of the country’s industrial production and one third of its GDP. The land occupied by the conurbation of these three Metropolitan Regions represents an urban area on an unprecedented scale.

The concentration of people, capital, knowledge and facilities at specific points in the country is part of Brazil’s history, and is linked to reasons of economic need. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil boasts two of the largest cities in the world, the population of which exceeds that of many entire countries. However, as previously underlined, Brazil and its urban development process are experiencing changes that are strongly conditioned by the demands of global capitalism, above all the demand for commodities.

Since 1980, the urban development process has presented another new characteristic: the medium sized cities with a population between 100,000 and 500,000 are growing at a faster rate than the metropolises, as the table below shows. Brazil’s rapid process of urbanization is continuing, but its megacities no longer boast the fastest rates of growth.

Annual growth rate of municipalities by population bracket 1991-2000

Source: MCidades, 2005. Data: IBGE, 2000

Despite the slower growth rates of the metropolises, it should be noted that their suburbs continue to grow at a constant rate, while the historic inner city areas are emptying.
The map below shows the obvious concentration of population in a number of large cities, and in general this is one of the hallmarks of countries like Brazil, characterized by peripheral capitalism.

Map of Brazil, Urban agglomerates, source

According to the 2000 census, 32% of the country’s population, that is, 55 million people, live in 11 metropolises (representing 209 municipalities). These metropolises are home to 82% of the people who live in poor housing conditions (above all in slums, the so-called favelas), and in these cities there is a housing shortage of 33%, the equivalent of 2,192,296 units. Over half of the inhabitants of all Brazil’s slums live in just two cities: San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, revealing the coexistence of the greatest concentration of wealth alongside the greatest concentration of poverty.

The main Brazilian metropolises: housing shortages and slums, 2000

Source: Plan of Action for Housing, Urban Rehabilitation and Transport in Metropolises at risk, MCidades/IPPUR – Metropolis Observatory, 2004. Data: João Pinheiro Foundation; IBGE, 2000

In the second half of the 20th century Brazil’s cities, especially the metropolises, acquired around 120 million new inhabitants. Some of the consequences of this rapid process of urbanization have had a positive impact on Brazilian society. Various social indicators show that there have been positive developments, and most of this is due to people and families being integrated into cities. The most eloquent statistics are those concerning infant mortality (from a rate of 150 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1940 to 29.6 in 2000), life expectancy (rising from an average of 40.7 in 1940 to 70.5 in 2000), the fertility rate (from 6.16 children per woman of childbearing age in 1940 to 2.38 in 2000), and education (from 55.9% illiteracy in 1940 to 13.6% in 2000). There has also been a marked increase in rehabilitation initiatives and refuse collection services, but despite this there are still various indicators which leave much to be desired, such as the case of environmental cleanup: throughout the country, 45 million people do not have access to drinking water, 83 million do not have the use of sewers and 14 million do not have their refuse collected. (IBGE, 2000)

The evolution of planning criteria (strictly linked to the occupation rate of the land) is fairly negative, with inappropriate land use damaging environmentally sensitive areas such as riverbanks, marsh land, hillsides, valleys and woods; the exponential growth of the slums and illegal land occupation in general, frequent flooding due to the excessive sealing of the soil, damage to drainage channels, landslides due to building on unsuitable hillside sites, causing fatalities, and sewage pollution of the water supply and the sea, are but a few examples.

In the metropolises, such phenomena have grown, especially in the last twenty years of the 20th century, when in addition to the urbanization process the country experienced a recession and a drop in the rate of economic development.

The so-called globalization process has introduced technological developments that are revolutionizing the space/time continuum, but represent a step backwards in terms of social policy

Between the 40s and the 70s, the Brazilian economy grew at the impressive rate of 7%, but this dropped severely at the end of this period. During the 80s and 90s the country grew at a rate of 1.3% and 2.1% respectively, meaning that the economy was not able to absorb the new generations of job seekers. The dramatic economic growth between 1940 and 1970 acted as a ceiling for the consequences of the unfair distribution of wealth, a historic characteristic of Brazilian society. Over the decades, the drop in economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in unemployment and a lack of development of public policy. This has had a considerable impact on the cities. The new international context and neo-liberal politics overlie a profoundly unjust social situation (the universal rights of the welfare state only apply to a restricted section of society), in a country characterized by a reactionary political outlook (an authoritarian approach based on clientelism, patrimonialism, limitation of rights and privatization of the public sector).

The so-called globalization process has introduced technological developments that are revolutionizing the space/time continuum, but represent a step backwards in terms of social policy. In the cities of countries like Brazil, the deregulation and commercialization of public services following privatization, the fiscal war, the weakening of the state’s role, and economic manoeuvres have had a powerful impact on a country which was already partially deregulated due to the tradition of illegal labour and the general lack of state control, as the history of land registration shows. In Brazil land is powerfully segregated by the restricted, speculative property market, and public investments which are highly concentrated and socially regressive.

After 1980, the slow rate of economic growth exacerbated the problems facing urban areas and led to the appearance of new, extremely negative phenomena: unemployment and violence, which up to the beginning of the 70s had been all but absent as a widespread urban trend.

The favelas – a vast, unkonwn universe
The disproportionate growth of the slums in the metropolises throughout Brazil is a worrying situation in the present and represents a dramatic problem for the future. The population of the favelas has grown faster than the overall urban population, as the censuses carried out by IBGE in 1980 and 1991 show. In the 80s, 1.89% of the Brazilian population lived in favelas. In 1991 this figure was around 3.28%, revealing an increase of 70% in a decade.

This trend is entirely plausible, but the data is disputed due to the method of data collection employed by the IBGE, and the fact that it is difficult to classify many slum areas without adequate records held by the municipal land registers. The lack of precise data on the subject is in itself highly significant.

The taint of illegality, with the consequent lack of rights and the total cotrol of the use and occupation of the land, are mostly responsible for the stigma attached to the favelas

We can therefore safely assume that the number of people living in the favelas greatly exceeds IBGE figures. This is what emerges from the few up-to-date land registers and a number of academic theses. In the municipality of São Paolo, for example, according to the Department for Housing and Urban Development, in 1973 around 1.1% of the population lived in the favelas. At the end of the following decade this figure reached 8%, and in 2005 it was over 11%. Now one in four inhabitants of São Paolo lives in the slums or occupies land illegally.

The result of this process, which is not limited to São Paolo, is that most of the urban population lives in these conditions: 40% in the Metropolitan Region of Recife, 33% in the Municipality of Salvador, 31% in the city of Fortaleza, 20% in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and 20% in the city of Belo Horizonte.

The taint of illegality, with the consequent lack of rights and the total control of the use and occupation of the land, are mostly responsible for the stigma attached to the favelas. These areas are excluded from an environmental and urban point of view, badly served by infrastructures and urban services (water, sewers, waste collection, drainage, public lighting, street cleaning, transport, telephone lines, etc.). And this exclusion is not limited to the area: its residents suffer from prejudice and social discrimination, and encounter greater difficulties when looking for work, due to not having an official address. Those living in the slums are the poorest members of society, and the percentage of ethnic minorities and single mothers is higher than the city average. The number of people per room also reveals a high level of overcrowding. To sum up, this is a “360° exclusion” which applies to land, environment, economy, race and culture. Land occupied illegally seems to be a basis for a life characterized by illegality, without rights and municipal services. There is not even applicable law to resolve conflicts, giving rise to a vacuum where new rules come into being and new forms of authority assert themselves. And it is in these very places that the greatest level of violence occurs, in terms of the number of murders.

The exponential growth of the slums also has serious consequences for the environment. The favelas are often constructed in environmentally sensitive areas such as riverbanks, valleys at risk of flooding, marsh land, steep hillsides, and protected areas. However there is an apparent, unexpected coincidence between the location of the favelas and water resources, which are generally protected by law. The Guarapiranga Dam in the San Paolo Metropolitan Region supplies drinking water to 20% of the city’s inhabitants, despite being the area with the highest concentration of favelas in the entire metropolis.

Some conclusions
The ideological representation of Brazil’s cities is based on a hegemonic image constructed around areas of distinction, highly influenced by international symbols. This form of representation ends up concealing the illegal, segregated areas described above, as well as being an instrument of power. This partial point of view appears a “natural”, “generalized” condition and is used to lend perceived value to real estate in cities. However the exception is fast becoming the rule, and vice versa. Lending visibility to the vast scale of what is hidden from view, and working to reduce inequality, are the most important tasks for socially committed artists, both in the megacities of Brazil and the rest of the world.



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Paper written for the conference “Proximo Ato 2006” held at the Goethe Institute on 26/10/2006, upon request from Itaù Cultural. Maricato, E.