BBC Home > BBC News > Business

Brazil spends to transform slums

20 April 09 03:39 GMT

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Rio de Janeiro

The headlines concerning the group of favelas or shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro known as the German's Complex or Complexo do Alemao have frequently been grim in recent years.

On one day in 2007, police pursuing drug traffickers killed 19 people here in circumstances that are still bitterly contested.

For the tens of thousands of people who live here, in one of Rio's poorest areas, daily life has sometimes involved treading a fine line between the drug gangs and the police.

But the geography of at least parts of this troubled area has been changing in recent months, as the result of a major investment programme by the state and federal authorities.

Major investments

In total, more than $270m (£180m) is being spent to improve infrastructure in the area - building hundreds of new homes, as well as health centres and crèches.

A cable car system is also being constructed to help take residents up the steep incline to their homes that sprawl over the Rio hillsides - a model that was also used to help to integrate communities from the shanty towns in Medellin in Colombia.

The government has set aside huge sums of money to spend on energy, infrastructure and transport projects across Brazil.

The plan to accelerate growth is known as PAC - and the work in the Complexo do Alemao is just one of those schemes.

"This project will bring new life to this complex, the cable car will provide mass transportation," says Wilson Fernandes, one of the project managers.

"We are going to have basic sanitation here, and everything an urban area needs: schools, hospitals, crèches and libraries."


Iracema Iara Goncalves is 72, and has lived in this area for more than 30 years.

Her home is in one of the highest points in the German's Complex - which in Rio's favelas often means it is the poorest district as well.

Because of the number of houses that disappeared due to subsidence, the area was ironically dubbed the 'Hill of Goodbye' by one resident - and the name has stuck.

Water runs freely past Iracema's front door, while rubbish and rubble is strewn around nearby paths, but she remembers when times were worse.

"There was no water, no system for sewage, there was no electricity, and I had to borrow electric power from a neighbour's house," she says.

"But in the morning he would cut off the supply so I couldn't have a fridge or anything. But over time things improved."

A short distance from the house, work is under way on the new cable car system which will help Iracema and other residents reach their homes.


Local community leader Nilcea da Conceicao says the crisis is not having an impact here because the investment programme is giving people hope.

"The crisis is not affecting us," she insists. "Because the majority of people are working and earning money and receiving what they never had before - a fair wage.

"They can work longer and make extra cash - the PAC programme is really the salvation of the community."

Around 40% of the workforce on the new projects in the German's Complex is said to have been drawn from the local community.

For Thiago da Silva, the improvement scheme has led to his first formal job as well as training which he hopes will guarantee his future.

"My life has changed a lot," he says. "I am learning more and more - the longer I stay the more I learn. I am getting my daily income here - thank God I have this opportunity to work here."

It is not clear what the local drug traffickers make of all this development, but residents say the area has been quieter in recent times. It seems a precarious kind of peace and it is too early to say if it will last.

Economic crisis

At a conference in Rio de Janeiro this week to discuss the impact of the economic crisis across Latin America, Brazil's President Lula cited the PAC programme as one way to help Brazil emerge quickly from the problems it has caused.

He said that there would be investments of 646bn Brazilian reais ($300bn, £200bn) - a strategy the government hopes will create jobs and stimulate the economy.

"That expresses the partnership between the state government, having a strategic view, and the private enterprises with social sensitivity.

"We want a globalisation with ethics," he said. "Where people are in the core of our concern and actions"

"The world expects a lot from us. Our worst error would be not act with boldness and with a transforming vision."

However the PAC investment programme itself has its critics.

Bureaucratic delays are reported to have held back a number of schemes, and in figures given in February this year, it was revealed that only 48 billion reais worth of public projects had been completed so far.

There are those who say that the growth plan is mainly designed to boost the government's popularity.

In Complexo do Alemao it has been claimed deadlines to complete projects are being brought forward to coincide with next year's presidential election. One source told the BBC that the quality of the work has suffered as a result.

But in a community long neglected by the authorities, local people appear to think that whatever its flaws, the investment programme is better that what came before, when the state was almost completely absent from their lives.

Related BBC sites