InsightsFebruary 17, 2021

(Re)Actions to the Pandemic from Rio de Janeiro’s Sustainable Favela Network

Theresa Williamson and Natalia Meléndez

Rio de Janeiro’s Sustainable Favela Network, managed by non-profit Catalytic Communities, is a community-based network that connects, strengthens and multiplies sustainability and resilience-building initiatives across the city’s favelas (about 24% of its population). Over the course of 2020, favela communities organized intensively to prevent the worst, taking on everything from hygiene and public information campaigns, food delivery (including organics), advocacy campaigns, street cleaning, and even their own data collection. Nonetheless, to date, 31,000 people in Rio’s favelas have gotten Covid-19, and nearly 3300 have died. More people in Rio’s favelas have died than in 162 entire nations.

Especially in this context, what the Sustainable Favela Network was able to accomplish in 2020 was remarkable. 192 community organizers and 645 technical allies realized and supported efforts on the frontlines of community Covid-19-fighting campaigns. Meanwhile, acting as a collective network, they realized a number of joint activities (don’t miss the video with English subtitles available here), despite—or in some cases due to—the blazing pandemic around them. This article shares some of these joint initiatives, namely: the network’s year-round series of Live online events to support organizers confronting the pandemic, the Commitment Letter presented to candidates in the 2020 municipal election, a community-run Mayoral Debate, and the first-ever published Favela Museums and Memories Guide.

Favela vs. University Teach-In

Live Events to Support Community Organizers Confronting the Pandemic

Due to the limits imposed by the pandemic on the Sustainable Favela Network’s pre-planned exchanges and activities, network meetings were quickly transformed into online exchanges of mutual support and organizing. These meetings evolved into a series of 13 live public teach-ins online. Some events of the series include “Who Does Favela Research Serve?”, “Quilombo Leaders Reflect on Fights for Land Tenure and Against Exclusion During Pandemic,” “Food Sovereignty in Favelas During the Pandemic,” “How Does the Pandemic Impact Waste Pickers?”, “Resilient Favela Community Organizations During the Pandemic,” among many others.

Publication of the Sustainable Favela Network’s Museums and Memories Guide

Similarly recognizing the limits and potentials of online organizing, the Sustainable Favela Network’s Memory and Culture Working Group was able to finally launch its Favela Museums and Memories Guide: a unique roadmap to the cultural richness of the city’s favelas, peripheries, and quilombos (formally recognized ancestral lands of descendants of enslaved Africans). There is perhaps no better shortcut to show the favela as a key part of the city than in resident efforts to preserve and celebrate community history through a museum. After a year-long research effort, the Guide maps 26 community museums, research centers, art galleries, and heritage sites from across Greater Rio de Janeiro, accessible on Google maps here. Each site has an entry of its own, containing a brief introduction of the initiative, contact information, an address, and the year of foundation. In highlighting repressed urban histories, the Guide breaks stigmas traditionally attributed to favelas and their residents, weaving elements of local art, personal and collective histories, methods of coalescence with nature, resistance, and liberatory memories in the face of socio-spatial injustice and neglect.

Cover of the Favela Museums and Memories Guide

Municipal Candidates Invited to Sign Groundbreaking Letter Committing to the Sustainable, Community-Controlled Development of Rio’s Favelas; 94 Signed

As the year unfolded with the innumerable activities hinted at above, the Sustainable Favela Network gained strength and confidence. These culminated with the network’s decision to influence candidates for city office in the lead-up to the October City Council and mayoral elections.

Over a month, 60 members of the network representing socio-environmental projects working in 38 favelas across Rio de Janeiro came together to compose a unique, ground-breaking Commitment Letter built on community expertise and placing grassroots favela organizations at the forefront of sustainable urbanism. The must-read Letter contains 21 proposals and 82 sub-proposals of laws and public programs to support the sustainability and resilience of favelas, categorized according to the SFN’s seven working group themes: water and sewerage, solid waste management, income generation, environmental education, memory and culture, gardens and reforestation, and solar energy. The Commitment Letter sought agreement from candidates with its aim to generate a new urban pattern where favelas are developed and upgraded through sustainable initiatives that build on the already-existing and abundant qualities of these territories.

SFN Debate with candidates and community leaders on Zoom

The SFN’s Commitment Letter is essentially a community-produced roadmap for Rio to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) The Letter advocates for favelas to be recognized as “solutions factories” with consolidated sustainable initiatives and projects and shares specific actions the public sector should take to ensure they reach their sustainable potential. The Letter underscores favelas’ sustainable urbanistic qualities (centrally-located affordable housing; low-rise and high-density; pedestrian-orientated streetscapes; mixed-use development; organic architecture; intricate solidarity networks, among others), following CatComm’s Asset-Based Community Development approach. Underlying the entire approach is an understanding that policies must be designed in ways that respect and reflect the realities and solutions generated in each favela.

The Commitment Letter was ultimately signed by five mayoral candidates and 89 city council candidates. 87 of the signatories promised that if elected, they would meet with the SFN to learn about and develop the Letter’s proposals during their first 100 days in office. Four of them were elected, and the SFN plans to launch an Advocacy Front in 2021 by seeking out these officials.

SFN Debate with candidates and community leaders on Zoom

Sustainable Favela Network Gets Candidates’ Ears at First-Ever Favela-Organized Online Mayoral Debate

The Sustainable Favela Network’s final public activity of 2020 was Rio de Janeiro’s first-ever online favela-led mayoral debate, held on October 22, 2020. Livestreamed on Facebook and now available on YouTube, the debate was structured around the Commitment Letter, which had been distributed to the candidates a week prior to the event. Eight candidates were in attendance, all committing to elements of the letter or the entire document and engaging in a rare, propositive debate led by citizens. The event granted three opportunities for each candidate to expose their concrete proposals for a more sustainable city predicated on favela protagonism: the first in response to the Letter, the second in response to a question posed by a community leader and member of the SFN, and a final space for closing remarks.

Theresa Williamson is a Rio de Janeiro-based urban planner and founding director of Catalytic Communities, publisher of RioOnWatch, coordinator of the Sustainable Favela Network and of the Favela Community Land Trusts project.

Natalia Meléndez is a development cooperation professional and a MSc. from the Bartlett Development Planning Unit at University College London, learning from the urban informality and humanitarian-development nexus. She is also providing technical support to Catalytic Communities’ Sustainable Favela Network.

More News


May 29

Green Cities Sao Paulo


Cloudburst Solutions for Communities – What Works Where, How, and Why?