Brazil: Redefining 'resettlement' to meet urban challenges

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Pelourinho, Salvador de Bahia

It is no secret Brazil is undergoing a “renaissance” of sorts. After decades of rough economic times marred by the stigma of deep inequity and social exclusion, Brazil has emerged as an economic powerhouse in the region and globally.

Sustaining such momentum, however, demands and will continue to demand substantial investments in infrastructure. This is particularly true in Brazil’s urban spaces –especially the megacities and a growing number of smaller but important cities and towns-- where more than 80 percent of the country’s population lives.


It is equally true that transforming those urban spaces will not be possible without taking decisive actions in the favelas – the physical scars of inequality that mar the Brazilian body politic. Virtually every action to either develop urban infrastructure or improve the lot of favelas’ residents will require some form of resettlement. This poses important challenges, as moving people is never an easy process.

The move itself can be traumatic, and the process of rebuilding a life elsewhere, for an individual or a family (let alone an entire community) is extremely complex

What is then the best way to manage urban resettlement so it turns out a positive process for those involved?

A recently workshop I attended in Brasilia tried to provide answers to this key question. I purposely use “involved” as opposed to the more commonly used “affected” – I believe this simple word swap signals a major shift in the thinking about resettlement on the one hand, and urban development on the other.

This intellectual shift was epitomized by Minister Gilberto Carvalho’s presentation. Mr. Carvalho –of the Presidency’s General Secretariat- provided his analysis by drawing on a very candid interpretation of the historical dimensions underpinning Brazil’s modern urban spaces.

Forced forms of displacement and the violence they engender have cost Brazil a high price –the country still pays today, and has left a gaping “social debt” between the haves and have-nots. Carvalho’s view of future urban spaces envisages people that are not “affected” by development, but rather are its central subjects.

In this paradigm, fair compensation for resettled people is not an additional cost, but an important investment in their lives – an investment that makes economic sense and at the same time attempts to redress some of the imbalances that marginalized so many people in the past.

Carvalho called for a historical shift and cultural change in designing resettlement programs – from a notion where cost and timelines tend to overshadow the need to respect people, to another one where justice and human rights are core driving principles. From a notion driven by legal discourse, to another one where ethical considerations take center stage. This vision is not just talk.

Various municipalities and states in Brazil are today successfully implementing very articulate programs of resettlement in urban areas, including Belo Horizonte, Sao Paulo and Sao Bernardo do Campos to mention just a few. Challenges, of course, are plenty.

And the road to achieve these goals will no doubt be fraught with rough patches. Still, Brazil is taking important steps to tackle a stubborn challenge to its development goals. Addressing resettlement in an effective manner, and as a transformative process for those involved, is then critically important.

A Brazilian friend once told me that Brazil had been so far a country “by few and for a few”. But times are changing as the rise of a large middle class in the past few years shows. Cultural shifts are more difficult to attain than economic ones.

The “revision of resettlement” that became apparent at the Brasilia workshop is a clear sign that a fundamental, positive, and inclusive shift is taking place at the heart of Brazilian governing institutions. This is no mean feat.


Fabio Pittaluga

World Bank Senior Social Development Specialist for Latin America and Caribbean

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