Archive for the ‘Urban Landscapes’ Category

Protests and Police Violence in São Paulo

June 14, 2013 1 comment

With the recent announcement of a hike in bus fares in São Paulo, residents took to the streets last night to peacefully express their opposition to and anger with the hike. However, the protests turned very ugly when the police responded with overwhelming force against peaceful and unarmed protesters. And this wasn’t some “warning shot” situation – photographs reveal the extent of damage from police violence, police were caught repeatedly approaching protesters and firing rubber bullets at protestors’ upper bodies from close range, even hitting two journalists in the faces with rubber bullets. Such violence led to more people gathering to protest police violence, which led to more violence. As one woman tweeted last night, “It’s not about the fares anymore. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”

That statement is true, but indeed, it’s possible to argue it wasn’t ever about the fares in the first place – at least, not strictly about the fares. Twenty cents may not seem like a lot, but it’s important to contextualize. São Paulo has a subway system, but like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro, the metro is far more expensive than the bus lines are, reinforcing broader social hierarchies in transportation – the middle classes can more easily afford the faster metros than the working classes can. Yet many more are affected by the hikes based on simple geography. Though São Paulo’s metro system is not insignificant, the metro area is enormous (around 20 million people), and the subway simply does not reach many parts of the city; for an anecdotal example, when I visited São Paulo several years ago, I stayed with a friend who lived in a middle-class neighborhood far from the city center. I spent an hour on a city bus just to get to the beginning of the metro line that would take me into the city. So though the working classes rely more heavily on buses than on the metro, many outside the working class also rely on the bus system simply due to urban geography.

Still, what’s twenty cents? Well, for starters, it’s a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in one of the most expensive cities of Brazil – in 2012, it ranked as the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And in recent years, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city]. And then there’s the national economy. Growing inflation, growth rates that have slowed down, and currency devaluation have all further worsened matters, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessened the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. In that setting, outrage over twenty cents is far from the total issue; while the move directly impacts millions of people, the protests over bus fares tap into broader discontent over the economic situation in São Paulo.

And that only adds to the horrific repression and violence on the part of the police last night. Just as in the case of Turkey, UC-Davis, and New York City in recent history, police have responded to peaceful protests with an overwhelming and disproportionate use of force. This is the face of repression of protest, free assembly, and free speech in the 21st century, drawing on the same police tactics that resemble those of the 1960s throughout the world, but with new technologies like pepper spray and rubber bullets. And police insisting they could no longer be held responsible for their actions last night only further reeks of police abuse and impunity for state violence. The state’s Secretary of Security can insist that the government will look into the use of police force, but given the long history police violence and impunity for police and neglecting the socioeconomic inequalities in São Paulo, it’s difficult to imagine there will be any real efforts to prevent such repression of protests or change police tactics anytime soon.

The Sustainability of Carnaval (and Other Remarkable Facts)

February 19, 2013 1 comment

Julia at Rio Real has an excellent piece up on how Carnaval is straining sustainability in the city of Rio de Janeiro. For example:

Informal recyclers– some of whom are the people who stay overnight on the beach– quickly pick up the aluminum cans and smash them for selling. But– note to Ambev– that still leaves the plastic wrapping the cans and the ice to cool them, plus all kinds of other trash.

By last Thursday, this totaled 400 tons. Multiply by three, and you get the weight of Rio’s Christ Redeemer statue. Another 170 tons were collected in the weekend prior to Carnival, and more is sure to have piled up last weekend, also part of the bloco calendarwhen the Carnival parade of champions took place.

Suffice to say, 400 tons is a lot, and makes for unsanitary conditions. Adding to the toll on the environment in the short-term during carnival is urine. Why would urine in public be a problem? Well…

According to one calculation, Rio street revelers managed to drink a total of 600,000 cans’ worth [of beer] an hour.

That is a remarkable degree of alcohol consumption. While I remember seeing beer cans everywhere when in Rio during Carnaval, the number is something totally different from the image of revelers with cans in hand, and it serves as a powerful reminder that, in spite of the revelry, there are some real downsides to Caranval in environmental terms, politics, and economics. The whole thing is fascinating, if periodically alarming (or even depressing), and worth checking out in its entirety.

Around Latin America [Updated]

January 27, 2013 Comments off

-Early reports are saying 245 232 people died in a nightclub fire last night in Santa Maria, a city in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people were reportedly at the event, a party for university students. Apparently, the fire’s source was a live band’s pyrotechnics. [UPDATE: The Guardian has photos from the scene last night, some of which are fairly graphic.]

-In Venezuela, prison violence between prisoners and the Venezuelan National Guard at a prison in Barquisimeto left sixty-one dead and around 120 wounded.

-El Salvador will be holding presidential elections next year, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate for the incumbent-party FSLN, has said he will seek a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law that has protected war criminals and human rights violators, mostly in the military and governments between 1980 and 1992, from prosecution for their crimes.

-Cícero Guedes, an important figure in Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement; MST), was shot dead as he returned home from an area near a sugar plantation MST members had recently occupied.

-Guatemala’s recent efforts to militarize public institutions, including those not directly connected to security forces, have created concerns over the potential stability of democratic institutions.

-In Bolivia, activists and feminists are demanding prosecution of provincial representative Domingo Alcibia, who was caught on security video apparently raping a drunk woman while she was unconscious.

-Brazil is set to launch a massive four-year study of the Amazonian rainforest that will detail the tree-count, biodiversity, and animal life in the region. The study is the first of its kind conducted since the late-1970s, when the military dictatorship conducted a similar study.

-In both Peru and Argentina, recent struggles over mining continue to shape social and political struggles, as people in Peru continue to protest the environmental consequences of mining, while in Argentina, powerful mining companies are using their economic influence and political ties to try to silence local journalists who seek to report on the environmental consequences of the mining activity in the northwestern parts of the country.

-While forty companies, including the massive Grupo Clarín (which has recently butted heads with President Cristina Kirchner) tend to dominate the market, a recent study found that alternative press in Argentina is also thriving.

-In a boon to historians of the Southern Cone (or Great Britain), last week Uruguay declassified archives on the Malvinas War, providing access to new diplomatic and previously-unknown materials on the war and its regional impact.

-Are China’s ties to Mexico fading?

-Finally, in a unique mixture of 21st technology and urban history, Rio de Janeiro has begun incorporating QR codes into the city’s sidewalks to aid tourists, melding the codes into the city’s traditional mosaic sidewalks.

On Brazilian Infrastructure, Or, “Exploding Manholes Seem to Suggest a Bigger Problem”

January 26, 2013 Comments off

Rio de Janeiro is going through all sorts of reconstruction, renovation, and re-imaging as it prepares to host the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. While a lot of these transformations are for foreign guests, there is no question that the city has very real infrastructural improvements for its own citizens (and visitors) that desperately need to be addressed. To wit:

Since 2010, manhole explosions here have shattered windows, flattened cars and injured passers-by. An explosion in 2012 killed a worker at Rio’s port. While the rate of explosions has slowed, the city was rattled yet again in December after a manhole erupted behind the Copacabana Palace, the neo-Classical-style gem that is arguably Rio’s most luxurious hotel. A motorcyclist narrowly escaped the recent blast, filming with his cellphone his motorcycle going up in flames.

Such explosions are not unique to Rio. Indeed, engineering experts say few large cities are immune. Gas from any number of sources can collect underground. Electrical cables, often running in the same pipes, can fray with age, producing a spark that can set off an explosion, shooting up fire and flinging hundred-pound cast-iron manhole covers high into the air.

But Moacyr Duarte, a senior researcher on the city’s infrastructure at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said dozens of explosions here, which often occurred in densely-populated areas, had “clearly gone beyond what it is statistically reasonable,” before recently declining.

The rapid growth in Brazil’s population and economy certainly have their perks. However, their impacts on cities is not universally positive; in a country that already witnessed its rural-urban population shift from 70%-30% in the 1930s to 30%-70% by the 1980s, over 85% of Brazilians now live in the country’s booming cities. This only adds to the stresses on the infrastructure that maintains cities. Additionally, while Brazil’s economy has been enjoying a relative boom in the last decade or so, the economic turmoil of the late-1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s led to states and cities failing to provide the adequate resources needed to make certain that Brazil’s urban infrastructure was maintaining at least some pace with the burgeoning urban populations. The massive wave of privatizations of industries like electric companies also took the responsibility for upkeep away from governments that could use state revenue, and put the responsibility into the hands of private companies focused more on profit than on development. It’s not just manholes that are causing problems; many urban streets are decaying, and one only need to fly into Rio de Janeiro’s airport to get a sense of how little it has changed since the 1970s; indeed, it’s hard to find a more untouched vision of 1970s authoritarian modernism in architecture than Rio’s airport (and that’s being charitable). Yet these manholes provide a powerful, if violent, example of the value of maintaining infrastructure, and a meaningful reminder that recent economic successes cannot provide instant remedies for decades-old problems.

Thoughts on Urbanization and Deforestation in the Amazon

November 25, 2012 1 comment

The New York Times’ Simon Romero has an excellent piece up on the recent urban growth in the Amazonian region of Brazil.

The Amazon has been viewed for ages as a vast quilt of rain forest interspersed by remote river outposts. But the surging population growth of cities in the jungle is turning that rural vision on its head and alarming scientists, as an array of new industrial projects transforms the Amazon into Brazil’s fastest-growing region.

The torrid expansion of rain forest cities is visible in places like Parauapebas, which has changed in a generation from an obscure frontier settlement with gold miners and gunfights to a sprawling urban area with an air-conditioned shopping mall, gated communities and a dealership selling Chevy pickup trucks.

The growth rates in the region are rather astounding, even if the metropolitan areas are nowhere near as large as those of São Paulo (metro area of 20 million) or Rio de Janeiro (metro area of 12 million). Manaus, the largest region in the city and the seventh largest city in the country, grew 22% between 2000 and 2010, the highest growth rate of Brazil’s ten most populous cities (it now has around 1.7 million people); the region as a whole has seen its population grow to over 25 million people.

What’s the cause of this growth? In part, it’s birth rates, which are the highest in Brazil. But even more, it’s the expanding agricultural and industrial sectors, including hydroelectric dams, mining, and soybean farming. With new employment opportunities in the region, temporary shanty towns are cropping up as people move to the area, seeking employment and better wages.

This taps into a fascinating reversal of a historical trend that characterized much of the 20th century. In 1940, almost 70% of Brazil’s population lived in rural areas; by 2000, not even 19% of the population was located in rural areas. This rapid urbanization had several causes: expanded industrialization in centers like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the decline of the coffee culture that employed many rural workers, the industrialization of agricultural production that left more people in the countryside jobless or landless as their lands were bought up, and environmental causes all led to the rapid migration of people, usually from Brazil’s north and northeast, to urban centers in the Southeast and South. However, the opportunities for employment in cities often could not keep up with the demographic growth, leading to the expansion of favelas and informal economies in the cities, with accompanying social inequalities and problems like homelessness.

The past decade seems to suggest at least some of that process is slowing down. Certainly, urban growth is continuing, but now, people are heading to cities in the North and Northeast, rather than in the Southeast. While the rural-to-urban migration continues, it’s no longer a regional migration from Brazil’s poorer north to its wealthier (in macroeconomic terms) southeast. From an economic standpoint, this matters, as it keeps more people (and their incomes) in the region.

However, not all measurements of quality of life are economic, and this rapid urban growth in the Amazonian basin is not good for the Brazilian environment. In addition to the obvious environmental destruction caused by mining and dams, the concentration of people in urban areas in the Amazon has a broader impact in multiple ways. While some argue that concentrating populations in the city can slow down deforestation, I think that, in the Brazilian case, the counter-argument that abandoning rural areas opens up more land for ranchers to deforest is closer to what will happen, given that cattle ranching is the biggest cause of deforestation in the region. Without small farmers and communities to resist the encroachment of massive ranches, the path to deforestation for ranches is even easier. Additionally, as Vassar College geography professor Brian J. Godfrey points out in the article, the move to cities and the accompanying economic growth leads to an acceleration in the exploitation of limited resources, and resources are already limited in the Amazonian region.

That’s not to say that people should not seek better lives in the cities in the region. But right now, it certainly seems that this growth is taking place without broader economic, social, or political considerations of the impacts this could have on an already-threatened ecosystem.

On This Date in Latin America – October 27, 1912: Sugarloaf Mountain Gets a Tram

October 27, 2012 Comments off

If you go to Google’s main  page today, you won’t see anything out of the usual. However, if you head of to Brazil’s Google page, you’re greeted with this (animated) image:

Today’s Google Brasil image, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the tram on Sugarloaf Mountain.

It’s an animated image of a tram going up Rio de Janeiro’s Pão de Açucar, one of the most popular and famous tourism sites in the city. One hundred years ago today, the tram was completed.

Pão de Açucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, towering over Morro da Urca and Guanabara Bay. The mountain is a centerpiece of Rio de Janeiro’s unique landscape and one of the city’s main tourism sites.

The landscape along Guanabara Bay, where Rio de Janeiro is located, was already considered by many one of the prettier locations in a continent full of them. As early as the 1550s, the French were settling on islands in the bay in an attempt to cut into the Portuguese trade of pau brasil, or brazilwood, a tree whose trunk made a red dye. In the early years of Portuguese colonization of Brazil, the wood, and not sugar, was the main export from Brazil to Portugal. When the Portuguese finally expelled the French in the 1560s, they ended up permanently settling the city of Rio de Janeiro, though it would remain relatively small through the following century or so, as Brazil’s colonial center was located in the Northeast, where profitable sugar plantations were. However, with the discovery of gold and diamond mines in the interior of what is today Minas Gerais, trade (including the slave trade) increasingly flowed through Rio de Janeiro, leading to growth in the city. By 1763, the colonial capital had relocated from Salvador to Rio, which would remain the city’s capital until the inauguration of Brasília nearly 200 years later. In 1808, the Portuguese royal family, fleeing Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, fled to Brazil and lived in Rio from 1808 to 1820, marking the only time a European colonial power relocated to a colony, giving the city a new prestige and ultimately helping it to become one of the major urban settlements in South America.

By the 19th century, Pão de Açucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain (named for the shape of sugar during the production process), towering 1300 feet above the Atlantic ocean along the coast, had attracted mountain climbers and tourists impressed by its sheer height and form, which made it one of the visible highlights in a natural cityscape that UNESCO recently declared a world heritage site. The growing popularity of the city, along with efforts to promote itself as “civilized” in the international market, led to engineers in 1908 deciding to build a tram that would allow tourists to easily reach the top of the mountain.

The construction required not just engineers, but engineers who could also double as mountaineers. Over 400 men worked on the project, scaling Pão de Açucar with equipment to build the tram. Some of the wooden planks they used to climb the mountain can still be seen along its slope today. By 1912, the project was completed, with two sets of cables totaling more than 4750 feet in length, one from the ground to the Morro da Urca, and a second from Morro da Urca to the top of Sugarloaf. For the first sixty years, the cars were made of wood, being updated to newer models that allow tourists to have a 360-degree panorama of the city and the Atlantic Ocean. With the construction of the cable car, Sugarloaf joined Cristo Redentor and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema (which one can see from Sugarloaf) as some of Rio’s most famous and popular tourism sites. The tram (and mountain) featured prominently in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker (for the record, one of the worst Bond movies ever), and in 1977, American tightrope walker Steve McPeak traversed the cables. In the past 100 years, the tram has transported more than 37 million people (including me) to the top of the mountain, averaging about 2500 a day, allowing millions to enjoy a view of Rio’s natural landscape and cityscape.

The tram to Sugarloaf today.

The original tram cars were wooden and were in use from 1912 until the early-1970s.

The view from Sugarloaf, looking out towards Copacabana (center-left), the Cristo Redentor statue (center-right), and Guanabara Bay and Rio’s downtown (right).

Around Latin America

October 1, 2012 Comments off

-Former president and convicted human rights violator Alberto Fujimori is planning on asking for a pardon from his prison sentence due to health issues in a move that would undo years of efforts for justice for the victims of his regime. Meanwhile, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requested Peru annul a Supreme Court ruling from this past summer that could lead to Fujimori’s early release from the 2009 conviction that found him guilty of ordering death-squad killings.

-An alleged leader of the Paraguayan Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Army of the Paraguayan People; EPP) released a series of videos that called for the elimination of private property in the name of Paraguay’s poor, highlighting the ongoing social and economic inequalities and ongoing social dissatisfaction and unrest over land distribution in one of Latin America’s two landlocked countries.

-In a move to streamline urban planning and familiarity, San José, Costa Rica, home to 1.5 million of the country’s residents, is finally installing street signs in the city. Prior to this, all addresses were based on landmarks (I don’t remember the exact address of where I lived in Costa Rica 11 years ago, but part of that address was “100 meters north of the school, on the right”). While this seems like a good idea for those visiting such a large city, cab drivers familiar with the old system are among those critical of the decision.

-With student protests and educational reforms causing serious problems for his government, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced his 2013 budget, with increased spending on education making up 20% of the budget. Although the move is no doubt likely designed at least in part to address criticisms Piñera has faced over education, it is unlikely to satisfy a student movement that wants institutional reforms and free public education for all.

-In Honduras, rights activist Antonio Trejo, who represented peasants in their struggles against wealthy landowners and who was opposed to recent plans to privatize three cities, was assassinated while attending a wedding last week.

-In a decision that should have happened decades ago, Brazil has formally outlawed the formation of and participation in militias and paramilitary organizations. While the law is an important one to have on the books, it certainly seems like a case of “too little, too late” in a country where police militias have resorted to extrajudicial executions of children, the poor, and others in Brazil’s cities since the 1980s, and the 4- to 8-year sentencing seems light for what is a very real security problem in Brazil. Meanwhile, a former officer who served over 25 years in prison for his role in leading a death squad that killed more than 50 people was himself gunned down in the state of São Paulo last week.

-With one week to go before national elections in Venezuela, a suspect has been arrested in the murder of three opposition activists at a rally last week. Though the suspect’s identity has not been released, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles spoke out against the killings and the violent climate in Venezuela that they say allowed the killings to take place.

Thousands of Haitians took to the street to protest against President Michel Martelly’s government, blaming it for rising food prices and the cost of living and accusing it of corruption.

-Bolivian miners who had been in conflict with each other over possession of a mine have agreed to end their conflict, with both sides having access to the Colquiri mine. Earlier struggles had led to months of protests and strikes and even turned violent, with one miner dying in clashes last month.

-In a macabre landmark, a new report says that landmines have killed or maimed 10,000 Colombians in the last 22 years. Leftist guerrillas are responsible for a majority of the mines, a defense mechanism they’ve employed during Colombia’s 48-year (and counting) civil war.

-Speaking of mines, Chile is set to de-mine a path leading to the Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean-Argentine border. Both countries heavily mined their respective territories in 1977-1978 when a maritime border dispute over some islands at the southern tip of the continent nearly led to war, with ultranationalists in Argentina particularly aggressive in their declarations. The conflict revealed that, while the dictatorships of South American countries collaborated on human rights abuses via Operation Condor, not all relations between the dictatorships were cordial.

-Margaret Myers has another edition of her “Chinese News Coverage of Latin America” posts up, with Chinese headlines reflecting a preoccupation with eco-tourism, diplomatic ties with the Pacific Alliance, and tariffs, among other items.

-At the UN meetings last week, Argentina and Iran met and agreed to begin talks over prosecutions for those connected to the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which left 85 dead and to which Iran had been connected.

-Uruguay claimed to have deactivated a bomb placed at the Venezuelan embassy in Montevideo. Though pamphlets claiming ties to a left-wing group were found near the bomb, it is unclear who actually planted the bomb or the pamphlets – though it may have been leftists, it could also have been from the right in an attempt to discredit the Chávez government, if not something altogether different.

-Finally, Curação’s ex-Prime Minister, Gerrit Schotte is saying he has been removed in a bloodless coup. Schotte accused governor Adeel van der Pluijm-Vrede of illegally swearing in a new government, though the Dutch government, whose kingdom Curação is still a part of, has said the interim government is legal.


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