Brazil is in a state of political upheaval and economic crisis, and just one year after the Olympics, the situation is not much better in Rio de Janeiro. The state government is bankrupt and a new conservative mayor is pushing back on the city’s progressive gains. However, there is a powerful voice in the chambers of city council, one with a biography different from the deep pockets and private school education of your typical Carioca politician.
Marielle Franco was born and raised in Maré, a complex of favelas on a tidal flat near Rio’s international airport. She became a mother at age 18 and raised the child on her own, managing a scholarship to a prestigious university. From a job as a preschool teacher, she got drawn into politics and ten years ago began working for the upstart leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL in Portuguese). Last year, she won a city council seat – one of just six women on the 51 member council – and represents the voice, and daily lived experience, of the city’s black and brown women. For example, she has pushed for Rio buses to stop anywhere along a route so that women have a shorter, and safer, walk home at night.
ITDP: The theme of MOBILIZE Santiago was “just and inclusive cities become the new normal.” To what extent does Rio de Janeiro reach this ideal?
Marielle Franco: Rio de Janeiro is not a fair, democratic or egalitarian city and unfortunately, with regard to mobility, it remains an unequal city as well. There is an investment in some [richer] areas, for example, Center and South Zone, to the detriment of a part of the West Zone, speaking specifically of the neighborhoods of Santa Cruz and Cosmos, for example.
What did you learn from Santiago’s experience here at MOBILIZE?
I’m impressed with Santiago. It’s a city where you can experience urbanity on foot and experience a good integration of modes, especially the subway. It was always surprising to look at the Andes from a subway station as well! MOBILIZE was also a great opportunity to talk to people who have been involved in urban intervention projects, actions, planning and research.
How does the experience of being born and raised in Maré give you a different perspective from most people who work for the city?
From lived experience. In the day-to-day of those who need to take long commutes, a large part of the everyday occurs on buses and in the subway. The waiting hours, the difficulty to get information on the best route to take and the experience of taking the wrong route and having to make unnecessary transfers happened often. Until I went to university, I did not know the city even though I was born and always lived in Rio. Access to opportunities expands when you expand your knowledge and explore the world. Otherwise, if you do not have these experiences of how to get to the hospital, for example, or to the movies, or university, if you only stay in one part of town, you take transit less and have less experience with the city. This is not only my experience- hundreds of thousands of women do this every day, struggling to get around the city. This makes me more qualified to demand action from the city and to change public policy based on those experiences.
Rio has built a lot of transport over the last five years, specifically BRT. How do you assess the impact of these megaprojects on the lives of low-income communities and residents in the city?
For a moment of great investment in urban projects and after such major events, the expectations were for better results. But what do we see today? The choices made have not been discussed with the population as they should, and despite the promise of increased circulation, I think unfortunately what has remained as an [Olympic] legacy is a greater violation of social rights, and not a more democratic circulation by the city.
What would you change about the way Rio goes about urban planning in order to improve the lives of low-income people in Rio?
To start, I think the guidelines for greater access and rights to the city are already in a master plan that is not followed. I think the challenge is to think from the demands that already exist, to rethink favela priorities – sanitation, for example, and other fundamental rights. This, of course, is part of integrated planning. With what is provided in the master plan, we must build dialogue with the population, which is after all who uses and who seeks the services. It is fundamental to think, for example, “is it really a priority to expand line four of the subway to the” Recreio dos Bandeirantes neighborhood? “This is a proposal that has been reinforced by the municipal transportation secretary and the deputy mayor. It is time to look at the whole of the city, and with this logic, benefit a larger population. Investments should focus on another part of the west, which is not Recreio. It is a question of how to start from a place of the demands we have- the demands of favelas for basic rights.
How are Brazilian cities functioning within the current political climate and in the midst of the economic crisis?
I think Brazilian cities are undergoing a reorientation. The crisis is also a creative opportunity. If you have difficulty then you also need to reorganize. For example, look at the self-organizing of motorcycle taxi drivers or of social movements themselves. The current political situation interferes directly in the lives of all. Unfortunately, the experience of living in public spaces and circulating around the city is impaired, but I think we can make a qualitative leap thinking about the alternatives. That is if there is a dialogue between civil society and public power, if there is planning, if we talk about financing. I hope that in the crisis we can think about bettering the coming years by building a more accessible city and reducing travel time, guaranteeing the right to the city in its completeness.