Global Favela

Shantytowns With Natural
Light and Striking Views

The other day we showed you how Rio de Janeiro is trying different ways to cope and do away with its favelas, as the city and Brazil prepare for two major global sports events, the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympic Games two years later.
We also told you about the criticism over such projects, because of their perceived aim at only covering up cosmetically the eye sores that Rio’s shantytowns represent to the city, rather than addressing the deeper causes that make them exist in the first place.
In the past few weeks, though, two other neighborhoods, as impoverished and miserable as any found in Rio de Janeiro but both outside Brazil, made the world news cycle, and not for the depressing reasons such stories usually convey.
Liter of Light, an idea that seems to have originated in Brazil and Haiti, was transposed by social entrepreneur Illac Diaz to shantytowns in Manila with lasting benefits. It uses old soda bottles filled with a solution of water and bleach, to direct natural light to the makeshift homes.
The bottles are inserted in custom-cut holes on the zinc roofs so to illuminate the quarters, which are usually pitch black for lack of electricity. The idea does work, it’s easy to set it up and represents a considerable improvement to the living standards of those communities.
Some 10,000 solar bottle bulbs have already been installed in Manila and Laguna, the adjacent province. Even for the minority hooked up into the electricity grid of the city, the device is useful in the form of savings it represents in electric bills.
The other piece of news came from Venezuela. It showcases another glimpse of the harsh reality of millions of people whose dispossessed living conditions don’t necessarily mean they’re lacking the will to survive with dignity.
Between the 1970s and 80s, Venezuela went though a period of economic growth, fueled by its oil riches, that promised to lift all boats. The Torre Confinanzas, a 45-store skyscraper that late developer David Brillenbourg began to build at the financial center of Caracas, was supposed to be a symbol of such an auspicious time.
Instead, it became an example of its failure. The tower, now known as the Torre de David, remained for years a little more than a skeleton, uncompleted and all but abandoned. Then, four years ago, some 2,500 squatters began to move in.
Now, despite still being considered an eye sore, the building’s 22 inhabited stores has almost the full amenities of any other, except for its absolute lack of any regulations or compliance to the outside world. Perhaps that’s why the residents are doing just fine.
They do pay a small maintenance fee to the central management of sorts, and in exchange, have basic services, many stores and other informal businesses, recreation rooms for the children and even a church. Rent, naturally, remains free.
To be sure, the Torre is far from perfect. There’s no sewage, lorry-delivered water is rationed, whole sections are in the dark and, with no elevators, people need to walk up hundreds of stairs. But the building is still the envy of every other favela in town.
Of course, its future is reason for contention. The same developers and local government bureaucracy who were absent when the building was just an unfinished tower, now that’s it’s reasonably functioning, are showing up, offering advice on how it should be run.

Some invoke its existence to criticize the Chavez administration for its lack of housing policies. Others advocate its demolition for construction of new, regulated units where they can all have a hand on. All attempts to end such an unlike experiment in spontaneous urban development have failed though.
There’s something else connecting these two stories: besides the humanity, both Filipinos and Venezuelans turned a harsh situation into their favor, and now share a deserving sense of pride, way beyond the natural light for ones, and the nice views for the others.
Perhaps that’s what it’s the value we can still get from what Brazil is attempting to do with its own shantytowns. It is true, without tackling head-first its glaring social discrepancies, most efforts will have all the lasting efficiency of a hand of painting, however thorough and striking it may be.
But at this point, even small initiatives will have some kind of positive impact on those communities, as they’ve been literally trapped in a vicious cycle of criminality, lawlessness, police brutality, and indifference from the society at large.
Sometimes, all people need is the chance and power to make a future for themselves. When the government fails to deliver, or greed threatens to take away even the little accomplished, any hand to help along so they’ll have a shot is worth lending.

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