The Chilean non-governmental organization committed to improving housing in informal settlements, TECHO, is today active in 19 countries across Latin America. In Brazil, where it is known as TETO, the NGO works in more than 100 communities across four metropolitan regions. In addition to building emergency shelter, TECHO supports community development and engages in advocacy around policies that affect favelas. As part of this work, the NGO is running a campaign to call on UNESCO to declare Latin America’s informal settlements World Heritage sites. The central argument is that, despite the stigma, favelas are unique places that fulfill the criteria established by the institution.
These criteria include, for example, that a candidate be “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.” One can argue that favelas meet this prerequisite as the expression of an accelerated urbanization process and the ultimate manifestation of contemporary inequality. Criteria also include “[representing] a masterpiece of human creative genius,” which favelas meet through the creativity of the construction of their houses, and “exhibit(ing) an important interchange of human values… on developments in architecture… town-planning or landscape design,” which favelas fulfill with the collaborative character of construction through mutirões and the spaces of sociability and integration that favelas represent. It is also possible to argue that favelas even fulfill aesthetic criteria, due to the visual composition they create and due to their privileged views in cities like Rio. To be declared a World Heritage site, it is enough to meet just one of the ten criteria.
“Informal settlements and favelas reveal the clearest evidence of the search for survival in Latin America, beginning with residents’ organized and collaborative work. A testimony to resistance against the permanent violation of human rights, and to the constant effort of the people who live there to construct their own responses and solutions. All this constitutes a heritage that, as society, we have to recognize and preserve,” says Juan Pablo Duhalde, the Director of Social Areas for TECHO International.
In Rio de Janeiro, not only is the world’s largest site of trading in slaves, the Valongo Wharf, considered a world heritage site, but the city of Rio “between the mountain and the sea” was the first urban cultural landscape to be declared a World Heritage site. In its application to UNESCO on behalf of the city, IPHAN (the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage) exalted elements such as Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain), the Christ the Redeemer statue, Tijuca Forest, the Aterro do Flamengo park, the Botanical Gardens, Copacabana beach, and the entrance of Guanabara Bay. Favelas were not mentioned even though they compose the landscape of the delineated area, which begins in Copacabana and crosses the Guanabara Bay. Raquel Rolnik, then the UN special rapporteur for the right to adequate housing, argued at the time that favelas were an integral part of this heritage status:
“There’s nothing more potent in this landscape than the presence of the favelas, a space of self-production of daily life for thousands of cariocas and migrants who, in the context of a city that excludes them and in the face of absolute precarious means, constructed a space of resistance and insertion, contradictory and complex like their relationship with the city. Now this place is protected—internationally—and its geography of informal constructions should be acknowledged and consolidated in laws that recognize rights, protecting the place from the arbitrariness of evictions and sensational projects.”
Through the campaign and its petition, TECHO hopes to have built enough visibility to influence the discussion that will take place in the UNESCO meeting beginning tomorrow, June 24, in which new names will be added to the list of World Heritage sites. This year Brazil is actually on the committee of countries responsible for selecting sites. “The principal objective is to give visibility to popular settlements and favelas in Latin America, and make the public engage with this reality. The candidacy is just one mechanism for accomplishing this,” explains Camilo Sánchez, Head of Campaigns for TECHO International. The organization believes that the title could contribute to a greater recognition of favelas’ reality, as well as to a greater political will among governments and willingness among individuals to work with residents to bring improvements to the territory.
Furthermore, the status of heritage brings with it a responsibility to preserve. TECHO proposes that the efforts, capacities, and potentials of favela residents be preserved while favelas’ realities are positively transformed both by and for residents.