Cities in the making: urban politics, agroecology, and peripheral urbanization
(Written by Nicolas Goez) “Com luta, com garra, a casa sai na marra! Com luta, com fé, a casa fica em pé!” – chanted the five children in unison. They were standing in front of the camera, raising their voice for the plot of land that became their home and that of other 8.000 families. Those 10 square kilometres in the north of Belo Horizonte that are now called Izidora represent one of the biggest urban land conflicts of Latin America’s past decade.
The first dwellers of Izidora settled there around mid-2013. By that time, they were living in self-constructed houses, made of wood, plastic, and other improvised materials. Dona Maria[i] complained about the unbearable heat of the plastic; she could not be inside her house at noon nor sleep well at night. And yet, she never regretted having moved to Izidora, pioneering the occupation as a 60-year-old Black woman. “For me, it’s better here because at least I have peace of mind”, she said in a relieved tone.
Once the dwellers of Izidora took the plunge and left their precarious lives of struggling to pay an unaffordable rent or living in extremely small spaces with unwelcoming relatives, they became so-called informal settlers and their long struggle for housing and recognition began. In Brazil, this form of settlements is often addressed in political contexts and every-day discussions as informal urbanization or informal occupations, revealing a special kind of othering within the Brazilian society. These terms define that which is outside of the formal, which is outside the norm and is unregulated. They are racist and classist conventions that fail to grasp the complexity of prevailing dynamics as well as to acknowledge the agency of the subjects behind the settlements. Therefore, informality is also a contested concept in scholarly contexts (Roy, 2013, Rocco and Ballegooijen, 2019). Dona Maria says, “peace of mind”, and the whole neighbourhood says, “with guts” (com garra!). They all stand to fight the inequalities that intersect here, for the right to housing, and the recognition of their cause as a political endeavour. They are not informal, they are political.
This text is about Izidora and its underlying spatial conflict. I aim to show how its dwellers appropriate different technologies of sustainable urbanization by enmeshing them in their struggle for housing and citizenship, whilst they pursue an emancipatory logic of city-making. I argue that activist coalitions with intersectional agendas and political articulations of alternative forms of urban agriculture in Belo Horizonte’s peripheries have led to the creation of Izidora, as well as an array of new urban imaginaries. So, at its core, this text is about the urban politics of Belo Horizonte and the conflicts that surround the negotiation of spatial production.
Intersectional Inequalities: The Unsettling Reality
To understand the situation in Izidora, it is necessary to delve into the initial motives for the settlements: the unsettling reality of Brazil’s inequalities. There are endless studies, reports, chronicles, and literary books that uncover the devouring injustices in Brazil. Some of the readers might remember the famous picture of São Paulo depicting luxurious balconies equipped with pools of a upper-class building on one side, and the favelas on the other. These extremes mark the disparities in the country, and people living in the urban peripheries and rural areas are the most affected by these dynamics. Inequality in Brazil appears as a structuring force in societal organization and spatial distribution.
Dwellers of urban peripheries belong to the poorest segment of the population, which constitutes around a quarter of the total inhabitants of Brazil as of 2018 (CEPAL 2019). This segment possesses the smallest share of the material wealth in the country (Costa and Motta, 2019). They often have no access to formal jobs and if they do, they earn the minimum wage (around 185,00 US$ a month). Many of the dwellers of Izidora expressed that one of the reasons for them to occupy the land was their inability to pay rent, which in most cases lay between 250 and 400 reais (46-80 US$). These material disadvantages are also reflected in access to education, revealing that these social groups have fewer years of schooling as well as reduced access to universities (INEPET, 2019).
However, although inequality in Brazil is primarily driven by income disparity, it is essential to look at these phenomena from an intersectional perspective since the severity of the situation increases when accounting for gender, racial, and ethnic factors (CEPAL 2019). Black and indigenous Brazilians are more likely to be living in poverty or below the poverty line. Their life expectancy is lower than that of white people and they have even less access to education than non-Black poor (ibid.). They are also more likely to suffer police violence and are more likely to be killed. According to studies of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, “every 23 minutes a young Afro-Brazilian is killed” (Ramos and Völker, 2020). All these asymmetries in Brazilian society have long roots and can be traced back to racist institutions such as slavery or eugenics. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the majority of the dwellers of Izidora are Black and struck by the multiple inequalities of Brazilian society.
Insurgent Citizenship: Settling Down
“As long as there are no housing policies, there will be occupations, and we will fight until the end.” – Charlene, one of the leaders of Izidora
The social and economic constrictions that choke the dwellers of Izidora have a major impact on their lives. But the dwellers are not only recipients of state aid or victims of society. Rather, they articulate their dissatisfactions with the current uneven state of affairs through political actions. They bring their needs, struggles, and concerns to a political field to fight for recognition. Roberto Rocco and Jan van Ballegooijen (2019) propose to discuss the victim/agent duality through the lens of citizenship, arguing that, while most literature about urban informality has revolved around “the heroic self-pioneer” or “the vulnerable slum dweller”, the focus should turn to the residents’ political demands. They state:
“Dressing residents of informal settlements with the cloak of citizenship gives them both the protection and dignity to enter the public realm. It also gives them legal instruments to claim their rights, despite their poverty. The struggle for better housing could then also lead to political empowerment and integration into formal democratic institutions” (p. 2-3).
As precursors to Rocco’s and Ballegooijen’s proposition, James Holston (2009) and Teresa Caldeira (2017), respectively, coined the terms “insurgent citizenships” and “peripheral urbanization”. While the former offers a concept to make visible the political actions that, for example, the dwellers of Izidora deploy to demand their rights to housing, health, education, and the city, the latter delivers a term to define how these insurgent citizenships negotiate with the state, producing peripheral spaces, and explores how these spaces mutate over time. The creation of Izidora is thus a political statement of its dwellers. They reclaim the space via political negotiations and legal demands and embed these in broad coalitions with other urban activists. I believe these coalitions are one of the biggest innovations of Belo Horizonte’s peripheral urbanization, and, to my eyes, one alliance stands out: that between agroecological and housing movements.
Agroecology: New Imaginaries of the City
The agroecological movement is mostly understood as a rural movement. The most famous collective of agroecology is the Via Campesina, composed of a network of 200 million farmers from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, who commit to fighting for small-scale sustainable agriculture and socio-ecological justice in the food sector (Altieri and Toledo, 2011). However, agroecology, as a field of knowledge in the social and natural sciences, has expanded to the urban context, recognizing the undeniable interconnectedness between cities and fields. From this encounter, new joint agendas are thriving. Thus, Izidora became not only a territory for reclaiming citizenship but also for sketching new representations of the urban through socio-ecological justice.
The incorporation of agroecological values in the agricultural practices of communitarian gardens, in the waste management of neighbourhoods, and in general planning logics have given the housing movement significant leverage in their encounter with municipal authorities. By merging the causes of the agroecology and housing movements, Izidora had “sustainable technologies of urbanization” at its disposal – as one of the activists stated. Such technologies were not only of great help to the dwellers who met their infrastructural demands with agroecological alternatives (agroecological systems of sanitation, for example), but also played a decisive role in negotiations with the local government, especially in the context of growing international pressure to guarantee sustainable urbanization. By looking at the coalition between housing and agroecological movements and its interactions with the state, it becomes strikingly clear how the opposing imaginaries of urban planning clash. While Izidora proposes a sustainable development in co-existence with the environment, the municipality seeks to “formalize” the territory, imposing regulations that ignore the human-nature interactions already established by the dwellers.
At the same time, as has been studied in other cases (e.g.Tornaghi and Certomà, 2018), spaces of urban agriculture have become places of politics and collective encounter. Izidora articulated a considerable part of its struggle around agroecological urban agriculture. In the different community gardens, activists from diverse backgrounds met and organized. Movements against racism, pro feminism, fighting for housing, ecological, and LGBTQ* rights – they all gathered there, as a strong alliance of urban politics, to re-think and re-make the city.
Urban politics: Cities in the Making
In November 2018, the Federal Tribunal of Minas Gerais reached a verdict in favour of the dwellers of Izidora and invalidated all orders of eviction, granting legal status to all the households of the new neighbourhood. Despite these positive developments, negotiations with the local government continue. The opposing logics of planning and space production still give rise to conflicts between the different stakeholders; this conflict always seems to be present, irrespective of the specific space or issue. Because of this, new coalitions and alliances are reorganizing. Urban politics shift together with space. In Belo Horizonte, a group of women activists won representation in the local, state, and federal parliaments. Other spaces of articulation are also flourishing, such as the carnival in the peripheries.
Zooming out from Izidora, Belo Horizonte presents itself as a laboratory of new forms of political participation. With a broad network of social movements increasingly finding nodes of connection, new political subjectivities arise to respond to Brazil’s unsettling reality. Therefore, rather than finishing with a conclusion, I want to point toward these new forms of politics and spatial conflicts. By diving into these processes of spatial negotiation, we can see how cities are in a state of constant change and always in the making.
Nicolas Goez is currently completing his master’s degree at the Latin-American Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin and is a Research Associate in the research project Food for Justice, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Renata Motta. He focuses on socio-ecological urban processes, problems, and solutions from the perspective of the social sciences and with a regional focus on Brazil, Germany, and China. Currently, he is researching the interactions between peripheral urbanization processes and food system.
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[i] This text draws on data gathered in fieldwork between 2019-2020 through digital ethnographic instruments. The research is embedded in the case study “Belo Horizonte” of the research project Food for Justice and was supervised by Prof. Dr. Renata Motta and Dr. Fabio Santos. The main sources were social networks and video footage from members of the social movements in Izidora uploaded to YouTube between 2013-2020.