Urban Policy & Public Participation in Brasil

Brasil has had some of the world’s most progressive city governments over the past 3 decades. For all the news on corruption spread by the international media leading up to last years’ coup, one wouldn’t imagine that some things that are standard practice in American cities like Chicago, such as no-bid contracts and lack of term limits, are illegal in Brasilian cities. While levels of citizen participation varies largely, with the horrible Rio de Janeiro government regularly being held up as an example by legions of foreign journalists who rarely leave it, there are scores of examples of progressive initiatives in urban governance that have had repercussions around the world, such as the 2001 Statute of the Cities and participatory budgeting. In most cases where progressive victories have taken place, the processes happened from the bottom up due to pressure from Brazil’s sophisticated and powerful civil society and its national level pressure group called the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum), or FNRU.

The FNRU arose out of successful efforts to create two popular amendments to the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. Composed of hundreds of popular, or poor people’s social movements, academic institutions, unions and professional associations, it has been the major player in the Brazilian urban reform movement ever since. Among its accomplishments are the creation and ratification of the National Cities’ Statute in 2001,  successfully pressuring President Lula to create a National Ministry of the Cities with a voluntary citizen’s oversight council, the 2007 National Sanitation law and the $1 Billion National Social Interest Housing Fund for self managed, autonomous social movement housing construction projects.

This article, based on original research conducted by the author while serving as ActionAid’s Democratic Governance Director for Brasil,  looks at three examples of how slum residents organizations, all associated with the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana, exerted social control over public policy in their communities through continuous political pressure by organized and voluntarily cooperating sectors of society either pushing for implementation of existing laws or circumventing them in cases where they are not working. As will be shown, there were varying levels of success.

Pressuring the Opposition in São Paulo

São Paulo is the largest city in the western hemisphere and the financial and industrial headquarters of Brazil.  Despite the city’s great wealth it is still a third world, or developing city due to its  millions of poor residents who live outside the legal structure in informal, homemade houses in slums like Heliopolis. Heliopolis has a population of 120,000 (about 25,000 households) and is one of the largest favelas in Brazil. It was built on empty land on the edge of the city limits by Northeastern migrants who were driven from their homes by drought, ranchers and agribusiness during the 1980s. As São Paulo grew, real estate coalitions and their cronies in the government became more interested in the area. When a metro station was built on the edge of the neighborhood that cut the average commute time to the city center in half, real estate speculation rose dramatically and the federal government announced that Heliopolis would recieve the largest slum upgrade project in the history of Brazil as part of the national growth acceleration program (Programa de Acceleração de Crescimento, or PAC), in a partnership between the Federal and City Governments. It’s initial budget was stated at around usd$112 million. The residents’ initial enthusiasm quickly faded when conservative mayor Gilberto Kassab announced the details of the project which called for immediate eviction of 12,000 people and their resettlement in a favela 1 ½ hours by bus to the south of Heliopolis.

UNAS (União de Núcleos Associações e Sociedades de Moradores de Heliópolis e São João Clímaco) is a powerull local community organization that was created by residents of Heliopolis in the late 1980s when three residents associations merged together. It is affiliated with two of the largest urban social movements in Brazil: The National Low Income Housing Union (União Nacional da Moradia Popular, or UNMP) and the Coordination of Popular Movements (Central dos Movimentos Populares, or CMP). As soon as the details of the mayor’s plan were announced the UNAS directorate created a survey and volunteers went door to door interviewing residents of every household in the neighborhood. They systematized the results, set up a stage on one of the main streets and held a public audience with the mayor during which, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, they presented a list of 13 demands. As a result, the mayor’s Office canceled the original project plans and started over from scratch. Not all demands were met and some compromises were suggested instead. On the whole, however, space for public participation was opened and the project began to better meet the needs and desires of the residents of Heliopolis. The following list summarizes some of the key demands made to the mayor and their results:

Demand: Residents in the sub-neighborhood of Copa Rio had spent years gradually improving and expanding their houses which were now entirely made of brick and averaged two and three floors. They did not like the mayor’s proposal to destroy all  their houses and replace them with tiny, two bedroom apartments. Result: During the Assembly UNAS rejected the City’s upgrade plans for housing this area and the mayor agreed to cancel it, focusing instead on paving the streets and improving the sewerage system.

Demand: The residents of Heliopolis demanded their constitutional right to legal titles for  their land. Result: This process is ongoing but the city government’s initial offer of land titles for 1050 residences has been expanded to 3330.

Demand: Creation of ten local project management councils covering every street and block in Heliopolis in which residents could meet with city officials to discuss the project with full transparency on the part of the government. Result: The councils were established and City representatives respond to all local demands, although not always in the manner that the residents want.

Demand: No residents should be relocated to areas out of Heliopolis or the neighborhoods immediately bordering on it. Result: Totally successful.

Demand: Construction of 3500 housing units for the poorest residents and residents in areas of risk along the riverbanks. Result: 1600 units built as of January 2011, with more units planned.

Demand: Residents should be relocated to houses instead of apartments. Result: The City argued that there wasn´t enough space in the neighborhood to meet this demand. They offered a compromise of 200 individual houses and the rest of the units in apartment blocks.

Demand: All street names should be preserved, or if changed, only after discussion and approval by the local residents. Result: This is an ongoing battle between an administration that wants to create monuments to itself and enhance bureaucratic legibility and residents who want to preserve the history of their neighborhood.

Demand: The process of urbanization should happen in a manner that preserves the original characteristics and street life of the neighborhood and improves them instead of ripping everything down and rebuilding in modernist fashion that gives priority to cars over people. Result: Although there have been a few small advances this is an ongoing struggle.

During negotiations with the city government UNAS was also able to influence the aesthetics of the housing constructed in their neighborhood by approaching one of the most famous architects in Brazil, Ruy Othake, and convincing him to design the houses and apartment buildings. This was done out of concern for the idea that poor people should have the same access to beautiful things that everyone else does and has resulted in post-modernist, round buildings and houses. It has proved to be a learning experience as they have discovered that buildings that are beautiful to look at are not always the most functional places to actually live in, but residents are generally happy with the results.

UNAS has a long history of good relations with the Workers’ Party (of President Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT)  but in order to influence the outcome of the project the neighborhood had to engage in ongoing dialogue with a traditional enemy, the conservative DEM  – an outgrowth of ARENA, which collaborated during the military dictatorship from 1964 until the mid 1980s. This process involved dealing with criticism from people in the social movements and PT, especially when the mayor filmed reelection campaign commercials in Heliopolis highlighting the project. UNAS director João Miranda says, “although we have strong alliances with the PT we argue with them all the time too. We feel that the problems of our neighborhood are more important than political alliances and when these interests collide we favor the demands of the social movements and the people in our community.”

The story of UNAS’ struggle to influence government spending in Heliopolis shows that when there is a strong level of community organization it is possible to influence change, even in a politically hostile environment. There are local conditions that enabled this to happen that are not present in the average urban favela, however. UNAS, far from being a typical neighborhood association, is one of the most powerful organizations of its kind in Brazil. The fact that it represents an area of 120,000 people means that it is large enough to scare politicians into thinking that they will lose votes if demands are not addressed. In smaller favelas local interests continue to be ignored. As of January 2011, UNAS was the only local organization in Brazil that had been able to significantly influence the implementation of the Federal Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). Even so, the story of how UNAS was able to use two community organizing tools, the door to door survey and the public assembly, in order to cause the mayor of the largest city in the western hemisphere to cancel the original plans for a $112 million mega-project and reformulate it according to local demands, shows that when a population unites and fights for their rights they can conquest political space, even within traditionally antagonistic sectors. government officials might have to listen.


An early alternative to Participatory Budgeting

In recent years, Brazil has become known around the world for the Participatory Budgeting model, originally developed in Porto Alegre during the late 1980s. There are other, lesser-known  policies that were also developed through pressure from civil society in which the people have gained deliberative control over parts of the local government budget in Brazil. This is the story of the Special Social Interest Zones  (Zona Especial de Interesse Social, or ZEIS), that were first created in the city of Recife in 1983 during the final days of the Military Dictatorship, after years of pressure from community organizations, social movements and a progressive archdiocese of the Catholic Church led by Bishop Dom Helder Camara.

Recife, the coastal capital of the state of Pernambuco, is Brazil’s 9th largest city, with a population of 1.6 million in a sprawling metropolitan agglamoration of 3.5 million. Pernambuco, historically a major sugar exporting state, lies in Brazil’s long impoverished Northeast, where political leadership typically bows to the strong influence of a rural, landed oligarchy.

Brazilian cities – and Recife is a striking example –  are typically filled with slums that were created by poor rural migrants, many of them descendents of slaves, who were forced off of their land by cattle ranchers, agri-business and climate problems such as draught. From when the first large slums began to crop up in the late 1800s until the final days of the capitalist military dictatorship in the 1980s, slum dwellers had, with a few notable exceptions no  property rights. Slums were typically portrayed as green areas on city maps and the government could come in and forcibly evict slum dwellers from their houses whenever they wanted.  The creation of the Special Social Interest Zones in 1983 marked one of the first times that a Brazilian city government officially recognized slums and assumed the responsibility for providing them with standard urban facilities and services (in Brazil, urbanizing them) and providing legal land titles to the residents, setting aside money in the budget for this purpose. Upon the law’s passing, 27 areas in Recife were designated as Special Economic Interest Zones, ot ZEIS districts. During the first few years the law was deadlocked with very little advance. This prompted the same coalition that had pressured for the creation of the Special Social Interest Zones to pressure for new legislation regulating the ZEIS areas, called the PREZEIS, or Regularization Plan for the Special Social Interest Zones (Plano de Regularização das Zonas Especiais de Interesse Social). The PREZEIS law created a democratic form of management over the individual ZEIS areas and the city wide ZEIS system through Local Subdivision and Legalization Commissions and a city wide forum. The local commissions, which were given deliberative control over ZEIS public works in their areas, were made up of two elected representatives from the neighborhood, two appointed representatives of the city government, and one NGO representative who was elected by members of the neighborhood. The city-wide PREZEIS Forum is made up of representatives of all of the Local Urbanization and Legalization Commissions along with the mayor, the mayor and representatives from the Brazilian Lawyers Association and the State Government. Every year the Forum decides how the part of the budget set aside for ZEIS  will be distributed, and the Local Commissions would decide how it would be spent in each neighborhood.

In addition to the participatory management structure the PREZEIS legislation contained innovative measures to protect against real estate speculation, including laws prohibiting lots of land larger than 250 square meters (about 2,500 square feet) and prohibiting constructions over 3 stories tall. These measures were important for slum dwellers living near the beaches or other areas of rapid real estate expansion.

Today, civil society organizations who accompanied the process have mixed feelings about its success. According to Isabela Fernanda Valença from ETAPAS, a local NGO affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum that has helped pressure the government to create PREZEIS and has served on various Local Subdivision and Legalization Commissions over the years, ZEIS is important because deliberative powers were opened up to civil society.  “As a result of this process”, she says, “thousands of slum dwellers have gotten land deeds, real estate speculation and verticalization of many neighborhoods were held in check, streets were paved and sanitation works were completed.”

According to Ms. Valença, however, the advances made by ZEIS and by PREZEIS were limited because the budget allocation has always been far too small to prompt any kind of significant structural change. The amount allocated per year has averaged around only around usd$1.3 million for the entire city.  “Instead of urbanizing one zone at a time,” she says, “the representatives from the 27 areas argue with each other, ending up doing things like paving one road per year in each neighborhood.”

Despite the relatively small ZEIS budget , the city government has had major problems implementing it. It has never managed to implement the entire annual budget in a year, averaging a 33% implementation rate. When a new mayor was elected in 2000, he decided to implement a participatory budgeting program and immediately cut the ZEIS budget in half. This created a series of disputes within the local social movements and civil society organizations, which fought over which policy they preferred instead of trying to find a way to compliment one another.  Despite the problems, local governments around Brazil continue to implement ZEIS programs of their own as a tool for legally recognizing slums and civil society organizations struggle to find different strategies to pressure for ZEIS policies to best guarantee their rights.

Working around the loopholes

Cabo de Santo Agostino is a poor suburban municipality, outside of Recife, that has a population of around 170,000. In 2005 local residents’ associations, NGOs and social movements got together and created the Forum of Poor People’s Entities of Cabo Forum (Forum de Entidades Populares do Cabo).  The objective of the Forum, which has a membership of around 20 organizations, is to monitor local public policies for housing, sanitation, transportation and environment and also to influence the city planning process.  During its first five years of existence it has become a significant political actor in Cabo.

Starting from the first meetings of the Forum, participants demanded that a strategy be developed to influence the City’s budget.  Nivete Azevedo is the director of a local civil society organization called the Centro das Mulheres do Cabo, and a founding member of the Forum. “It wasn’t enough to protest,” she says, , “we wanted to act within the local budgeting process.”

This turned out to be trickier than they first expected. To understand how the Forum managed to achieve its goals one needs to know a bit about the local government budgetary process in Brazil.  According to a law passed in 2001, called the “Statute of the City,” all towns over 20,000 have to create a participatory development plan which orients the annual budget.  Participation is guaranteed by law in the form of public debates and hearings during which the annual budget is presented, and by allowing “people’s legal initiatives” in which any budget line can be altered through a petition as long as it doesn’t shrink the size of certain federally mandated disbursements for areas like Health and Education.  Although the Statute of the City  represented a huge step forward, the Forum soon discovered that there was enough flexibility in the law for local governments to effectively limit participation.

In a typical Brazilian city the mayor’s cabinet prepares the annual budget before submitting it for analysis and ratification by the City Council.  According to Brazilian law the public  has to have access to the budget and time to participate before it is submitted to the Council. In Cabo de Santo Agostino, however, the mayor only opens the budget for public scrutiny for two hours each year, allowing exactly one day for the public to suggest alterations. After it is submitted to the city council it is opened for public scrutiny for one month so that City Council members can suggest modifications and bring it up for vote. According to Ms. Azevedo, 30 days proved to be too short of a time period for the Forum to analyze the budget proposal and gather together the 10,000 signatures needed (based on population of the city) in order to submit a people’s amendment. In this case, participation in the city budget process was merely symbolic.

In order to bypass this obstacle, the Forum came up with a new strategy. Every year when the budget is opened to the public, the Forum meets and creates its own budget amendments. Then it searches for allies in the City Council to submit them for vote. During the year the Forum holds a series of monthly meetings in which an annual plan is made that establishes priorities for the following year’s budget. Once the objectives are established Forum members decide whether they want to create a full amendment or merely suggest line item alterations in a manner that will strengthen their objectives. The alterations are drafted and then Forum members look for an ally in the City Council to sponsor the changes and go door to door asking for all the City Council members to vote on the initiative.

In 2010, the Forum decided to give priority to low income housing in their annual plan. An amendment was drafted up, allocating more money for low income housing, guaranteeing that the social movements would be able to decide who receives a percentage of the housing and, in accord with the women’s rights’ objectives of the Forum, designated a priority in housing allocations for domestic workers.

In the 5 years since the Forum was created, it has become a significant political force in Cabo de Santo Agostino. Now, once a year, an extraordinary session of the City Council is held in which the Forum presents its ideas in an attempt to build recognition and supporty for the suggested changes and convince the councilors to ratify them.

After its success at the local level the Forum was invited to help develop a strategy with the Pernambuco Urban Reform Forum to influence the state budget on urban poverty issues.

According to Nivete Azevedo, the biggest challenge faced by the Forum de Entidades Populares do Cabo is to pressure the government to implement the budget after it has passed in the city council. “Our strategy is working in the sense that we are able to influence our proposals to be included in the annual budget”, she says, “but although we have been partially successful, we are still having problems guaranteeing that all of the money is allocated properly”.


On legibility, see Scott, James C (1998). Cities, People, and Language, in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

On neighborhood political representation and “clientelism” in particular, see Gay, Robert (1994).  Popular Organization and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: A Tale of Two Favelas.  Temple University Press. and (1999) “The Broker and the Thief: A Parable (Reflections on Popular Politics in Brazil.”  Luso-Brazilian Review 36/1: 49-70. and (2005) Lucia: Testimonies Of A Brazilian Drug Dealer’s Woman. Temple University Press.

For analysis of the rare circumstances required for overcoming powerful elite interests, see Joe Grengs, JAPA, article on Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, about 10 years ago.

See William W. Goldsmith and Carlos B. Vainer, “Elections in Brazil: Porto Alegre – A City Worth Watching”, The Bookpress 10, 9 (December 2000).  Also see:

For discussion of such coalitions somewhat earlier in São Paulo, see William W. Goldsmith, “São Paulo as a World City: Industry, Misery and Resistance,” Introduction to the English language edition of Social Struggles and the City, editor, Lucio Kowarick (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994).

William S. Saint and William W. Goldsmith, “Cropping Systems, Structural Change and Rural-Urban Migration in Brazil.” World Development 8, 3 (March, 1980, 259-272; in Portuguese in Estudos Sebrap 25 (1980). pp. 135-164. Also William W. Goldsmith and Robert Wilson, “Poverty and Distorted Industrialization in the Brazilian Northeast,” World Development 19, 5 (May 1991)


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.