Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Brasilian's Home Is a Castle

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Brasilian's Home Is a Castle

Article excerpt

In the suburbs of the Brazilian capital, even poor families barricade themselves behind iron railings. To guard against thieves, but also to proclaim that they have conquered a fiefdom in the city

Brasilia is two places. One of them is Brazil's futuristic capital, built between 1957 and 1960. This monumental city, dreamed up by town planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer and known as the central zone (plano piloto; see drawing, page 31), has about 300,000 inhabitants (as originally intended), mainly the staff of government ministries and foreign embassies.

Much less known to the world is the other Brasilia, the suburbs where middle-class and poor Brazilians live. In the original plan, these areas were not supposed to have more residents than the central zone. But today there are 16 satellite cities, forming a huge urban expanse containing 1.3 million people. And one thing always strikes visitors to this metropolitan jigsaw puzzle: the number of dwellings - whether elegant villas, humble wooden shacks or residential complexes - that are surrounded by metal railings.

In front of smart houses in Nucleo Bandeirante, the oldest satellite city 15 km south of the central zone, and in the nearby towns of Taguatinga, Guara and Cruzeiro, iron railings often rise from the pavement as high as the first floor, giving the impression that people are living in cages.

In the poorest and newest suburbs, like Santa Maria (which sprang up in 1994), Recanto das Emas and Samambaia, many people even put up iron railings round their wooden shacks before they've been completed. The same goes for new migrants, who continue to settle, though at a slower rate than before (see factfile), on the "edge of the edge" of the city, in country areas and even in the neighbouring state of Goias.

The first explanation you hear for these railings is the frequency of crime. "Until eight or nine years ago, the satellite cities were safe places," says Jesse de Souza, a 35-year-old army officer. "But since then, crime has shot up. Burglars don't bother any more with the mansoes, the wealthy villas by the lake in the central zone, because they're too far away and the security there is too sophisticated. The buildings in the central zone are guarded round the clock.

"But in the satellite cities, it's much easier for thieves. Everything gets stolen - bicycles, cars, car radios, CD players, television sets from inside houses. They tried to break into our house. It was the railings that saved us." De Souza was born in Bahia state and lives in Ceilandia, a satellite city of 360,000 people founded in the 1970s to rehouse migrants from the slums.

The private surveillance business

Maria de Jesus Pereira, a 40-year-old housewife, insisted that her husband put up iron bars before they could be burgled. Many people are unemployed in Santa Maria and theft is common. "And now my four children can play safely," she says, "I can even leave them outside the house, behind the railings, while I run a few errands."

Since the early 1980s, violence and security have been a major issue in Brasilia and even more so in other big Brazilian cities and elsewhere in Latin America. A whole industry has grown up around the demand for private security and sales of security equipment - from intercoms to camera surveillance systems - are booming.

The most extreme examples of this trend are the condominios fechados, private estates (houses, apartment blocks, shops and services) hidden behind walls and which you can only get into by showing an ID to watchmen at a guardpost. Promoters have successfully sold the idea of "peace and security" to house-buyers. In the centre of cities and in the suburbs, such closed communities and other protected areas are multiplying. They are, as Teresa Caldeira describes it(1), fortified enclaves for the upper and middle classes. Their existence helps to increase urban segregation, with poorer people relegated to areas which are still public but poorly equipped with infrastructures or even derelict. …

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