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Enabling partnerships in response to COVID-19: community-driven resilience and development in Brazil and Colombia

For the transdisciplinary research team working on UKRI GCRF project Understanding Risks and Building Enhanced capabilities in Latin American Cities (URBE Latam), mutual learning and empowerment is at the core of our approach to building equitable resilience. June marked the first dialogue between community leaders of Morro do Preventório (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and El Pacífico (Medellín, Colombia). They were joined by researchers from the Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro, the Universidad de Antioquia, the Institución Universitaria Colegio Mayor de Antioquia, Brazil’s National Centre for Monitoring and Alerts for Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), the Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM), and the University of Warwick’s Institute for Global Sustainable Development.

A long history of self-construction and self-empowerment

El Pacífico (Medellín) and Morro do Preventório (Niterói, Rio de Janeiro) are so-called informal neighbourhoods, which, like many marginalised communities in the global South, are located in areas with increased exposure to hazards. With a history of collective mobilisation for the construction of housing and physical infrastructure in their beginnings (called “convites” in Colombia and “mutirões” in Brazil), these communities also have a long history of self-construction and self-empowerment. While this clearly is a response to processes of socio-spatial and institutional marginalisation across decades, it has also led to alternative visions of resilience and ways of addressing situations of vulnerability. In El Pacífico, founded by internally displaced families, the focus of recent community-driven initiatives has been on collectively dealing with the geological risk (Villa Becerra et al., 2017 [1]). Morro do Preventório has more recently focused on livelihood support and social initiatives as part of efforts to build a solidarity economy within the neighbourhood.

With the COVID-19 pandemic significantly affecting both communities, the conversation concentrated on community initiatives to reduce the vulnerability of the residents in the two marginalised neighbourhoods.

In Preventório this is centred on the social innovations of the Preventório community bank, which not only enables community mobilisation but also provides microcredit and manages a local social currency (called “Prevê”) which only circulates in the community with the goal of increasing local economic transactions to maximise local development. We also learned about the significant impact the pandemic had on the livelihoods of residents of Preventório and the bank’s efforts to raise funds to support the distribution of food parcels containing the produce of peri-urban farmers, who would otherwise be unable to sell them in the current crisis. In Colombia, together with the Institución Universitaria Colegio Mayor de Antioquia, the community in El Pacífico has conducted a community census and developed a community risk management strategy. Both are now part of the baseline planning tools for the community’s COVID-19 response, which involves discussions with NGOs.

The community leaders and researchers in this first virtual meeting concluded that both neighbourhoods could strengthen their resilience by learning from each other. El Pacífico’s experience with the community census and risk management strategy is relevant for the community bank in Preventório, which is currently establishing vulnerability profiles of residents to prioritise the allocation of credit and food parcels. Additionally, the leaders from El Pacífico were keen to know more about establishing a community bank and how to attract investment that could enable local development strategies, including the provision of microcredit. As a neighbourhood that is not officially recognised, El Pacífico feels that it has been overlooked in the municipality’s provision of humanitarian aid, despite having signalled their needs by displaying red flags in their windows and “cacerolazos (in Spanish; panelaços [2] in Brazilian Portuguese)” that took place recently.

The risk-resilience-development nexus

Both communities committed to continue exchanging knowledge with the aim of supporting existing initiatives and developing new ones adapted to their contexts. Working on the risk-resilience-development nexus, the project is already responding by supporting these community-led efforts in both neighbourhoods in the short-to-medium term related to the COVID-19 risk mitigation and for long-term resilience building. This includes the organisation of “convites” and “mutirões” for the co-production of maps for prioritisation of needs during the pandemic, and support for processes to identify local skillsets as a basis of value creation within and for the community, as well as the identification of solid waste hotspots to reduce the risk of flash floods and public health hazards.

It has also already resulted in a video-dialogue between the communities. The first video was produced by a community leader in El Pacífico, and the second video is the response from Morro do Preventório. Both point to the inequalities in the allocation of risk which underpins the increased vulnerability to hazards and their exacerbated multi-dimensional impact for these two communities.

Above:It was not the pandemic which brought inequity and inequalities to our territories" - a voice from El Pacífico (Carlos Velázquez)
Below: Preventório: the response from Morro do Preventório (Marcos Rodrigo Ferreira)

A primary objective of the project is to dialogically engage citizens in marginalised communities to promote awareness and generate data about local vulnerabilities and potentialities. Community-led engagement such as this plays an essential role in our participatory approach, which is underpinned by our commitment to dialogic co-production and equitable partnerships. We are looking forward to more such dialogues and will return to the subject as the project progresses. For more information about the project, please visit the our website or contact the project team.

Blog post written June 2020: Philipp Ulbrich is a Research Assistant on the project.

[1] Villa Becerra, H. A., Ruíz Botero, L.D., Montoya Bedoya, M., Escobar Quiroga, J., Cardona, B., Vallejo L.J., and Findlay N.C. (2017) Diagnóstico Social Participativo del barrio El Pacífico de la comuna 8 de Medellín. Institución Universitaria Colegio Mayor de Antioquia project report.