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£1m to boost resilience and unity of poor communities in Brazil & Colombia

  • URBE Latam project mobilises citizens of ‘forgotten’ communities to use local knowledge as a data tool, with which they can protect each other from disaster and be heard by government
  • Community leader in Colombia: “we now talk with a sense of belonging, with empowerment, sure of what we are talking about, and that is thanks to the support of the universities and organizations”

A project to strengthen the resilience of disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and at-risk neighbourhoods in Brazil and Colombia — led by the University of Warwick, UK — has received around a million pounds from UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Collective Fund.

El Pacifico community on the hillside

The URBE Latam research project is embedded in favela and barrio districts in Brazil and Colombia, mobilising ordinary citizens to come together to gather local data, and use it as a tool with which to protect each other against disasters triggered by natural hazards such as deadly landslides, as well as the economic and health crises caused by COVID-19.

It has been awarded £989,000 from UKRI’s GCRF for the work in the areas of Morro do Preventório in Brazil and El Pacífico in Colombia.

The researchers utilise high-resolution satellite images of the region, working with community members to produce detailed maps of housing areas that are often invisible on official maps, and to mark the images with real-time data on where neighbours are in the greatest need of particular support.

The aim of URBE Latam is to give a voice to the voiceless citizens of these so-called ‘informal’ communities, where people do not have secure employment, and are forgotten or ignored by national policies of social security and infrastructure planning.

Professor João Porto de Albuquerque, lead researcher and Director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick, commented:

Professor Joao Porto de Albuquerque

“The GCRF URBE Latam project is about collaborating with local citizens who have little economic power but a wealth of local knowledge, developing tools so that they can use this knowledge to protect themselves against threats, and making sure that they are seen and heard by national government.

“Through effective data collection, we can improve —and even save — lives in the short term; and by engaging citizens to work and learn together and continue to collect data, I believe that in the long term these communities will become more economically resilient.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the neighbours and researchers have located specific points in the neighbourhoods where there are people who need food, healthcare provision, or waste collection, and have organised community-driven actions to deliver support — such as the 1,700 food parcels that had been distributed around Rio de Janeiro as of August this year.

More recently, in September 2020, a landslide destroyed homes in El Pacífico, Colombia, leading to 44 families being evacuated. The work of the URBE Latam team helped community members to collaborate, map out the damage, and to have a stronger, organised voice when negotiating with authorities about receiving sufficient support.

Dairo Urán, President of the El Pacífico Community Action Board, said in response to this:

“The knowledge that we have acquired due to these collaborations [like URBE Latam] has been invaluable. When it comes to these organisations that support us in a selfless way, day by day, late at night, on holidays and Sundays, they might be doing other things, but they are dedicated to community work with the knowledge they have.

“When the municipal administration arrives with its engineers and geologists, they begin to speak in terms we as a community do not understand, but those organisations and institutions are like our lawyers, and support us with the knowledge they have...”

Map of El Pacifico

He continues: “…we now talk with a sense of belonging, with empowerment, sure of what we are talking about, and that is thanks to the support of the universities and organizations. Thanks to them the administration sees us in a very different way, and we demonstrated last week when we said "let's set up a negotiating table", now there is a dialogue, coordination, and all that is thanks to the training we have received. Of course, we are not professionals, but they do provide us with knowledge that prepares us for negotiations.”

Read more about this, including an interview with Dairo Urán, in this blog post.


The Institute for Global Sustainable Development provides a focal point for the University of Warwick’s sustainable development research, contributing towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It undertakes world-leading transdisciplinary research and capacity development to tackle global challenges and enable transformative change in human-environment interactions. It also provides support to the Warwick research community to meaningfully and responsibly engage with global sustainable development challenges.

Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF)

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) supports cutting-edge research and innovation that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It is a £1.5bn Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy fund and part of the UK Government’s Official Development Assistance commitment. For more information visit.

Image 1: El Pacifico informal community in Colombia - click image for high res.

Image 2: Professor João Porto de Albuquerque, lead researcher and Director of the Institute of Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick - click for high res.

Image 3: Map used by the research team in El Pacifico - more in this blog post.

7 December 2020

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