This dissertation examines the effect of environmental discourse and disaster risk reduction mapping in the favela Santa Marta, an urban informal settlement in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With the world’s largest urban forest within the metro area, Rio de Janeiro is unusual for a metropolis of more than ten million people in the rapidly urbanizing country of Brazil. The government of Rio de Janeiro has attempted to control favela settlements since the early 20th century, but beginning in the 1990s the prefecture began delimiting favela settlements with environmentally protected areas called ecolimits. According to the state’s calculations, in the 2000s favelas began to rapidly expand into the urban forest, which is protected by the ecolimits and national parks. In 2009, the state built a wall around Santa Marta, justified by concerns about expansion into the adjacent forest. The state then labeled Santa Marta the model favela after infrastructure improvements there and the installation of the first Pacification Police Unit, a new form of community policing begun in 2008 for favelas.
The focus of my study is the particular ways that the government has framed its resettlement efforts in Santa Marta and how favela residents responded. I employ the concept of biopolitics assemblage to critically investigate the state’s and international institutions’ discursive and material practices of disaster risk management in Santa Marta. I collected data using a mixed methods approach during 15 months of fieldwork. Through archival research, I document the history of favela control tactics and trace the roots of disaster risk management in Rio de Janeiro to a World Bank financed disaster response project initiated in 1988. Using ethnographic methods, I documented residents’ responses to and understandings of the government’s resettlement project for Santa Marta. My results indicate that the state has discursively shifted the problem of favelas from a social question to an environmental one, while residents continue to frame favela conditions as a social justice issue and challenge the state’s assessment of environmental risk.