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Life on the edge: An immersive experience

In June of 2016, a team of six including Virtual Reality (VR) experts and documentary producers entered the favela Gereba in Fortaleza, Brazil's fifth largest city located in the northeastern part of the nation. The word favela is the Brazilian term that commonly refers to informal settlements characterised by slum or slum-like living conditions. The team consisted of VR specialists Marcus Olsson of SceneThere and 360 video director David Betteridge of The Experience Machine. It also included documentary filmmakers Tiago Venturi and Leonardo Ciotti of BossaNova films, myself Maria Schewenius, project leader at Stockholm Resilience Centre, and local coordinator Janice Monteiro. The aim was to illustrate life in the favela as seen through the perspective of the local inhabitants, the majority working as garbage pickers, catadores.

The system of catadores and their locally-organised associations are crucial for garbage recycling, not only in Fortaleza but in Brazil at large. Largely an informal sector, it is difficult to find reliable numbers on what the business of garbage collecting and recycling represents in terms of employment, monetary value or amount of recycled garbage. A report from 2011 states that in 2008, nearly 92 percent of aluminium and 80 percent of cardboard in Brazil was recycled, while only 7 percent of municipalities had implemented official source-segregation schemes. Although I advise against relying too much on the exact numbers, they should be seen as indication of the importance of the catadores for the country’s recycling system.

Children fly a kite along the old landfill in Gereba. Photo: Maria Schewenius

Upon entering Gereba, the team encountered a harsh but complex reality. The settlement formed in the 1970s when people moved to the area to work as catadores at a now-closed landfill. Garbage is still an always-present element in the favela. It is part of what constitutes the landscape, it pollutes the living environment, and it is essential for the people’s livelihoods.

The old landfill was covered with sand in the mid-90s and today constitutes an iconic hill around which the favela is built. During the rainy season, the grass and weeds that cover the hill grow thick enough for cows to graze. During the dry season, the plants turn into dry, thorn-like versions of their former selves. Only some of the kids dare to brave them by climbing the hill up where the winds are the best to fly their kites. Just a thin layer of soil separates the houses and streets in Gereba from the garbage in the ground below. More garbage is added above-ground as it escapes the sorting areas, or simply as household-generated waste.

When the landfill closed, the people of Gereba organised in new co-operations and turned to sorting and selling recyclable waste. Today some 400 workers and their families from Gereba and nearby communities, representing a majority of Gereba’s total population of about 1,700 people, depend on waste management for their livelihoods. Each day the workers spend six to eight hours per shift – day shift, night shift or both – separating plastic, glass, metal and cardboard from non-recyclable waste. Some are independent workers, walking the streets of Fortaleza at night with their wooden carts in the search for garbage they can bring back and sell to the local vendors. The nights are when the streets, which previously were shadowed by canopy trees but now are lined with concrete buildings, cool after the daytime’s scorching sunlight.

The people we spoke with expressed their pride in their work, and of having a job that pays them. Women expressed how domestic violence and drug abuse decreased when their husbands found employment. However, interviewees also said when the business at times shuts down, commonly because of government interference, problems like violence, rapes, robbery and arrests increase again.

Men harvest fish from the Cocó River, which runs through Gereba. Photo: Maria Schewenius

It is not known how the garbage affects the soil and nearby river. It is, however, known that the environment in Gereba is degrading. The river Cocó, which originates in the mountains outside of Fortaleza, flows past Gereba through the city and into the sea. The river system is crucial for the city’s biodiversity. As the inhabitants discuss in the documentary Gereba, one of the project’s two products, the river is now so polluted that the water is virtually unusable. It is used as dumping site by upstream industries and as recipient of local untreated sewage. Less than 20 years ago, people in the favela still used the river for doing laundry, taking showers and for drinking water. It is now only used during the rainy season, for fishing. Accessing potable water, one of the most basic and necessary resources, is a constant challenge for the inhabitants.

Many of Gereba’s inhabitants now experience increased skin and respiratory problems. Whether that is because of an incineration facility for burning medical waste that was built in the vicinity of the favela is unknown. No tests of soil, water or air quality have been done in Gereba that we know of. In the words of the inhabitants: “It is a forgotten place.”

However, the inhabitants of Gereba also have a remarkable capacity for finding strategies to improve their lives. Local inhabitant Daiane runs a ballet school with classes held each week. She says in the VR experience Voices of the favela produced by the team: “I was born a black girl in a favela. I want to give these girls better opportunities than I had.”

Samuel runs a capoeira school, aiming to keep the boys and girls off the streets. Maria, a mother of eight who lost one son to a murderer and who has seen her house burn down, has found a way of creating new happiness. She decorates her house with flowers she makes from the garbage she sorts: “I consider myself a rich person. Very rich,” she says in Voices of the favela.  A local leader, Pedro, who now has a job in sales outside of Gereba, runs guitar and singing classes. He reflected his pride in belonging to the community when I first interviewed him in January of 2016, saying with a smile: “I would not want to live anywhere else”.

The privately funded Local Support Fund (FAC) provides elementary schooling, daycare and meals each day for around 100 to 200 children coming from Gereba and nearby favela areas. For many children, those are the only meals they get in a day. The FAC also has a medicinal garden with native plants that the kids help to tend to while simultaneously learn about the plants’ medical properties. Knowing home remedies can save lives: The favela inhabitants often do not have money to go to a doctor, or they get ignored when they do go. The knowledge is also something special; the general population in Fortaleza often have limited interest in native plants and their properties, as people tend to favour exotic plants to the native biodiversity, and look is prioritised over function (something that prompted plant specialists Marcelo Freire Moro and Antônio Sérgio Farias Castro to ask the question: “Where are the native species in the land of megabiodiversity?”).

The FAC medicinal garden in Gereba. Photo: Maria Schewenius

Urban poor are among the populations most directly and severely hit by negative changes in the environment, and those who can benefit the most from improvements. If we are to create more sustainable, resilient cities capable of supporting human well-being for all, we have to understand the living conditions of the groups that today lead their lives out of sight from the urban cores, and who are absent from decision-making processes.

Great potential lies in working with existing knowledge and innovation forces anchored in the communities. Seeking solutions to challenges and needs, such as access to potable water, living environments free of garbage, clean air and support for local biodiversity, can create more employment opportunities, increase security and improve the environment in the cities at large. There is a lot to gain by jointly seeking novel urban development pathways with groups of urban residents, researchers, decision-makers and the private sector. However, the process may need new strategies for information sharing about and between groups.

The favela film project has led to the production of the ground-breaking, immersive VR experience called Voices of the favela. The VR experience uses new technology by SceneThere, allowing the viewer to move around in the favela, instead of watching a video that plays linearly as in traditional VR style. The team also produced the short documentary Gereba by BossaNova films, one of Brazil’s leading production companies. The 14-minute-long documentary deepens the immersive experience, providing a poetic and personal portrait of life in the favela.

In creating Voices of the favela and Gereba, we pushed the boundaries of technology and explored how technology and science could be merged to provide an innovative, immersive experience. We aimed to provide the audience not only with knowledge but with a true understanding of the social-ecological complexities associated with life on the edge. The result is, indeed, a Virtual Reality.

The VR experience and documentary were presented to the people of Gereba on 9 October 2016. On 11 October, they were presented in Fortaleza city centre with 110 people from Gereba participating. The products were internationally launched at the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito 17 to 20 October 2016. The European launch took place at the New York Times “Energy for Tomorrow” conference in Paris on 3 to 4 November 2016. Both products will be featured at the 13th Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Cancún, Mexico, 4 to 17 December 2016.

This project was supported by the Future Earth Media Lab, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Albaeco, SwedBio and C/O City. A special thank you is extended to Janice Monteiro, SceneThere, The Experience Machine and BossaNova films.