Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Electricity in Rocinha: A history lesson

The owners of Electricity in Rocinha
Translated from story by Ze Luiz (in Portugues) with some comments added by myself in the story.

In the year of 1970 when darkness settled on the favela of Rocinha, was the time to show kerosene lamps and any other type of illumination in the alleyways. We had to improvise the way we could bring light into our shacks. The strengthening of electric energy for the favela was made informally by LIGHT (electric company). We had this guy in Rocinha who everybody called "Mr. Batista". He was able to receive a concession to distribute and charge for the use of this energy. It was a small area that this electricity covered and he could only share it with a few people. So this is how it was organized. LIGHT installed a transformer close to the main street Estrada Da Gavea at the top of Caminho do Boiadeiro. The transformer had a potency to serve many houses. And of course, those who had money would pay. To this day, nobody knows how Mr. Batista was chosen to be one of the owners of electricity. This gave him a lot of power. For the stores, it was vital to have energy. Especially restaurants for refridgeration and keeping their beer ice cold! There were other owners of energy as well but nobody ever questioned the way it was distributed or the price people were being asked to pay. To have energy in your house or commercial building was a priveledge few in the favela had.

According to a collaborator of the group “Memories of Alley 4”, the distribution of light in the favela was made by several “owners.”
On the lower part of Rocinha, energy was distributed by Mr. Olimpio,  collected about 5 thousand reais. Jefferson from the top of the hill, collected 15 thousand. But remember, the electricity was spread to serve a lot of houses in those specific areas controlled by the owners. Mr. Batista was the most popular because his distribution was better structured and lasted about 25 years. Because there was no regulation by the government, these owners could charge what they wanted. But with this, the spread of gatos or illegal hook ups began by those who could not afford what the owners were charging. With many changes in the 1980’s, the company LIGHT decided through community pressure to install legal electricity posts, meters and charging residents. This initiative was started soon after by Rondon Project through the census of 1980.

Returning to my shack, there was no light because we ran out of money so we had to start using the kerosene lamps again. The problem is the house would have this terrible smell of smoke. And there was also a high risk that if the kerosene lamp fell, that the whole shack would burn down. We would try to secure the lamp high up close to the ceiling to prevent problems. I cant remember when electricity came to our house because my father and uncle paid for the installation initially and paid the bill every month.

The installation of energy was not done immediately. You had to initiate negociations with one of the owners. They would decide who would receive electricity regardless of their ability to pay. It was a type of selection and we didn’t know the criteria of how people were chosen. But the owner controlled the transformer and in the end, he decided. We had neighbors that were good friends and one who worked with one of the owners of a transformer. We eventually around 1983 were able to secure fairly regular electricity in our house. The light had arrived!!

You could not be late with the payment or the owner would cut your power. The owner had a son who was a large and strong guy who would be the one who would cut your power. He would get up on the ladder, climb the post and cut it! The power wasn’t the strongest and I think its because it was shared by so many people. But it was better than the smelly high risk kerosene lamps. To pay the bill we would have to descend the hill to the owners office at the entrance to the Valao. There would be 2 lines, one to pay and the other requesting installation. It was confusion.

It was at this time (1980’s) where many ran illegal lines or gatos, off the posts that already had electricity. If your neighbor had light, you wanted it too. If the line was made direct on the post, somebody had knowledge of this and soon you had light and your shack was illuminated. There were times the electricity would not work and I think its because there was a recharging system. This recharging was usually done late at night when you couldn’t see anything. During the day we had natural light so only the houses that fridges, tv’s, blenders etc, the energy was available.

The people in the favela this idea came about where it seemed favors were being done in exchange for people having access to getting installation to their homes. Mr. Batista of Caminho do Boiadeiro was loved and hated. Its unfortunate that he did not have the ability to provide electricity to everybody but it was obvious that there was favoritism.  Even those with power couldn’t really complain if the service was bad because we all knew there was no guarantee of good reliable power. A restaurant could lose all of their refrigerated goods from day to night if there was a lack of power. And when the power went off during the novella, many women would “die” wanted to “kill” the owner. What craziness.

Later, with all the challenges, we would work our way through it. In the alley where I used to live, the majority of the houses had electricity. They had fridges and tv’s, often for those neighbors who didn’t have access to power, we would share or try to help them out. Before my father bought a tv, I used to watch at my neighbors house. We had a code, if the door of a house was open, it meant you were welcome inside. We had this trust. But even with the door open, you would always ask if you could enter out of respect for that family. We were poor but not disrespectful.

I'm sure theres some gatos in there! :)

By the mid 2000’s the majority of the favela had electricity. But you still had those on gatos and those that paid regular rate. I lived at my first house, which I knew had a gato. I paid equal to about 5 reais a month for electricity, which I knew was not right. I had friends that were paying 30-50 reais a month. So, I knew my house was on a gato. I was not the owner of the house, I was renting. Now that I live in an apartment, I know I pay what others pay and I don’t have a gato. There is more regulation now of the electricity and less illegal hook ups. But every now and then I hear about somebody illegally tapping into the lines. A friend of mine receives regular power but when he wanted to install an air conditioner, he knew that his cost of power would go up a lot. So, he called a neighbor to create a gato only for his air conditioner.

Unfortunately, the favela never was really a democratic place back then, where to be a citizen is a condition structured by relations. There was a structure in the favela of those who made decisions. This is before the drug trafficking came in. This condition of sub citizenship limited the possibilities of active participation when it came to the necessities of the residents guarantee of individual rights. It was always like this. I’m talking 40 years ago of the brief memory of history of electricity in the favela. Some thins changed in respect of guarantee of people’s rights and democracy in the favela. In some aspects it got worse.

There grew new owners, new possibilities of exploration that were organized, people who presented themselves as community leaders to stabilize the relations with politicians, big businesses and even city government associations to attend to the demands made by residents inside the favela.

It is wrong to think that the owner of the hill came with the drug trade. Yes, those guys were here and sold their stuff but when it came to issues of infrastructure and public services, we had other representatives in the favela that would work with these outside agencies. Life in the favela is a very small scale compared to the whole country of Brasil.