Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco and arguably the most important city of the Brazilian North-East, has been the center of the sugar plantation economy and an important hub in what has been denominated the ‘Black Atlantic’. A particularity of Recife, more even than other Brazilian cities, is the close proximity of middle and upper class neighbourhoods and favelas (slums). Formal neighbourhoods are often surrounded by informal settlements, and many middle class areas contain small favelas in their midst.

From the 1940s up to 1964, the start of the military dictatorship, the city had several progressive city administrations, implementing policies that aimed to deal with the plight of the working poor. In 1964, Pernambuco was one of two states that openly opposed the military takeover and was heavily penalized for it. The remnants of slavery remained strong in Pernambuco, exposing Recife as a living example of the contradictions generated by the social demands triggered by modernization and the aspirations of the politically powerful plantation class to maintain their privileges. These contradictions came into the open when, under the leadership of the charismatic Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara, a strong popular movement came into existence for the poor’s right to the city.

In the 1980s, the socio-economic heterogeneity of the city, coupled with the existence of strong civil society movements, convinced the military regime that it was impossible to evict the poor from the city. An alliance between the social movements and the regime, gave way to various governance innovations, such as the PREZEIS (Plan for Regularisation Legalisation of Special Zones of Social Interest) tenure and legalization programme in informal settlements.

However, participatory programmes have faced severe budget cuts and private developers increasingly finance electoral campaigns of community leaders with the aim to open up protected areas, known as Special Zones of Social Interest (ZEIS), for land valorisation and beautification purposes.

The project hence engages with the questions: How are power struggles around the poor’s right to the city in Recife shaped by community leaders? And what does this say about the prospects for a truly progressive city-wide participatory governance system grounded in the politics of the slum?