By Mitchell Ryan
During the Summer of 2016, I spent three weeks conducting qualitative fieldwork on heightened social mobility within the “Baixada Fluminense,” Rio de Janeiro’s urban periphery. The term “Baixada Fluminense” hastily refers to a network of thirteen distinct and unique municipalities, often considered synonymous with crime, poverty, drugs, corruption and violence. Accordingly, we found ourselves in the lowlands, the outskirts of Rio, a place long neglected by public services provided to the wealthier parts of the city’s inner region.
These three weeks in the Baixada served as an intensive introduction to the region. Each morning we commuted by van from our accommodation, a local church, to the Multidisciplinary Institute (IM), a satellite campus of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). We attended lectures by professors, students and community members on various aspects of the Baixada, ranging from the shifting historical and geographic boundaries to environmental air quality and lack of basic sanitation. We were deeply entrenched in inquiries into political ecology, sustainable economic growth, equitable access to public resources as well as urban transportation systems. We were forced to ask ourselves complicated questions such as: What does sustainable economic growth mean and how should it be implemented? Who has access to its benefits and who is left out? Why does it take almost two hours and three bus lines for these students to arrive at school each day? What is the impact of this university on its surrounding environment?
As a UNC undergraduate student, I discovered this project almost by chance. Having already spent a year living in Brazil prior to college, I was searching for opportunities to return and establish a professional connection to the country. After getting in touch and eventually meeting with Dr. French, one of the project’s co-advisors, I found myself welcomed with open arms. Only a few months prior to departure, however, I scrambled to secure funding through UNC’s campus, eventually being awarded the Halpern Award through the Institute for the Study of the Americas.
During our fieldwork, one speaker of particular significance was a professor from the Rio de Janeiro State University, Cleonice Puggian. Packed into a tiny classroom in a local private university with other students and professors, I listened to her describe the region’s environmental plight. She spoke of the sewage, lack of basic public services, racial stigma and absence of relevant policy. She highlighted injustice, pointing out colorful lines on a graph, lines telling us that the people surrounding us faced some of the worst environmental quality in all of Latin America. Our team was in Rio to study the question of social mobility within an expanding federal higher education system, and yet for the next two weeks I could not shake the gravity of her words. How did this region become so harmful for people to live in? What was being done about it? Her presence and commitment to these issues was captivating. I knew I needed to return to Duque de Caxias in order to learn about these issues from the people that faced them.
Mitchell Ryan after presenting at the IM/UFRRJ on his project on flooding in Duque de Caixias
With her and Dr. French’s help, along with the support of the entire BASS Connections team, I was able to do just that. I worked to develop a collaborative research project, securing funding to return to the Baixada the following Summer. My project sought to develop an understanding of flood management practices in one of the Baixada’s municipalities, with a heightened emphasis on resident voices. As the primary actors by default when flooding occurs, residents frequently develop their own perceptions, understandings and strategies for coping with disaster. However, despite Brazil’s advanced water management policy and seemingly inclusive deliberative process, state official have been reluctant to relinquish any real decision-making power. The urgency and severity of this problem is clear, and after having spent over eight weeks conducting Summer fieldwork, I feel encouraged by the extent to which residents are aware of what makes their community either a good or bad place to live. Moreover, I feel inspired by their resiliency, working to strengthen their communities in the face of persistent disaster and corrupt government.
“The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense,” has extended far beyond what I ever could have imagined and has played an incredibly influential role on my experience as an undergraduate student. It has exposed me to various facets of research, allowed me to maintain a meaningful connection to a country near and dear to my heart, forced me to critically question our system of global higher education, and most importantly, supported me in fully exploring my personal and academic curiosities.