EJ Series, Part 9: Landscapes of dispossession – examining adaptation and the persistent exclusion of the urban poor

This article is based on a paper presented by Karen Paiva Henrique at the Environmental Justice 2017 Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017, and is a part of her broader PhD research.

Houses at the edge of the Tietê River, São Paulo. Photo by Karen Paiva Henrique.

In the summer of 2009/2010, the city of São Paulo, Brazil experienced unprecedented flooding from the Tietê River. São Paulo’s inhabitants are no strangers to flooding, but during this summer the city’s aging and insufficient flood management system, combined with extreme precipitation, forced the river to push its boundaries to an extent never seen before.

Infrastructure networks were brought to a halt as people and vehicles became stranded in areas quickly surrounded by floodwaters. No one suffered more than the poor inhabitants of São Paulo’s east zone whose life possessions and bodies became submerged by the murky waters of the river for weeks at a time.

The floods of 2009/2010 coincided with plans from the government of São Paulo to build the world’s largest linear park – Parque Várzeas do Tietê (PVT) – to allegedly protect the city against flooding from the Tietê River. The project consists of a 75 km-long protected area, punctuated by leisure centres and surrounded by a highway designed to protect the floodplain from future unauthorised use. In spite of decades of government mismanagement and neglect, leading to the extensive occupation – both formal and informal – of the basin, the PVT distinctly targets the homes of the poor, singled out as one of the main culprits of flooding.

Even if the project lacked a well-rounded plan for the relocation of thousands of families to be removed (it identifies the homes to be demolished, but not a place for their reconstruction), the floods of 2009/2010 were so extreme and their impact so unprecedented that the PVT was able to secure almost 200 million US dollars in funding, enabling the beginning of its immediate construction.

In 2017, the PVT is clearly behind schedule. Although the number of families targeted for removal has continuously grown since its inception (from 7,500 to 10,000 families), the state claims it doesn’t have sufficient funds or available space in the city to build new homes for them. As an alternative, the state offers a monthly allowance of 300 Brazilian Reais (approximately 90 US dollars), so each family can rent a home of their choice, close to their social networks and away from flood harm.

Community leaders, who I interviewed in 2017, claim the allowance is insufficient to rent a safe home in any of the communities affected by the project. They also claim that, for most of the families already removed, the monthly allowance eventually stopped being paid, leaving them with no choice but to return to their previous living arrangements. Reoccupation is a serious occurrence, also cited by state officials as one of the PVT’s main challenges towards completion.

The PVT’s exclusionary basis, rooted in the dispossession of floodplain dwellers, and its apparent inability to improve people’s lives raises an important question: why has the state chosen large-scale relocation as a preferred path for flood adaptation in the case of São Paulo?

To start answering this question we must look into the context, both geographic and institutional, within which the project has emerged. Projects such as the PVT are not created in a planning and development vacuum. They are rather highly contingent on their historical context and more often than not are produced through habit and accretion (Li 2007) – ‘recycling’ and reproducing approaches used in the past and that have since become normalised.

Such continuities in planning and development give form to what Ioan Fazey and others (2016) have characterised as a Dominant Adaptation Pathway (DAP): a normative decision-making trajectory built upon institutional legacies that are sustained by uneven relations of power and often serve to reinforce inequalities and inhibit transformational change.

When using a DAP lens to place the PVT in its historical and political context, it comes as no surprise that a project built upon the removal of thousands of homes, without any clear plan for their relocation, would gain such traction. After all, precedents for the disposal of the poor to create room for more ‘desirable’ urban development can be found throughout the city’s history. Yet, a more nuanced understanding of how DAPs emerge on the ground is still missing and could provide valuable insight to future adaptation plans in São Paulo, and elsewhere.

I propose we start by looking beyond relocation projects, where the presence of the state is highly visible, to examine how these projects become intertwined with state neglect towards vulnerable communities. Such neglect is systemic and more pronounced in moments preceding and following relocation, when poor populations must fend for their lives in the absence of a liable state.

Looking simultaneously at the state’s visible presence and seeming absence will allow us to situate adaptation within broader debates of justice – and systemic injustice – tracing its development within historical patterns built upon the dispossession of the poor. It will also allow us to identify alternative, more just practices for adaptation and the institutional roadblocks they encounter, as barriers persist to satisfy the interests of those in power.

This is not to say that people involved in planning and enacting state-led adaptation projects in São Paulo are inherently evil or exploitative. It is rather to recognise that their sometimes misguided attempts to ‘do good’ are directed by, and become trapped within, dominant decision-making trajectories historically entwined with the dispossession of the poor.

Floods like those in São Paulo in 2009/2010, and climate change more broadly, constitute an unprecedented challenge and also a unique opportunity to conceive development beyond the dispossession of those arguably most vulnerable, liberating them from poverty through more just and inclusive practices. However, such a feat will be only achieved if we conceive more flexible and transformational pathways that continuously address the most crucial question underlying adaptation efforts: adaptation for whom and at what cost?


Amoako, C. (2016). Brutal presence or convenient absence: The role of the state in the politics of flooding in informal Accra, Ghana. Geoforum, 77, 5–16.

Fazey, I., Wise, R. M., Lyon, C., Câmpeanu, C., Moug, P., & Davies, T. E. (2016). Past and future adaptation pathways. Climate and Development, 8(1), 26–44.

Governo do Estado de São Paulo. (2017). Parque Várzeas do Tietê – O Maior Parque Linear do Mundo.http://www.daee.sp.gov.br/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=370:parque-varzeas-do-tiete-o-maior-parque-linear-do-mundo

Inter-American Development Bank. (2017). BR-L1216 : Tietê Várzea Program. http://www.iadb.org/en/projects/project-description-title,1303.html?id=BR-L1216

Li, T. M. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Karen Paiva Henrique is a Ph.D. Candidate in Geography in the School of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Western Australia. Her work lies at the intersection of climate change adaptation, social and environmental justice, and urban development. She uses the city of São Paulo, Brazil as a case study to examine how flood adaptation is conceived, implemented and contested by multiple stakeholders in a context of uneven power relations. Her research offers a nuanced, multi-scalar analysis of adaptation plans as these unfold in relation to the city’s contentious political landscape. Karen holds a Master’s in Architecture (Pennsylvania State University); a Postgraduate Certificate in Urban Studies (Bauhaus Foundation); and a Bachelor’s in Architecture and Urbanism (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul). This research is carried out with support from the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship and a University Postgraduate Award at the University of Western Australia.