Social Conflicts in the Urban Brazilian Amazon
Project led by Vitor Martins Dias
How do poor citizens seek legal representation and navigate the legal system in Brazil? This project addresses this question by examining social problems that have followed urbanization in the Brazilian Amazon. Arguably, social and spatial segregation are defining characteristics of Brazil’s cities as well as its judicial system. Namely, the Belém Metropolitan Region (BMR) has an urban population of approximately two million inhabitants, and about 50% of them reside in areas identified as “subnormal agglomerations.” Regarding the judicial system, the BMR has approximately 145 ‘state legal aid lawyers’ – Brazil’s public defenders – to attend to the needy. The inadequate infrastructure that serves disadvantaged neighborhoods in the BMR, combined with a heavy rainfall season, exposes more than half million people to flood hazard, housing damages, and displacement. To date, millions of Brazilian reais have been spent in the attempt to improve water and sewage treatment as a means of ameliorating this situation, with minimal success.
The state has the constitutional duty, and therefore legal obligation, to improve housing and basic sanitation and also to provide free legal services for the poor via the Public Defender’s Office. Given this context, how does the state uphold its constitutional responsibilities? Individuals of low economic status have their rights repeatedly violated by the state’s inefficient actions in governing common goods and providing access to justice. Thus, how do ordinary citizens address their legal needs that stem from the losses caused by the aforementioned problems? To answer these questions raised, I use mixed-methods and draw on the scholarly work on how poor petitioners seek lawyers, how legal actors screen cases, and how courts address social rights. To this date, individuals who have sought legal relief to redress their grievances in the BMR have achieved little social change.