The Politics of Urban Sand in Rio de Janeiro

By Frank Müller

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 12, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

Fig. 1, taken by author, 2019. Preparing parcel for construction, Guedes, São Bento.

Rio de Janeiro’s city-making rests on unstable grounds, to the point that “terrain” itself threatens inhabitants’ livelihoods. In particular, residents of low-income sections dwell in precarious conditions, and both human and non-human forces condition their dwelling-in-limbo. Examining this precarity allows a closer focus on the “materialization of politics” (Jaffe and Pilo’ 2020), to conceive not only “how normative visions of social relations are intentionally made more fixed,” but also how “looseness,” as a constitutive style of socio-material relations, transforms cities (Kemmer and Simone 2021). Examining the materialization of politics thus advances an understanding of city-making as a process of both fixing and loosening always unstable social relations. Such instability may be understood in a twofold way, as both material and political:  managed and controlled by single entrepreneurs or local collectives, Rio’s city-making has, on one hand, by and large been cultivated through loose, opaque and temporal connections to state institutions. On the other, and due to Rio de Janeiro’s mountainous geography and proximity to the bay, vast parts of Rio’s now urbanized areas are the result of improvised landfills, flattened and up-levelled on the bay’s shore.

Land speculation occurs on the threshold between forest and asphalt, clearing the former to provide space for real estate investment. Sand is being carried for landfills, for volatile constructions on steep hills, to lay foundations exposed to floods. The production of housing is now part of militias’ criminal portfolio—an investigation led by prosecutors from the Public Ministry details the intense relations between former police, construction firms and political elites, in particular, the President’s son, Flavio Bolsonaro (The Intercept 2020). These deficient constructions, built with sand from militia-owned illegal mines, frequently collapse, literally burying those without access to legal estate markets in divided Rio de Janeiro.

A more-than-human perspective on dwelling must account for the conflictual relationship between protection and threat (Ingold 2005, 506). While the preparation of inhabitable soil is well analyzed from a geotechnical perspective, it has received less attention as a political materiality that underlies the making of cities. In political geography, soil is most of the time reduced to an economic category, as a manageable thing upon which economic processes unfold, such as urban expansion, renewal or a rent gap. However, although these “processes work on terrain […] terrain itself is not seen as dynamic” (Elden 2017, 201). As an effect, the material conditions of political negotiations between competing governance actors involved in the production of cities’ terrain often go unnoticed. To theorize the role of things and materiality in the making of cities, this essay considers “the politics of urban sand.” In order to demonstrate how sand both fixes and loosens urban politics, I consider the promised, yet suspended, resettlement in Rio de Janeiro’s northern peripheries.

The Politics of Urban Sand

In the 1980s, Langdon Winner asked to what extent artefacts “have” politics (Winner 1980). This question concerns things’ ontological status: understanding things as passive recipients, which remain external to power structures, has consequences for our analytical purposes and procedures. Taken as passive ground, urban land, for instance, could be analyzed as subject to planning decisions, political negotiation and economic necessities. However, urban land and structures—infrastructure, roads, buildings—result from social interactions while simultaneously forging and molding the conditions of socio-political and economic life. Urban materiality limits “the ability of competing actors to envision and enact political goals” (Gagliardone 2014, 3). Understanding these political qualities of materiality allows us to assess how politically and economically diverse groups, and the political goals they envision, become organized around the production of land and the built structures of cities.

To detail the politically conditioning role of sand in the making of cities, I consider this agentic quality as a way of addressing the “intrication of men and things” in government (Foucault 2004, 134). As Foucault explains, the government of things is a way of routinizing the “conduct of conduct.” The exercise of government is conditioned by the ability to arrange and dispose of things, including the natural environment, territories and resources in ways “that this or that end may be achieved” (137). Things, such as sand, do not have agency per se, as if they were determining a specific social structure or behavior. Rather, to understand the governing of sand means to examine its materiality as it sets the stage as well as shapes possibilities for human acts, organization and governance arrangements. Agency thus emerges from socio-physical reality as well as human affects and intentions.

Militia Urbanization, Inc.

To understand the agentic role of sand in Rio de Janeiro’s northern periphery, its sandy grounds, we must dig deeper. How is urban sand being involved in city-making? How does sand set the stage of governing? What possibilities arise from this governing by sand, so to speak?

Since its colonial beginnings, urban planning in Rio de Janeiro has been highly unequal, dividing the city into a contrasting social geography of hill and asphalt. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and accelerating with Rio’s turn of century urban reform, then-mayor Pereira Passos implemented a “tropical” style of segregation and urban reordering à la Haussmann (Benchimol 1992). Flattening of the hills and the draining of swampy shores and landfills have been the most important interventions, transforming the center into inhabitable land. As an effect of this urban renewal, the peripheries formed—on the one hand, the low-income communities which have been slowly encroaching towards centric hilltops, and on the other hand, new settlements which expanded towards the northern and western edges.

In these peripheries, it was often through collective self-organization that communities gradually prepared the soil for the construction of one-level houses. They needed to move and carry sand to drain bay- and river-near swamps, as well as to cover land cleared of vegetation. Sand is grainy: it is semi-fluid, semi-firm, and needs to be condensed and mixed with gravel before a durable foundation for a construction can be laid on top. These are processes which require heavy machinery and poorer communities often lack such equipment or depend on individual entrepreneurs. Such land-grabbing also forms part of the political negotiation of influence between state and local non-state authorities as they attempt to manage populations. Individual community leaders act as brokers between communities and authorities, organizing votes in favor of candidates who support or tolerate the appropriation of land. In other instances, members of nation-wide social movements organize the collective invasion of a plot that is subsequently transformed into inhabitable land over the years to come.

However, the urban peripheral expansion of Rio de Janeiro is characterized by contested authority, violence and crime—which have intensified in recent years. Militias, former or current policemen acting as “safety guards” off-duty, today have entered the complex arrangement of state and non-state peripheral governance. In Rio’s Baixada Fluminense, which stretches from the border of the municipality of Rio de Janeiro towards the mountains of the Tinguá and the Órgãos nature reserves, militias are effectively influencing the organization of electoral campaigns, often in more or less visible cooperation with public officials (The Intercept 2018, Arías and Barnes 2016). Their political influence derives directly from their economic control over urban and infrastructural as well as real estate “services,” managing the ways in which low-income populations prepare land and construct houses. Through such control over residents’ lives, militias establish territorial strongholds by which they can decide whose politicians’ electoral campaign they support (JDB 2018).

My fieldwork in the community of São Bento, which is surrounded by two rivers and the bay Guanabara, reveals the close connection of sand’s physical qualities and the qualities of political structures that together shape the routines of urban expansion. In interviews, residents and activists of the community affirmed that daily, and especially during night hours, trucks enter the community leaving loads full of rubble and sand, first in piles along the river banks. Then bulldozers flatten the piles preparing fresh parcels for construction (fig. 1). In a public hearing with the state attorney, a government representative asserted that they had, via Civil and Military Police, attempted to prevent those deliveries of construction materials. Yet, due to the size of the area and the presence of a “parallel state in certain locales” (public hearing, 26 June, 2019), that control was impossible and therefore the municipality’s executive resigned.

Fig. 2, taken by author, 2019. House on the riverbank of Iguaçu, community Vila Alzira, São Bento.

Residents of São Bento have been awaiting resettlement as part of a region-wide infrastructural project, called Project Iguaçu, which would allow them to leave behind their precarious dwelling in areas at risk of flooding. Iguaçu is the name of one of the rivers that frame São Bento’s northern and southern limits. Project Iguaçu, initiated in 2007 by the State Institute of Natural Environment (INEA), foresaw the resettlement of populations from high-risk areas on river banks and swamps. Condominiums within the federal social housing program Minha Casa Minha Vida were built to provide housing for 900 to-be-resettled families. In 2012, contrary to the initial plan, residents of other communities along the river Sarapui received apartments in the condominium, rather than families living in Sao Bento who were directly affected by future inundations (fig. 2). Since then, those residents are reclaiming their right to resettlement. Furthermore, the urbanization, electrification, parceling and construction along the riverbanks of these communities continues, and is organized by the local militia in concert with the neighborhood association.

The mutually reinforcing connection of illegal construction and unstable, sandy grounds exposes residents to particular hardships. The militia’s early knowledge of the planned condominiums motivated their further parceling of lands on the river banks. Creating the livelihoods-at-risk, under their authority, improves the militia’s economic and political position in the negotiation of the terms of resettlement. They gain power in relation to the residents, by selling them at-risk lots on unstable, sandy grounds with the promise of future resettlement in the condominium in exchange for abandoning the newly acquired parcel. The militia also accumulates social capital vis à vis public officials who need local militia representatives to oversee and organize the resettlement process (Müller 2021).

According to one representative, the INEA has knowledge of further community expansions and illicit urbanization activities. Yet, INEA claims that inhibiting these activities was the responsibility of the local government. Thus, INEA denies any responsibility in the process; furthermore, the government representative accused the INEA of accelerating illicit development by publicly announcing Project Iguaçu, since that “promise, and that of a new polder and new housing units caused increased expectations among the population, who subsequently initiated new constructions” (own transcription, meeting at MPF 26 June, 2019).

The government representative implies that the militia scented business opportunities from the announcement. For each inhabited parcel, one apartment in the condominium was promised, and the militia intensified construction in order to either sell a “resettlement option” to the inhabiting family, or to supply strawman residents for the parcels, i.e., residents who never actually inhabit the newly constructed houses in the risk area, but only purport to do so.

Material Governance

The ongoing material instability of urban expansion in Brazil facilitates the circumvention of construction norms. Seen in its socio-political dynamic, a closer analysis of this terrain’s physical instability enables understanding of the militia’s economic and political involvement in urban expansion. In Rio de Janeiro, militia and drug trafficking gangs are increasingly diversifying the way in which they exert territorial influence in the making of cities. These manifold ways, most lately, include announcing and monitoring curfews during the Covid-19 crisis.

This diversification supports the more general conclusion that political and material instability must be considered together as they reinforce the effects of urban protection rackets. Turning towards the materiality of protection rackets demands closer examination of the agentic qualities of things. The material processes of land grabbing, levelling, and construction reproduce precarious livelihoods, yet also set the stage for organized criminal actors to benefit from the solution: resettlement. In this sense, analyzing the politics of urban sand opens argumentative and analytical routes to move beyond the “anthropocentric limitations of studies of governmentality” (Lemke 2015, 17). Instead of focusing on technological solutionism to urban risks, we need to dig deeply into the material conditions and political fluidity of city-making. This way, we can trace the imbrication of terrain’s dynamics and contested material governance.

Frank Ingo Müller holds a Global Fellowship from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Program (2021-24). He is postdoctoral researcher in Urban Geography in the AISSR at the University of Amsterdam and will be visiting scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. Frank is concerned with the politics and geographies of social housing, land, and soil, mainly in Latin America, as well as the making of political order in spaces of contested sovereignty. He combines ethnographic and discursive research strategies.

Works Cited

Arias, Enrique Desmond and Nicholas Barnes. 2016. “Crime and Plural Orders in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Current Sociology 65(3): 448-465.

Benchimol, Jaime Larry. 1992. Pereira Passos: um Haussmann Tropical. A renovação urbana na cidade do Rio de Janeiro no início do século XX. Rio de Janeiro: Secretaria Municipal de Cultura.

Elden, Stuart. 2017. “Legal Terrain—the Political Materiality of Territory.” London Review of International Law 5(2): 199-224.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78. New York: Palgrave.

Gagliardone, Iginio. 2014. “’A Country in Order’: Technopolitics, Nation Building, and the Development of ICT in Ethiopia.” Information Technologies & International Development 10 (1): 3-19.

Ingold, Tim. 2005. “Epilogue: Towards a Politics of Dwelling.” Conservation and Society 3(2): 501-508.

Kemmer, Laura and AbdouMaliq Simone. 2021. “Standing by the promise: Acts of anticipation in Rio and Jakarta.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. doi:10.1177/0263775820982997

Lemke, Thomas. 2015. “New Materialisms: Foucault and the ‘Government of Things’.” Theory, Culture & Society 32(4):3-25.

Müller, Frank. 2021. “Standby urbanization: Dwelling and organized crime in Rio de Janeiro.” Ephemera 21(1).

Pilo’, Francesca and Rivke Jaffe. 2020. “The Political Materiality of Cities.” City & Society 32(1): 8-22.

The Intercept. 2020. “Pica do tamanho de um cometa”, 25 April, 2020. Available online: (last accessed: 22 May, 2020)

Winner, Langdon. 1980. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109 (1): 121-136


About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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