Alisson Barbieri & Raquel Viana, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Presentation Title: Natural disasters, urbanization and forced displacement: a case study on the municipality of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil



Every year in Brazil, several tragedies occur during the rainy season and/or during periods of severe drought. These events come with serious consequences in terms of human and material losses, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Given the increasing average global temperature as well as changes in climatic regimes and the characteristics of the urbanization process in Brazil, such events have become more frequent and more intense. The 'environmental refugees' label has been used to refer to the process of forced displacement of this vulnerable population, despite the lack of consensus in the political or academic arena about the suitability of the concept and its ability to politicize/depoliticize the problem. This presentation investigated the theoretical construction and relationship between the concepts of 'forced displacement', 'extreme weather events' and 'vulnerability', and analyzed them in the context of urban areas in Brazil. The population living in Vila Betânia - a small slum located in an at-risk area in Belo Horizonte, Brazil was utilized as a case study.

Key Lessons Learned

This research indicates three important issues related to disaster risk prevention and mitigation policies in urban areas as well as the promotion of environmental justice and development:

  • There are a multitude of risks and needs among families in the case study area, such as the precarious housing and poor access to formal housing market, unemployment, displacement costs, crime and urban violence, the risks related to natural disasters and global environmental change.
  • The removal of the population from at-risk areas in cities is an adaptive and mitigative policy response to natural disasters, as it removes the immediate risk of flooding or landslide. However, it will only be effective as an action or development policy to reduce social and environmental inequalities if the spatial displacement of the vulnerable population does not result in reduced quality of life for these families in of public safety, maintenance of support networks, employment, provision of health and education services, urban mobility, etc.
  • Post-disaster emergency measures require a quick and agile response of the state and society. Policies of removal should take into consideration the timing required for preparing the removal of the families. The delay in execution of infrastructure projects often implies the obsolescence of the projects.

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

  • Although in some municipalities, emergency measures (mitigation actions) are taken with some agility, adaptation measures still take too long to implement. Delays are one of the main aspects related to the ineffectiveness of public responses to natural disasters.
  • The second policy implication is related to the different types of procedures and principles that guide public institutions and have considerable impact in people´s process of removal.
  • The multiple aspects of vulnerability require interconnected and intersectoral policies, in order to improve human well-being. If the direct removal of families can eliminate the immediate risk of flood, this displacement can also magnify or create new risks such as increased insecurity and urban violence.
  • Transparency, communication and the participation of affected communities are crucial aspects of a successful policy addressing forced displacement.

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • More studies are needed to understand the importance of social networks in the context of vulnerable people in urban areas and the impact that removal or displacement has on the social network (size, composition, etc.) of vulnerable individuals and families.
  • Disasters and the expropriation of commercial properties often produces impacts on families of small proprietors, in which public policies to reduce and prevent risk have not had a direct effect. This situation suggests that the disaster in one place can impact families residing in other regions in an indirect manner.
  • More studies are needed to better qualify the demographic vulnerability framework.