Life on the Other Side of Rio's Streets by Karen Phelps
Driving up the narrow cobbled street of one of Rio de Janeiro’s richest suburbs chauffeurs line up waiting to pick up their employer’s children from an exclusive private school. Just a couple of streets further on other children play amongst rotting rubbish, sometimes dodging bullets from gang shootouts. Welcome to Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela (slum) which is home to a staggering 85,000 people.
A city of contrasts, visitor’s to Rio are usually drawn to the city for its heavily promoted beaches and carnival. But if tourists were to look just a little further – even just a couple of streets away – then Rio reveals a very different side. Although many tourists may prefer to sun themselves on the beach, for those that really want to understand the city and the culture a trip to the favela is essential.
Favelas have existed for over one hundred years in Brazil. There are 950 favelas currently in Rio. But none are listed on a map. Although the exact history is sketchy it is generally thought that the first favela was created in 1897 when 20,000 veteran soldiers were brought to Rio de Janeiro and had no place to live. It is thought some were also started as independent settlements of African slaves when they were liberated in 1888. Favelas are racially mixed and it is economic conditions rather than ethnic or cultural issues that draw people to the favela. Crowded onto the hills surrounding Rio, interestingly favelas often have multi-million dollar views of the city.
Favelas can vary in their levels of violence but locals recommend travelers do not go into the favelas alone. Considering favelas are often all ruled by one of Rio’s three organized crime syndicates – Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) – it is safe to assume favelas are not the best place for wandering gringos. As the police often want little to do with the favelas, preferring instead to pretend they simply don’t exist, crime syndicates have moved into the favelas offering protection in return for a place from which to conduct their drug business dealing cocaine and marijuana. The downside for favela residents is that this has also left their young people at risk as drug syndicates recruit their new members from within the favela.
Although it might seem a strange sight for tourists to be seen in the favelas, there have been organized tours into the favelas for some years now. Local Marcelo Armstrong has been taking tourists into Rocinha and Vila Canoas favelas since 1992 to show visitor’s to Rio a more realistic view of the city connected to the real life of the local people. His company Favela Tour has also helped to fund a school in the Vila Canoas favela paying for 85% of its running costs.
Rather than being purely voyeuristic tours into the favela are good for both tour operator and favela residents. Tour operators have to get permission from the favela to take tours through showing a different side to their city raising awareness. Favela residents get the opportunity to sell to tourists. Rocinha and Vila Canoas favelas are controlled by Amigos dos Amigos and surprisingly this organized crime syndicate does not seem to mind the intrusion as long as their privacy is maintained.
As we drive through the Rocinha favela the smell of rotting rubbish lying in the street is overwhelming. Favela residences are built haphazardly constructed from whatever materials seem to be lying around and navigated by a random series of twisting stairways, passages and walkways. As we stop Favela Tour guide Simone points to a concrete wall covered in graffiti. She warns us that we cannot take photos there. Although we cannot see them, hidden inside an old concrete bunker on the opposite side of the street, sit gangsters with guns watching everyone that comes in and out of the favela. Residents have set up tables selling various handcrafts and paintings at the van stop. The tour has provided an opportunity for favela residents to start their own business right next to the drug dealers located just a few metres away.
As we drive deeper into the favela it is apparent life goes on here just like anywhere else. There are shops, a bank and even ‘Bob’s’, a popular Rio fast food chain. We stop and walk through a garage past a mechanic repairing a car who ignores us, to a view over the favela stretching into the distance giving an indication of its vast size.
Rocinha favela has just three public schools for the whole favela. Each student can only attend school for four hours each day leaving a lot of time where most children have no adult supervision as around 90% of favela residents work outside the favela. Simone tells us that with shoot-outs between traffickers and police and other criminals, as well as assorted illegal activities in favela, the average life expectancy for a favela child that enters the gang is just 25 years.
We drive to Vila Canoas favela. This smaller favela, which houses 2500 residents, is vastly different from Rocinha. No rubbish lies in the streets, residents are well dressed and houses neatly maintained. Simone tells us that this is partly due to the school financed by the tour where 65 students come each day for free to gain an additional four hours of schooling. The benefits have gradually spread into the rest of the community. Another important factor is that this favela is too small and too close to the heavy security of a nearby upmarket golf club to be useful to Amigos dos Amigos. No drugs are dealt in Vila Canoas so its children are relatively protected.
Favelas are a problem that the government up until now has preferred to pretend doesn’t exist. But things are changing. In 2007 Brazilian president Luiz Inacio (Lula) Da Silva announced Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, a four year investment plan which also includes the investment of better infrastructure and conditions for favelas. Although some consider the initiative merely election propaganda, Simone feels that even this small start will make a difference to the lives of those living in the favela.
As we drive out of the favela we are quickly on the main road running alongside Ipanema beach where tourists lie sunning themselves by the sea turning beetroot red and Brazilians swim in brightly coloured dental floss bikinis. Rio’s contrasts and disparity of wealth are huge and can only be truly experienced by venturing into the favela. But it is not all doom and gloom. The favela tour cannot help but change foreigners’ perception of favelas as only being related to violence and poverty. In the favela life goes on normally for residents – working, playing, loving and sometimes dying. And now through various initiatives such as government intervention and Favela Tour within the favela also begins to lie more hope for a better future.
Karen travelled into the favela in Rio de Janeiro courtesy of Favela Tour. For more information: www.favelatour.com.br