An Insight Into Brazil’s Largest Single Favela…
Whilst visiting Rio de Janeiro, instead of taking a day trip to the main tourist sights, we decided to visit Rocinha, the largest single ‘favela’ in Brazil. We decided to do this not in any voyeuristic sense, but to find out more about life in the favelas and to see for ourselves whether what we know about them simply from the media in the UK is an accurate portrayal.
There are a handful of tour operators in Rio that offer 3 hour favela experiences, but we chose the original ‘Favela Tour’ ran by Marcelo Armstrong since 1992, as 40% of our fee goes towards the upkeep of the only school in Vila Canoas, the second and contrasting favela we visited as part of the tour.
The reason for visiting two different favelas was to give us the opportunity to compare and contrast both a large and small favela located within Rio de Janeiro. The main differences between Rocinha and Vila Canoas is that the latter has strict boundaries and can no longer grow. The community of Vila Canoas has access to full services and the favela itself has never been ran by gangs, quite different to Rocinha.
Vila Canoas – Supporting The Local School
We discovered that this local school, named Para Ti, was founded by an Italian family living in Brazil, and operates in the main through volunteers and donations. We liked the fact that part of our fee goes directly to the school and therefore in a small way is helping to support the local community. In addition to this, we got to visit the school as part of our favela experience so that we could see exactly where our money was being invested.
The school itself has places for 50 children living in the favela aged between 5 and 12 years old. It is simple but functional, with only four classrooms and one computer room. There is also a small cooking/ dining area and two playgrounds. As teaching is mainly by volunteers the children can learn anything from arithmetic, reading and writing to handicrafts and cooking, dependent on the volunteer’s particular skills.
The school allows parents in the favela to know that their children are being taken care of whilst they are out at work, as opposed to being left on the streets during the day. It also gives children a chance to work towards a university place in the future, which is really important due to the fact that only a small minority of local people from the favelas have a university degree.
Media Influence & Misconceptions
Our tour guide Brenda was extremely knowledgeable about every aspect of the favelas and really made our visit such an interesting and enlightening experience.
We were collected from our hotel around 9.00am. When we got into the mini-van the first question Brenda asked everyone was “What do we already know about the ‘favelas’?”
There were 10 of us altogether taking the tour, and nobody was forthcoming with an answer, so Wayne explained what we knew from our perspective.
In the UK, we are given the impression that favelas are violent, dangerous places ran by drug lords. We had watched the series ‘Ross Kemp On Gangs’ a few years ago where the presenter had visited a favela in Rio and met with members of the ADA gang. During the programme there were shoots outs filmed between the police and drug lords and the overall impression of the favelas that came across was that they are definitely a dangerous place to be.
Brenda explained that favelas can be like this but on the whole they are simply a community existing with the conditions they find themselves in. The media play a large role in perpetuating the negative image of the favelas. Obviously bad stories are made more news worthy and produce higher sales. The favelas have such a negative image in their own country that in general, Brazilians would not want to visit them. Brenda found it quite unusual that two Brazilians were actually part of our group that day.
Visiting The Community Of Rocinha
It sprawls way up into the hillsides around Rio de Janeiro and continues to expand, but the Rocinha favela is by no means a ‘slum’. Yes it is a hotch potch of houses and other buildings, but this is because they were built according to need without any initial planning or infrastructure. At present around 80,000 people live in the Rocinha favela, a staggering figure.
Brenda asked us to not make comparisons with our own preconceived ideas or expectations with what we are used to – but to accept the favela for what it is. She explained it is not a slum or shanty town as that equals ‘misery’. A favela she said is simply a ‘community that lives with poverty’. A community living and working and making the best of things.
In addition, Brenda told us that 90% of the people that live in the Rocinha favela actually work in the city in the service industry. Through the media and guide books we are not told that they are in fact the people that sweep the beaches, sell drinks and souvenirs, are porters, hotel maids, bus drivers, waiters in restaurants etc. We are also not told that Brazil’s most famous attraction ‘Carnaval’ originated in the favelas. It is here in this vibrant but impoverished community that the music, dancing and elaborate costumes are produced.
The most striking image of our journey into Rocinha was the fact that affluent families live within a stone’s throw of this favela. We drove past rich, opulent houses and then turned a bend where we saw piles of rubbish, graffiti adorned walls and houses stacked on top of each other.
The rubbish was waiting for collection which happens twice a day, as Rocinha now has services such as water, electricity and waste management.
Investing In The Community
We had read much about the changes in favelas over the last few years from our Brazilian guide book, but after speaking to Brenda we began to question the validity of what we had read.
Undoubtedly improvements such as having a proper sewerage system, access to clean water and electricity can only be for the better. Except when you did not have to pay for these services previously, the favela then becomes a more expensive place to live.
Access to these services is also limited. In the favela, the closer you are to the road the better services you have access to. This is also true in terms of transport and access to the city. When working 16-18 hour days, it makes a difference whether you live closer to the main road or high up in the hills, which can add extra time to both your journey and working day.
We learnt from Brenda that Rocinha has been a ‘pacified’ favela for the last couple of years. This means that it is no longer in the control of a single gang or drug lord but that the police now have a consistent presence and the community has to abide by regular laws. This in itself was a difficult task to achieve. Previous attempts by police to infiltrate the favela had failed largely due to limited numbers and the fact that they were easily corrupted. Brenda explained that a new police force were created who are supposedly ‘incorruptable’. They went into the favela heavy handed with 17 army tanks and 700 police to take control.
The tanks have since left, but the police remain working on a rota system. The gang in control stood down as they obviously knew they wouldn’t win this battle. And so the favela has remained ‘pacified’ since. But this does not necessarily mean improvement for the people living there.
We were told that due to the poor salaries that the police are paid, many are still succeptable to corruption. The police have also been known to abuse the population within the favelas, using their position of power and unnecessary violence for their own gains. In addition, there does remain the presence of gangs inside some favelas that are supposed to be pacified.
Brenda insisted it was really important that we should not buy the perfect image that is being sold on television. For instance, before the presence of the police there was zero crime in the favelas. No one would want to upset any gang in charge for fear of being shot to death. With the police running things, they cannot take the same approach, therefore crime has started to exist within the favelas themselves.
We didn’t see any crime whilst visiting Rocinha and Vila Canoas and felt very safe walking through the main streets. In Rocinha for instance, we were surprised to see shops, restaurants and banks in the downtown area, satellite dishes on most buildings, street lights and water tanks, which really proved to us how this community is developing.
Despite some of these improvements however, there is still a long way to go in continuing to improve social standards, particularly in terms of access to education for the poor children from the favelas and indeed the public education system as a whole, which many ordinary Brazilians regard as ‘very bad’.
Brenda said that economists have declared that the people living in the Rocinha favela are the emergent middle class in Rio de Janeiro. The favelas look far from middle class.
Yes, people living in the favelas may now have access to technology and services such as mobile phones and the internet, but what the economists don’t take into account is their quality of life, which in some previous Human Development Index statistics has been compared to the Congo in terms of illiteracy and life expectancy.
We saw that the centre of the favela has clearly had some investment in terms of affordable housing. New, brightly coloured housing blocks have been erected for the poorest families as we found out that there had been a severe outbreak of tuberculosis.
We also learned that some of the outward facing stacks of houses had been painted an array of pastel colours to lift the mood of people in the community. But we questioned whether this was to make the hotch potch houses look more aesthetically pleasing and actually lift the mood of the rich families looking onto the favela from across the road.
Dispelling The Myths
Overall, we had a really interesting and insightful experience in both the favelas we visited, Rocinha and Vila Canoas.
It was made far more meaningful by meeting Brenda and listening to her unbiased accounts of how the favelas have developed throughout the highs and lows of Brazil’s rise to becoming a debt-free nation and one of the most thriving economies in the twenty-first century.
How then can the gap between rich and poor still be so wide? How can Brazilian education standards still be so lacking and one of the worst in Latin America? How can favelas still exist?
By going on the ‘Favela Tour’ that some people would deem ‘disgusting’, we feel we have a far better understanding of the history of favelas, what they actually are, and how they contribute to Brazilian society.
Whether the favelas have improved in a true sense is only for someone from the actual community to comment.
What we saw is definitely a community that survives in the face of adversity.
What we enjoyed the most was discovering that the best view of Rio is seen from up in the favelas. There is a spectacular scene that encompasses both the Cristo Redentor statue (Christ the Redeemer) and Pao du Acucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain).
It’s not very often that you find that the poorest people have the best view!