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Rio’s favelas have a dangerous reputation, but from the inside of these busy communities the picture is more complex. Samantha Pearson reports.
Photographs by Lianne Milton
It is perhaps the most serene place in Rio de Janeiro. Thirty metres above Complexo do Alemão the sense of calm inside the cable cars that connect the region to the rest of the city is uncanny. As glass capsules make their graceful 16-minute journey up the mountainside, dropping off the favelas’ commuters along the way, the gentle hum from the steel cables is interrupted only by the faint sounds of everyday life below – a dog barking, a stereo playing, children laughing. Kites flutter over meticulously organised lines of washing. It is hard to believe that this quarter of northern Rio is renowned for police executions and warring drug lords, and the scene of some of Brazil’s most horrific and macabre crimes.
“People are often confused by what they see in favelas,” says José Elias, a mechanic-turned-tour guide in Santa Marta, another of Rio’s shanty towns about 12 miles south of Alemão. He owns a gold chain and watch but only wears them inside Santa Marta, he says, as there is less chance of getting robbed than in the rest of the city. “There is a sense of community here”.
In Rio, as in other major Brazilian cities, there are hundreds of favelas, with a collective reputation for danger. Yet this forbidding “otherness” is often contradicted by the reality of living there. The changing fears and desires of wider Brazilian society are projected on to the favelas.
“The image of the favela has always been very paradoxical, its representation always very ambiguous,” says Rafael Gonçalves, a sociologist and lawyer at PUC University in Rio who has researched the favelas.
‘The image of the favela has always been paradoxical, its representation ambiguous’
Rafael Gonçalves, sociologist
For Rio’s wealthy residents, they are no-go zones – abject sewage-filled slums that blight their city, and the origin of the theft and murder that haunts their daily lives. For anthropologists, the patchwork of makeshift brick houses dotted with blue water tanks is an astounding testimony to human survival – a community largely built by rural migrants who risked everything for a better life. For the police, the favelas are battlefields, a maze of heavily-guarded cocaine assembly plants to be closed down. For the consumer industry, they are an untapped market for cheap washing machines and televisions. For politicians, they represent millions of potential votes. Meanwhile, for foreign tourists favelas are the film set from Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 blockbuster Cidade de Deus (City of God) – a fetishised exotic background for Instagram and Facebook selfies.
Often portrayed as temporary and precarious settlements, the favelas are, in fact, as old as the republic itself: they date back to the late 19th century when soldiers returned from the Canudos War in the northern state of Bahia with nowhere to live. Former slaves soon joined them after the abolition of slavery in 1888. However, it was not until the mid-20th century that their population exploded as a period of intense industrialisation prompted mass urbanisation. According to Brazil’s most recent census in 2010, just over 22 per cent of Rio’s population – 1.39 million people – now live in the city’s 600 favelas, or “communities” as their residents prefer to call them.
As Rio hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics, the question of the integration of the favelas into the rest of the city is more pressing than ever.
Passengers ride the cable car over Complexo do Alemão
In the cramped souvenir shop at the top of Santa Marta, which became a tourist hot spot after Michael Jackson filmed scenes there for his 1996 hit “They Don’t Care About Us”, owner Sonia can barely contain her excitement. “Look, a Russian television crew came here only this morning,” she says, pointing to a space between the sunglasses and key rings where famous visitors have signed their names. On the square outside, a bronze statue of the singer stands against the city’s spectacular landscape.
Rio’s authorities originally opposed the making of the video in the 1990s as they were bidding to host the 2004 Olympics and feared the depiction of poverty would taint the city’s image.
While Rio is known in tourist brochures as the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City), among urbanists it is the Cidade Partida (Divided City) – a space split between the haves and these faveladwelling others – the have-nots. The city’s geography only serves to accentuate the social contrasts. Squeezed between the glistening Atlantic Ocean and the jagged mountain range that leads to Brazil’s highlands, Rio’s billionaires and the country’s poorest often live only metres apart in a state of constant tension.
In some respects, Rio’s morros (hills) and asfalto(pavement), as the favelas and wealthier neighbourhoods are known, have always been connected. Every day, hundreds of thousands of workers descend from the favelas at dawn to work in Rio’s hotels, restaurants and in the houses of the richest families as maids, cooks and nannies. According to a 2013 study by the International Labour Office, Brazil has about seven million domestic workers – more than any other country surveyed and three million more than India. One out of every six female employees is currently engaged as a domestic worker.
A child looks out from a rooftop in Rocinha
But sharing the same space does not necessarily breed social integration. In May this year, one of Rio’s exclusive country clubs prompted fierce debate nationwide after it banned one of the nannies looking after a club member’s children from using the bathroom.
“Segregation in Brazil is brutally evident,” says Rafael Alcadipani, at the Getulio Vargas Foundation think-tank on Brazil’s social and economic development. “It’s like an apartheid – rich Brazilians don’t want to be in the same space as the poor,” he adds, unless of course they are being served by them.
A young man having his hair cut at a makeshift barber shop in Rocinha
It is a form of segregation that even crosses borders. In Walt Disney World in Orlando, for example, it is not uncommon to see a Brazilian family on holiday with a nanny in tow – usually a black woman walking several paces behind. She will likely be dressed in white – Brazil’s standard nanny uniform, chosen to distinguish her from the family and to easily show up any dirt.
To some extent, segregation is also evident in the favelas themselves – the richer and whiter residents tend to live lower down in the community’s more desirable areas, nearer shops and transport links.
However, in 2008 Rio’s government launched one of its most ambitious programmes yet to reintegrate the favelas: “police pacification units” or UPPs. The idea was to wrest control from the ruling drug gangs and install permanent police bases in each favela, allowing more public services such as medical centres and schools to move in. According to the local government, 38 UPPs have been installed so far, benefitting around 1.5 million people. But over the past couple of years, the project has begun to unravel. Shoot-outs are common in supposedly pacified favelas such as Alemão, and killings by police have surged, eroding public trust in the UPPs. According to Amnesty International, in the city of Rio at least 307 people were killed by the police last year. The majority of fatalities were young black men from favelas.
Critics say the government rushed the programme, installing new UPPs to hit its targets ahead of the Olympics without investing enough in the already “pacified” communities.
Even in Vidigal, another of Rio’s showcase favelas, the security situation is unclear. At the favela’s entrance a portly police officer stands guard, wielding a rifle and a large grin as tourists and locals drift in and out. “The UPP is working well here… we don’t have any drug gangs now as they all left and went to Rocinha,” he says triumphantly, referring to the city’s largest favela. However, only a short walk up the hill into the community, local guides are quick to point out the parts of the favela where photography is prohibited by diktat of the local, very much present, drug traffickers.
Children playing in a small square at the top of favela Vidigal
Even motorcycles struggle to navigate the maze of narrow pathways and steep stairways that lead into the favelas. Inspired by similar systems in Colombia, the cable car in Alemão was the city’s first when it was opened in 2011 and now carries 9,000 passengers a day. In 2014, another cable car was opened in the Morro da Providência favela next to Rio’s port.
“It used to take me an hour to walk up to the top of there… now it takes me five minutes,” says Thiago, a 20-year-old courier, as he waits in the queue to board one of the glass capsules at Providência. He uses the extra time in the morning wisely, he says, by staying in bed.
Other residents have been more critical, calling for investment in less ostentatious but more urgent projects such as sewage treatment. Some complain about the forced evictions to make way for the construction of the stations or the higher rents charged as a result of the region’s better transport links.
While the government has sought to unify Rio’s divided city, the private sector has also played its part, responding not to social ideals but rather to the opportunity to profit from the country’s rapidly-expanding middle classes. Electronics shops, hardware stores, hair salons, bars and restaurant chains have opened up across many of the largest favelas. Rocinha now has its own Subway sandwich bar.
Halfway up the winding road that leads to the top of Vidigal, Aline Gomes and her brother Alexandre openedFênix Sushi Bar four years ago, the favela’s first sushi restaurant. “At the beginning we were scared that it wouldn’t work out… so many things open and then close around here,” says Gomes. While the restaurant is a hit with locals, about 40 per cent of revenue now comes from delivery to customers outside the favelas or from party-goers on the way to nights out at the community’s popular Casa Alto Vidigal hostel. High-street banks such as Bradesco and Banco do Brasil have also moved into the favelas, allowing residents to open a bank account for the first time and even get access to credit.
However, as Brazil faces its longest and deepest recession on record, this consumer-led form of integration is under threat. Rafael Cortez, a political scientist at the Tendências economic consultancy based in São Paulo, says that the model of social integration pursued by the Workers’ Party, which governed Brazil until President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension from office in May, relied on Bolsa Família, a monthly stipend for the poor. “The strategic risk was that the social progress was largely dependent on the economic cycle,” he says.
The ambiguous role of the favelas within the wider city has also played out on film with box office hits including City of God and José Padilha’s Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad). While such films have helped raise awareness of favelas and their tales of violence and drug trafficking, they have also been blamed for their commodification of the country’s slums and for glamorising poverty.
Rio’s geography again accentuates the problem – the city’s highest favelas offer the most beautiful views but they also tend to be the most dangerous as their superior vantage points are fought over by the city’s most powerful gangs. The dilemmas at the heart of the favela film genre are also those that plague favela tourism, particularly the daily tours that take wide-eyed foreign visitors around places such as Rocinha.
Santa Marta’s tour guide Elias, who like many of his colleagues grew up in the shanty town, sees tourism in a positive light – it brings money to his community and also educates Brazilians about their city, he says. While his customers are normally foreigners, a few weeks ago he says a couple of wealthy families from one of the apartment blocks overlooking Santa Marta came to do the tour. “They had been looking over at us for years but too scared to come here,” he says, while waiting for the lift that takes residents up the mountainside where Christ the Redeemer holds out his arms to the city (some say with love, others say in exasperation).
Banks in Rocinha
For André Fernandes, the founder of Agência de Notícias das Favelas, a news agency that works with around 300 journalists across the country, most of whom live in the favelas themselves, the way to integrate the city is simple.
“In order to break down the us/them divide it is necessary to give those in the favelas a voice, to give them authority through authorship – not just access to banks, shops and cable cars,” says Fernandes, a marine-turned-missionary-turned journalist. Facebook and the messaging service WhatsApp, widely used in the favelas, are fundamental, he adds. The greater the volume of communication that comes from within the favelas the better.
“It allows the favela to integrate itself but also to protect itself,” he says. “Nothing can be hidden from view now.”