Brazil: Come Tour a Favela!

     Brazil: Come Tour a Favela!

    In the last few years,
    money and investment has begun to
    trickle into the favelas from Brazil. The European Union is one
    international organisation that provides funds for community
    and regeneration projects. But much needed Government
    money, despite pre-election hopes, has been slow coming.
    by: Shafik
    Meghji

    The dominant image of favelas (shantytowns) is one of violence. Last
    month, they made front page news across Brazil after a shoot-out between rival
    drugs gangs in the middle-class suburb of Copacabana, in Rio de Janiero, claimed
    several lives. Days before, the feature film Cidade de Deus (City
    of God), which depicts gang rivalry in a Rio favela, received similar
    levels of publicity.

    The critically acclaimed
    film unexpectedly failed to receive an Oscar despite being nominated in four
    categories. Cidade de Deus has for many in Brazil and abroad reinforced
    the demonization of favelas as places of poverty, drugs and gangs.

    But in Rio several organisations
    are working to give a more balanced view of life in favelas. Several
    guides offer tours of favelas for Brazilians and tourists. One, Favela
    Tour, was set up over fifteen years ago and ploughs 40 percent of ticket revenue
    into community projects in various favelas across the city.

    Guide Alfredo Sousa admits
    that violence is a serious problem in favelas. "You have the police
    shooting the drug dealers, the drug dealers shooting the police, the drug
    dealers shooting the other drug dealers," he said. "The police and
    the Government are in charge in the city, but the drug dealers run the favelas.
    (But) there is not much robbery in the favelas because the people know
    that that will attract the police. People from the favelas go into
    the city to rob instead. You are more likely to get robbed in the city than
    in the favela."

    The tour also shows another
    side, painting a picture of economically deprived and politically neglected
    communities that are nevertheless attempting to improve the lives of their
    inhabitants. There are over 600 favelas in Rio, home to some 20 percent
    of the population.

    They cling to the side
    of the hills overlooking the city—some occupying prime areas of real
    estate. Many border middle and upper-class neighbourhoods, as is the case
    with Vila Canoas, the first favela we visited, which lies alongside
    São Conrado, one of the wealthiest districts in Rio. On one side of
    the road is a jumble of crudely assembled bare brick buildings, on the other
    smart detached houses with lush gardens and high security fences.

    Here Favela Tour provides
    financial support to a school and a handicraft centre. Initial concerns that
    the tour would be a voyeuristic "safari" proved unfounded. Much
    of the tour takes place on foot and interaction, but not intrusion, is encouraged
    and rewarding. The goal, explains Sousa, is greater understanding and communication.

    Sousa says although he
    enjoyed Cidade de Deus, and that the film has aroused greater interest
    in favelas, it reinforced a stereotype. "I have a friend who lives
    in the real Cidade de Deus in Rio and he liked the film. But other people
    think that it shows them in a bad light," he said. "It is important
    to remember that the film represented a particular point in history that is
    not necessarily the case today. As you can see, favelas aren’t all
    bang, bang, bang."

    The next stop on the tour
    is Rochina, over 100 years old and the largest favela in Brazil—population
    estimates range from 100,000 to 140,000. It is made up of hundreds of brick
    buildings, piled high on top of one another, covering a hillside looking down
    on Rio’s prosperous south zone. Electricity is illegally tapped off the nearby
    power lines.

    There are two banks (neither
    of which, incidentally, has ever been robbed), shops, bars, restaurants, bustling
    markets, dentists, health clinics and even a McDonald’s franchise. There are
    also material signs of wealth—innumerable satellite dishes dot the roofs
    and there are new model cars on the streets. There are political and community
    organisations that try to provide a range of services. From postal delivery
    to health advise to computer training. "A city within a city," said
    Sousa.

    In the last few years,
    money and investment has begun to trickle into the favelas. The European
    Union is one international organisation that provides funds for community
    and regeneration projects. But much needed Government money, despite pre-election
    hopes, has been slow coming.

    The final stop on the
    tour is at the top of Rocinha and offers panoramic views of Copacabana, Ipanema,
    Leblon and Lagoa. A group of local artists sit nearby and paint the scenes.
    Sousa explains the meaning of the word favela. It relates, he said,
    to one of the bloodiest battles in Brazilian history in 1897 after the overthrow
    of the monarchy. The battle took place on Morro da Favela (Favela Hill) overlooking
    the town of Canudos, in the state of Bahia, and resulted in thousands of deaths.
    On their return to Rio the victorious republican soldiers were awarded the
    land on which Rocinha is now built and named the new settlement after the
    battle.

    Sousa insists that Favela
    Tour does not attempt to underplay the endemic social and economic problems
    in favelas, nor romanticise favela life. Instead the organisation
    aims to provide a deeper understanding of favelas and draw attention
    to issues that many Brazilians would rather ignore.


    Shafik Meghji is a freelance journalist based in London, but is currently
    travelling and writing his way around South America. He has worked for the
    London Evening Standard and the Press Association and has
    written for a number of British newspapers and magazines, including The
    Guardian. He can be contacted at
    shafikmeghji@hotmail.com

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