Rio de Janeiro: Favela Tour

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As well as being known for its natural beauty and iconic landmarks, Brazil is also known for its many favelas.  A favela is a slum in that exists within the urban areas of big cities, often carved out of a hillside overlooking the rest of the city. There are over 700 favelas in Rio alone, housing about 1.1 million people – about 1/6th of the general population.

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The first modern favelas were created as a result of urbanization, when many people left rural areas of Brazil and moved to the cities in seek of work. In the 1960s the opportunities started drying up, resulting in a decline in employment.  Since there was no government support, the people who couldn’t find a job and couldn’t afford housing ended up in what became the favelas.  People took over public land and built their shelters. In Brazil, once someone has lived on a patch of public land for five years it legally becomes theirs. These shanty towns grew to the point where it was impossible to remove people.  

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Despite being in Rio’s urban core, the city did not extend sanitation, electricity, or other services to the favelas.  The lack of infrastructure meant that the people were left to fend for themselves.  They had to steal electricity, divert water, and pirate cable services.  In this environment, gangs and drug lords prospered.  The kids growing up in these close quarters with little to do often fell prey to the gangs and violence.  In the 2008, the police and military made a controversial decision to revive the area, hoping to bring down crime and improve Rio’s image before the 2014 World Cup. Thousands of soldiers invaded the favelas, taking down drug dealers and arresting traffickers as part of a pacification project. Police presence can still be felt today, everywhere you look there are police with their big guns, keeping the drug dealers at bay.

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Media coverage of the Brazilian favela ranges from optimistic to extremely bleak – “Recent reports suggest 65% of favela residents are a part of Brazil’s new middle classes. And despite these people’s relatively low incomes, many of these communities are a long way from being “slums” as they are often portrayed.” –BBC News,  “Rio’s drug gangs routinely kill civilians and police in the favelas, but at least the favelados understood the traffickers’ rules.” – NY Times.  Hollywood often portrays these places as crime infested, bullet ridden neighborhoods – as seen in movies like City of God and Fast Five

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I wanted to see the favelas not in a voyeuristic sense, but to learn about the place myself instead of relying on other sources. So, we decided to join a Favela Tour, guided by people who are familiar with the area. We were told that the locals actually like having tourists come through their community to get a better understanding, and discontinue negative preconceptions. The tour we went on cost 85 Real per person and we got to visit two favelas. 

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Rocinha

Rocinha is Brazil’s largest favela with an unofficial population of up to 180,000 people. The colorful and picturesque favela often seen in pictures don’t reveal its complex architecture until upon closer inspection.  Houses here are tightly packed together in a sprawling maze of streets and alleys, built so close that you can reach across and touch the house next to you.  Rocinha, located at the top of the hill and overlooking the ocean, is one of the favelas with relatively better standards of living than other shanty towns on the outskirts of town. Even within Rocinha, there are richer and poorer areas. For instance, the poorer people in Rocinha are relegated to live higher up on the hilltop where it is only accessible by foot.

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On the weekend, a market opens with makeshift stalls selling everything from butchered meat to fresh fruits and vegetables to residents.  We got to walk through the vibrant market and shop with the locals.

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Vila Canoas

The other smaller favela we visited was located in a nice residential area, next to an expensive golf course.  It was created when the gardeners and labor workers from the golf course did not have a place to live.  Unlike Rocinha, the houses here are built downwards into a cavernous area.  The tunnels and staircases took us down into the heart of the favela and further away from the sunlight. The small passageways with paths splitting off in every direction are used by residents to get around the community because there are no roads.  Walking in the alleys of Vila Canoas, it was easy to lose your sense of direction.

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While visiting the favela we stopped by Para Ti, a small school founded by an Italian family living in Brazil, and funded by private donations and proceeds from the tour. A large part of our fee goes directly to the school and is used to help to support the local community. The aim of the school is to educate the children of the favela and give them the opportunity to improve their lives.

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We saw no crime on our tour of the favelas, and the experience felt very safe. In recent years, some favelas like Rocinha slowly transformed with improved infrastructure that allowed people to legally have basic services like water, electricity, cable, and internet.  After pacification, the government even brought in health clinics and schools. Changes in the laws also made it easier for people living in the favela to have their own businesses. The increase in prosperity and stability encouraged the locals to take ownership and further invest in their neighborhood. 

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People now choose to stay in the favela rather than being forced there by necessity. Interestingly, some of the ocean view favelas have become prime real estate, selling for upwards of hundreds of thousand US dollars. It won’t be long before these areas become the houses of the rich and famous, once again forcing poorer people to migrate to another spot.

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