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Rio’s seething underclass


Few cities are as capable of firing up the imagination as Rio de Janeiro. Set to a beautiful backdrop of “morros” (a Portuguese word for the lush hills surrounding the city), and some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet

Rio has always been associated with samba, sex and surf. However, this stereotype hides the poverty and wealth disparity so endemic to the city. Approximately 20 to 25 % of the 13 million that live in Rio live in what are termed “favelas”, hillside slums unique to Rio. Their existence is due to several factors: the fact that the Portuguese crown banned building on the morros in order to ensure beautiful views of the mountains; the Canudos rebellion of the 19th century, which eventually brought numerous homeless soldiers to Rio; and the influx of migrants throughout the 20th century to Rio from Brazil’s impoverished North-East.

In the past few years several companies have sprung up, which give tours of the favelas, with the favelas Vidigal and Rocinha (the two largest in Rio, and set on two sides of the same morro) being the most popular. An opportunity arose for me to accompany one of these tours and I considered the proposition with a mix of curiosity and caution. Would this be some sort of “poor people safari” ? i.e. – A group of 1st Worlders walking through a slum as danger tourists with cameras at the ready – insulated from both the people and the environment ? At the end of the day my curiosity eventually got the best of whatever reservations I had and I decided to go see Rocinha first-hand – the largest slum in Latin America, and by some estimations, the 2nd largest slum in the world (there is only one other, in Indonesia, that is thought to be larger).

My reservations were also eased somewhat by the fact we had small group. There would be five of us in total including our guide, Danielle. The day began with Danielle explaining to us some of the dangers involved in visiting the local favelas.

Rocinha is one of the safer favelas to visit, but for the time being, it’s firmly under the grip of one of the three main drug gangs of Rio. Amigo dos amigos, or “friends of friends”, is the gang that controls Rocinha; the other two that operate around Rio de Janeiro are the Comando Vermelho – i.e. “Red Command”; and the Terceiro Comando or “Third Command”. At times, if one of the other gangs tries to invade or take control of the favela, pitched gun-battles can erupt that can, and often do, kill innocent bystanders. In addition, if the police need to enter the favela for any reason (as they did in May, 2006 when a cache of army weapons were stolen and hidden in the favela), gun-battles also occur between the gang members and the police – again with innocent victims often being caught in the cross-fire.

The forecast for our visit was calm however, the only thing we were really warned against was taking pictures of the child soldiers who generally act as look-outs and scouts for the gangs. If they saw us taking pictures of them they would not hesitate to take our cameras away, as had happened to several groups of tourists who did not heed this advice. After being instructed in the risks we were taking (and signing a liability form), we made our way from the rich enclaves of Copacabana and Ipanema to the entrance of Rocinha. The five of us arrived and got some local motor-taxis to take us up the main road in Rocinha, to the top of the morro that it’s located on. After paying them each a dollar we proceeded to walk our way back down to the bottom, occasionally stopping to learn about the community.

At first glance it was similar to any other slum I’d been to: squalid, comprised of ramshackle buildings and lacking in many of the public services that we in the west take for granted.

Upon closer inspection, however, I began to notice a lack of the feeling of menace or threat I’ve experienced in other slums in the world as well as pervasive and contagious cheerfulness.

This was due to both the beauty of the natural surroundings (unusual for a slum in any part of the world) but more so to the friendliness of the people of Rocinha. At no point did I feel as though as I was on a “poor people safari”, rather we were welcomed and included as part of the community. Numerous residents would wave, smile at our presence or call out “Ola” to our group. Often children, less reserved and inhibited than their parents, would run up and watch us or try to interact with us. It’s true some of them were lured by the prospect of money, but they would work hard in order to get it, usually by a capoeira performance or perhaps a football juggling demonstration. One young girl, no more than 5 years of age, when appraised of our imminent arrival to her doorstep, quickly changed into her best dress and got her mother to fix up her hair. She thought we were magazine photographers and were going to make her famous!

An event at the hostel I was staying there was a demonstration of this sense of community within the favelas: One of the workers there found a wad of cash amounting to about $200USD or so. Instead of pocketing the money, she and her family decided to use much of it to buy another family in the favela some much needed food and necessities, as they had been out of work for several months. In many ways the favela operates like a family, both figuratively and literally – many of the residents are related, and most of the children often have several half-siblings.

Another thing that struck me during our descent back to “civilization” was just how creative people are in conditions such as these and how often communities like these function better than the ones overseen by the often corrupt and inept governments in impoverished countries. As it isn’t really part of the city (although that is starting to change, it has now been given special neighbourhood status), it’s off the grid. In order to deal with a lack of electricity people simply hook up their own cables to whatever wires that do exist and everyone seems to get by. Although some houses have plumbing, many do not. The ones that don’t deal with it by the use of large, blue water tubs on the roof, a simple and effective solution. When it comes to security in the favela the drug lords keep a tight rein on crime. Any theft, rape, or the like, is dealt with severely by their own form of vigilante justice. In many ways it is much safer to walk the streets of a favela (provided, of course that stability and order are being maintained by the current gang in control and there are no challenges to that rule) than the developed parts of Rio de Janeiro.

After finally making it back to the bottom of the hill, we left Rocinha and I looked back with a mix of sadness and hope. Like most communities, Rocinha does have it’s fair share of problems.

However, there are also a lot of positive things going on, and a multitude of creative solutions to living in a place where many lack access to potable water, electricity and the so-called “law and order” of the rest of Rio de Janeiro. These solutions are a testament to the community of Rocinha, the resourcefulness and courage of its people and how those traditionally marginalized on the edge of society find ways to survive, and even thrive. As we left Rocinha I wondered if people would say hello while walking the streets of Copacabana, or if neighbours would help each other during times of financial crisis. Unfortunately my experiences in Copacabana proved otherwise.

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