Even if you don’t know much about Brazil, chances are you are familiar with this word. Like South Africa’s townships, Brazil’s favelas have achieved infamy through the media and films such as Cidade de Deus and Fast and the Furious 5. These misunderstood communities play an important role of Brazil’s society. Sometimes dismissed as nothing more than large ghettoes, these communities have a fascinating history and unique sub-cultures.
The history behind the favelas is intriguing. In Rio, favelas began to pop up in the late 1800s. After the Canudos War in Bahia (1895-1896), government soldiers returned to Rio to receive their payment. They settled on a hill on the outskirts of the city to wait for their compensation. They had previously lived in woods full of favela trees, so they named their hill ‘Morro da Favela.’ The government never paid the soldiers, the soldiers never left, and the first favela was born.
Today, there are many favelas sprawling the hills of Rio, each with their own culture. There is little organization to the madness. Houses are built on top of each other and streets consist of narrow alleys and winding staircases. Although they lie just minutes from the rich beaches of Rio, the favelas are a totally different world. After years of being run by drug lords and being totally inaccessible to outsiders, the Brazilian government implemented a massive initiative called “Pacification” starting in 2008. According to Brazil’s Public Security Secretary, the goal is not to necessarily end the drug trafficking itself but to eliminate the armed drug lords from ruling the streets. The way it works it that Rio’s elite police group, BOPE, swoops into a favela and cleans house (confiscating heavy weapons and drug caches). Afterwards, a UPP (Police Pacification Unit) is established to create a permanent police presence. With knowledge that Brazil’s police force has had problems with corruption, these UPP officers are thrust into the action straight from the police academy with the hope that they don’t have any existing connections to bribery. Additionally, they are paid a substantial bonus to be in a combat zone of sorts, another effort against corruption (the hope is that the bonus is substantial enough to deter the taking of bribes).
In addition to the UPP presence, Brazil has made substantial efforts in improving the quality of life in the favelas. Before, many people in the favela risked their lives to steal electricity from overhead power lines. Due to government intervention, many households received new energy-efficient appliances and more reliable electricity in exchange for (affordable) payment for the service–a win-win for the people and the power companies.
The result of all of these efforts has been generally positive. Pacified favelas are much safer than before and favela residents have new economic opportunities. For example, there is now a guest house in the middle of Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Due to pacification, tourists are starting to venture inside, making businesses like this one a viable endeavor.
I decided that I wanted to see for myself what the favelas were like, so I booked three days and two nights in Rocinha.
I arrived in São Conrado at the base of Rocinha just after sunset. There is one main entrance to Rocinha—a bustling street full of people, restaurants, motorcycle taxis, and UPP police officers wielding shotguns and bulletproof vests. I took one of these motorcycle taxis up the hill and into the heart of the favela. Ten minutes and $1.25 later I was standing at an alleyway that led to the guesthouse. Not knowing exactly where I was going was a little unnerving, but seeing UPP every 50 feet or so put me at ease. There were people everywhere, but no sign of any trouble—men drinking beers at bars, children running up and down the alleys, and taxis flying around the hairpin turns of the streets. I wandered through the alleys for about five minutes before a good samaritan offered to lead me to my destination (a tall gringo backpacker sticks out like a sore thumb). After a short walk down a narrow staircase alleyway, I arrived.
The guesthouse was just a family’s home with the top floor converted into a dorm room. The mom, dad, and a nephew were sitting in the living room watching TV. It seemed like almost everyone in Rocinha had satellite. The main floor consisted of the kitchen, a dining area, and the living room. A typical staircase led up to the second floor—two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a few appliances. From there, there was a tiny spiral staircase that led to a balcony. On the balcony there were two doors, one to a bathroom and one to the dorm room. Next, from the balcony, there was a ladder up to a higher balcony (above the dorm room) with a hammock and grill. And finally, there was another ladder up to the roof and water tank.
This sort of “straight-up” construction is common in the favelas. Most houses in the favela are built by their residents. Construction is generally cinder block and mortar, not rickety by any means. I was told that oftentimes each floor represents one generation. For example, the first generation builds a the ground floor, their children build a second level, and then their children build a third floor.
The views from the balconies were incredible. Rio has to be the only place that the poorest citizens get the million dollar views while the rich are stuck looking at high rises. From the rooftop, you could really appreciate the life of the favela. The shimmering lights of the city below were accompanied by the murmur of voices, TV sets, car horns, and dog barks. With each house being so close together, you really feel like you are in a vibrant neighborhood rather than a bustling city street like you would find in a crowded metropolis. Instead of a loud bus passing by your balcony and filling your lungs with diesel exhaust, you hear babies crying and forks clinking against dinner plates. Occasionally, everyone in the favela would yell together…at first I assumed it was a goal in a big soccer game, but it turns out it just sort of happens for no reason. When someone yells in the favela, everyone yells. It’s not an aggressive yell, it’s an “ayyyyyyyy!” for no apparent reason. It’s just the way it is and I loved it.
For the next couple days the favela was my home. I explored, ate at local shops, took the buses and motorcycle taxis, etc. I never felt unsafe. I never heard gunfire or got any dirty looks, maybe just some puzzled expressions. A couple times the locals tried to pull the “gringo pricing” on me, but that happens almost anywhere. On my last night, I had the privilege of talking with two teenagers that lived in the favela to see what they really thought of Pacification, tourism, and life in the favela.
I was interested in hearing their thoughts on Pacification and the new police presence. They told me that while they believed it was a good thing for the community, they weren’t really sold on it. They explained that before the police came in, the streets were indeed ran by drug lords. But, each neighborhood was ran by one drug lord or group and that they treated the neighborhood residents like family. They protected them and cared for them. While it’s true that there was lots of violence before Pacification, it was primarily between opposing drug trafficking groups, not the average favela resident. My friends claim that police have no relations to them and therefore they care only about themselves. They are convinced that the police still do sometimes take bribes to look away. In their opinion, the police are nothing more than bumbling idiots that stand on the streets and hold guns all day. To them, it’s all just a publicity stunt. Brazil was under pressure to clean up its violent image for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, so they pacified the favelas to ease concerns about safety. They believe that right after 2016, the police force will be gone and it will be back to life before pacification.
In terms of tourism, I asked one of these favela tour guides what they think about the whole situation (in an informal setting; I never did one of these tours). Often criticized by intellectuals as being “poverty porn,” these tours are becoming more and more popular. For an affordable fee, a member of the favela will lead a tour of 5-10 people around their community for a few hours. The tourists get to see the streets, some shops, and snap a bunch of pictures. So what did the guy that actually runs these tours think about foreigners coming into his home?
He told me that the idea of tourists coming into the favela to see what it’s like doesn’t bother him. It’s good for the community. It brings in money that helps everyone…not just the tour guides, but the food vendors and store owners also benefit. He didn’t seem to think it was objectifying the people who live there. However, he wasn’t a big fan of how the tourists tend to take a thousand pictures of it all. While that seems a little contradictory, I think I get where he is coming from—intent. Admittedly, I’m no favela expert nor do I claim to be; this is just my personal opinion and observations.
When you think about it, why do we take a tour of any destination—a city, an attraction, a landmark, or anywhere else? We do it because that place is interesting to us. We take a tour of Yellowstone to appreciate nature. We take a tour of a battlefield to experience the history. So why are you taking a tour of the favela? If it’s because you find the culture, history, architecture, and design to be interesting, what’s wrong with that? The reasons we visit places are all different, but at the end of the day, they are all driven by the same desire. The problem only arises when that desire is to take advantage of someone for your own agenda.
Life in the favela isn’t perfect. After my stay in Rocinha, I spent a week at a hostel at the foot of Pavão-Pavãozinho, a favela that is known to be one of the safest. In that week, some of my friends heard occasional gunfire. On one of my last days, there was a massive firefight between drug traffickers and police. All of the UPP at the base of the hill ran into the favela. A police helicopter swooped in dropped off six armed officers. The event was all over TV the following day, with news crews filling the street leading into the favela to report. With that being said, the favelas are generally safe for both residents and foreigners alike, as the violence is concentrated around drug dealers and police. That’s not to say it’s perfectly safe, but it’s far from a war zone. There are thousands of happy people living their lives in decent houses with reliable electricity, sewage systems, and running water. Personally, I feel like the favelas should be more known for their interesting culture than for their living conditions. If you are looking for people to feel bad for, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you are looking for vibrant communities like nowhere else in the world, look to the favelas of Rio.