Brazil: The face of Rio’s favelas


Violence, drugs, and police occupation

Life in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, the urban slums that stretch out to around Brazil’s second-largest city, is generally imagined to be rough. Home to almost 1.4 million people, about 22% of the city’s population, the favelas of Rio have a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world. And the statistics support their notoriety: 33,000 people were murdered in Rio between 2007 and 2013, and 5,412 were killed in encounters with the police.

In 2008 the government initiated a process to pacify the favelas with the aim of expelling the drug gangs that are reputed to rule over the shantytowns by installing police bases and funding social change projects. Yet the story the media most often tells is still one of poverty and violence. The pacification projects, which have now been implemented in 35 of the roughly 1000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, have met mixed reviews.

At a time when Rio de Janeiro is in the spotlight, the favelas have come under scrutiny, and there have been concerns voiced about the threat of violence in the approach to the World Cup due to take place in the city this summer, and to the Olympic Games, set for summer 2016. News of the death of 38 year old woman connected to narcotraffickers, and protests and violence earlier in the week are certainly not a comfort the thousands of tourists set to descend on Rio later in the year. But are we falling prey to the single story?

A recent Channel 4 short documentary depicts the favelas as dangerous slums run by armed drug gangs, an image familiar to a western audience due to the popularity of films such as Fernando Meirelles’ acclaimed Cidade de Deus (City of God; 2002). The international fame of Hip Hop the music and culture of urban Brazil also seems to have helped perpetuate negative stereotypes about the favelas, but look a little closer, and a different story emerges.

The favelas provide a fertile soil for art, music and literature. The writer Otávio César de Souza Júnior shows us a refreshing new perspective of the situation. His novel Complexo do Alemão (literally German’s Complex, the name of one of Rio’s favela neighbourhoods) is set in a world of violence and poverty, but one with vibrance and huge potential too.

Andy Silva, who lived in Rio’s slums writes “It is true that favelas are poor and have a presence of drug gangs, but they are not as violent as the media (and sometimes other Brazilians) claim the to be.” He recognises the creativity of their communities: “the people are friendly…I like the music and dances in the favelas.”

The communities are warm and lively, and in recent years social projects have been successful, at least on a local level. The Women Are Heroes project looks to provide women of all ages with a forum to address their issues in a safe environment, while the Favela Painting project by Dutch artists Haas&Hahn gained international attention in its ambition to transform the image of Rios slums.

The favelas have begun to feature in tourist guides of the city, advertised as a tourist destination. Some many locals have jumped on this as a money-making opportunity, with jazz clubs, bars, and restaurants springing up to meet tourist demand, as well as guided tours offered by companies and individuals capitalising on ‘poverty tourism‘.

Brazil is an economic heavyweight Latin America, and after decades of focusing on economic growth perhaps the media attention on Rio will give the government a chance to address the underlying issues of oppression, racism, economic struggle that are represented in the favelas. It is estimated that over half the Brazilian economy is in the informal sector (and in many cases this included arms and drugs trafficking), but there is an innovative and diverse population ready to build up damaged communities.
There may be a legitimate worry of violence for Rio de Janeiro as it approaches the World Cup and Olympic Games, but the government must be careful that their violence prevention and policing do not overshadow efforts to develop communities and move towards a sustainable economy in the favelas.