Poverty Tourism is a controversial topic in the travel industry and a concept I have never felt fully comfortable with. Tour guides will walk tourists through slums and villages so that they can gawp at local people and their way of life as if they are exhibitions in a human zoo. There is often no interaction or conversation with the community that lives there, no attempt to understand local life. In the worst cases, companies will drive paying customers through Favelas in armoured cars as if the neighbourhoods are an urban extension of Knowsley Safari Park. It can feel extremely voyeuristic.
This was the dilemma I faced – should I take a tour of a Favela while in Rio de Janeiro or not?
“Why would you want to visit a favela?”
This was the question asked of me by my Carioca friends as they drove me to Praia da Barra da Tijuca, hoping to show me a little more of Rio outside the usual tourist spots of Copacabana, Ipanema and Botafogo. It wasn’t a question asked with any malice but more out of sheer curiosity. They couldn’t understand what anyone had to gain from visiting or why it would be of any interest to me. In all honesty, I didn’t really have an answer for them.
Favelas are as much a part of Rio de Janeiro as Cristo Redentor and Copacabana beach. They have a reputation worldwide as hotbeds of violence and unrest. The truth is, they are filled with regular, hard working residents. A quarter of the cities population still lives in these neighbourhoods and chances are that many of the people you will interact with in the city – bartenders, clerks, hotel staff, bus drivers – will live in one of the city’s 800 favelas. They are a part of every single neighbourhood and to ignore them is to ignore one huge facet of life in Rio de Janeiro.
After many hours of research, trawling through scores of motorcycle and jeep tours, I came across Favela Santa Marta Tour. Santa Marta was the first favela to be ‘pacified’ back in 2008, a programme to expel drug gangs and install UPPs – or Pacifying Police Units – in the city’s most violent neighbourhoods. The hope was to break the cycle of police raiding favelas, having shootouts with traffickers, and then withdrawing. Since then, dozens of favelas have been pacified with Santa Marta, once the city’s most violent slum controlled by the Commando Vermelho (Red Command) drug gang, being held up as the model for how pacification can be a drive for social change.
Thiago Firmino, a local dancehall DJ, was born and raised in Santa Marta. He set up Favela Santa Marta Tour as a way to showcase the favelas to outsiders, to demystify them and show that they are not just violent slums but vibrant communities. Business was going well. He had now recruited local student Pedro Monteiro to act as his surrogate when he was busy with other engagements, of which there were many. As a cultural representative for Santa Marta, Thiago has given interviews in worldwide publications and appeared on TV in numerous countries. His part time hobby of photographing favela life has earned him exhibitions in both London and Paris.
It was Pedro that we met at the petrol station opposite Santa Marta’s entrance on R. São Clemente. He was a lanky, spindly youth with a welcoming smile spread across lips. He seemed so young for a tour guide, no older than his late teens. After a short introduction and a few ground rules, he explained that we would make our way to the very top of Santa Marta and work our way down.
We slid up the hillside in the free tram, a gift from the government after pacification that now helps the 8,000 residents access the highest reaches of Santa Marta without having to slog up 1km of steps and crumbling paths. As we reached the top, the whole of Rio opened up below us. The corrugated shacks and brightly painted brick houses cascaded down the hillside, sandwiched in my the middle-class neighbourhood of Botafogo and the more upmarket Lagoa. Beyond the high rises of Lagoa sat the Atlantic ocean and Copacabana beach.
It seems strange that Rio de Janeiro’s most deprived neighbourhoods have some of the best views in the city. Pedro explained that it is all down to the city’s history. Back when Rio was just a stretch of buildings along what is now Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana beaches, the wealthy bought up all of the oceanfront lands. The construction workers had to make do with building their houses on the only available space that was left – the steep hillsides. Now some of the city’s poorest people live on its most desirable real estate. Luckily for them, Brazilian law guarantees ownership of the land for those who squatted back then.
At the pinnacle of the neighbourhood, a bronze statue of Michael Jackson stands – arms outstretched as if mirroring Cristo only a few miles away- in a small square dedicated to the King of Pop. Behind the effigy was a mosaic mural depicting MJ on a US postal stamp. It was here that director Spike Lee filmed parts of the video for Jackson’s 1996 hit They Don’t Care About Us. Authorities initially opposed the project, not wanting to show Brazil in a negative light, but Lee pushed on regardless with Jackson hiring local people as dancers and extras making him somewhat of a local hero. Pedro proudly walked us over to the concrete football field where Jackson’s helicopter had landed for filming, now the scene of an intense game between two school kids. Lee’s video plays on a loop in a small store off the square selling paintings by local artists and Santa Marta themed trinkets. It seems that a whole cottage industry of snack and souvenir stalls had cropped up around this one square, with some residents now making a living just from the tourist traffic.
Despite the improvements made since 1996, the signs of a tumultuous history still remain. In one poignant reminder of past trouble, I spotted a wall pockmarked with bullet holes that had been painted over with a colourful mural. It was now the headquarters of the local UPP. Every so often we would come across a patrol of UPP officers walking the alleys, assault rifles drawn as they cautiously peered around corners before stepping out, barrels pointing into the street. I had the feeling that the cops were putting on a bit of a show, hamming it up for us outsiders, but it is disconcerting nonetheless.
Although violence is no longer a part of the day to day life here, some social issues such as drugs still remain. Pedro urged us to be cautious when taking photos so not to capture people – some residents fear that minor discretions will be caught on camera and shown to the police. This was most apparent when we passed a group of teenagers smoking weed in a doorway and Pedro indicated that we should put our cameras away as we walked by.
As we descended into the depths of Santa Marta the views disappeared to be replaced by a maze of alleyways and crumbling concrete staircases. Half built and collapsed houses lined one path. Bags of cement and gravel were stacked in a vacant patch of grass while a cat dozed on top. Children ran by barefoot, shouting “Olá” to us and hi-fiving Pedro. An old man shuffled past, lugging bags of laundry up the steep incline. Tiny hole-in-the-wall grocery stores, barbershops and bars fill any gaps not taken up by breeze block and corrugated iron homes. It isn’t the war-zone that the media would have you believe but a thriving community. It always has been, but now without the extortion and threat of gang violence, the neighbourhood can prosper.
We were lucky enough to find Thiago at home and stepped inside for a brief chat over a glass of juice. In a stark contrast to the dilapidated exterior, I found a neatly decorated home; modern and well kept. A huge flat screen TV sat in one corner and a collection of expensive looking cameras lined the shelves. Photographs of him with the various celebrities that he had provided tours to fill the walls; Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Alicia Keys and Madonna. He chuckled, unsurprised by my reaction to what I found. I get the impression that he sees my bemused expression on most visitor’s faces and never tires of shattering their expectations.
As we moved further down the favela towards Botofogo’s main drag, the buildings became less ramshackle, more uniformed and neat. The labyrinthine alleyways opened out into Praça Cantão, Santa Marta’s main square, and we were suddenly surrounded by huge splashes of colour streaking across the facades of houses. 7,000-square-metres of colour to be precise. The Favela Painting art project was created by Dutch duo Haas & Hahn.
Art is a unique messenger, crossing borders and building bridges. If implemented in an intelligent way it can be a powerful weapon to catalyze social change. This is the main objective of the Favela Painting Foundation
Initially, 34 buildings were repainted by local youths in an attempt to refocus Praça Cantão as a place of shared community pride. Since then a monthly painting task force has been working its way up through the favela with over 800 people signing up to be involved so far. It has energised the community and made Santa Marta a place for the residents to be proud of. The cafes and bars surrounding the square seem to be doing good business and the constant flow of tourists coming to see the murals has brought in money and opportunities.
Santa Marta, it seems, is the exception rather than the rule. In some of the larger favela complexes, where armed traffickers are more established, the UPPs have been much more heavy handed. Innocents are often caught in the cross fire and the police have even been known to plant weapons on the bystanders. In the worst cases, there have been instances of forced disappearances. Reading up on the pacification process, I came across a quote by a resident of Complexo de Alemao:
“There is no pacification here, what we have is a war. Criminals against police, fighting over who are the more powerful the more influential. And who suffers? We do.”
The message of ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ is as relevant now in some neighbourhoods as it was in the 90’s. Since 2009, almost 100,000 people had been forcibly removed from their homes in the favelas. It seems that the security of land tenure that initially gave people rights to their homes has a “state of exception” – in this case, the exception was the 2016 Olympics. We spotted a number of signs around Santa Marta protesting forced evictions – these removals were to free up desirable land for property developers.
There is no escaping the fact that a huge driving force of pacification was making the city safe for visitors during the World Cup and the Olympics events back in 2014 and 2016 respectively. It’s rather telling that the clutch of success stories are the favelas are close to the tourist areas of Leblon and Copacabana but even then they only manage to flourish due to huge infrastructure investments such as Santa Marta’s new funicular, community centres and clinics.
This got me thinking back to the question I was asked on our way to Praia da Barra da Tijuca.
“Why would you want to visit a favela?”
The tone I mistook for curiosity was actually incredulity. They maybe didn’t see why I wanted to visit because they didn’t see these communities as a part of the Rio they know and experience on a daily basis. For some of Rio’s wealthier residents, the favelas are seen just as the media portrays them – violent slums filled with crime and a sink of public funds.
With one in four of Rio’s population living in them, favelas should not be taken for granted. They play a hugely important role in the city, both culturally and socially. Samba, Capoeira and the Carnival’s extravagant parades that take place each year in the Sambadrome all have their roots in these communities – and that is what they are; not slums, not favelas, but communities. Hopefully, people like Thiago and Pedro can continue to shift perceptions and introduce outsiders to the realities of life in these neighbourhoods.
Thiago’s tours last two hours and run twice a day at either 10 am or 2 pm.
The tour costs 100 Reals (approximately £25)
Visit his website for more information.
What do you think of poverty tourism? Can it be an engine of social change or is it just mere voyeurism?
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