dog days and favelas

Hello to all you wonderful people who are enjoying the dog days of summer.

We, here in the southern hemisphere, are just entering the third month of winter… 26 degrees, sun and surf… I love this kind of winter!!!

So now, a thought for you… a home with an incredible view of the beaches of Rio, you pay just a smidgeon for your home, no property taxes, great community feeling, no drugs in the community at all… that would be pretty good, wouldn’t it!… Welcome to the colourful community of Rocinha!!!

We did a tour with the Favela Tour Company to this favela and the Vila Canoas favela. We traveled in an air conditioned van with five other tourists… one originally from the Seattle area and her partner, originally from Montreal (now both graduate students in New York City) and three people from Brazil.

After we were picked up, we were driven through the posh neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Gavea (home to Rio’s most exclusive fashion mall), up the hill past incredible upscale mansions, past the American School (where only the children of the very rich and foreign ambassadors attend – there were SUV’s parked all along the road with drivers waiting to pick up the students after school… no moms or dads in sight). We stopped on the east slope of Rocinha for the view that looked down on this exclusive neighbourhood and across the bay. Truly a million dollar view!

Our guide, Brenda, was a great source of information about the favelas. We talked drug gangs, education, political life, and practical things like sewage.

Years ago there were reportedly 950 favelas in Rio, but somehow the number dropped to 450 in the most recent census. Brenda, bless her heart, was quite open with her opinions and suggested that this “reduction” is promoted because Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. This is a familiar strategy – whenever FIFA or the IOC decide to hold their events in a country where human rights are an issue, selected countries announce “progress” in the lead up to the games and are allowed to make empty promises about the future. My opinion… let me ask Don what he thinks… Don is nodding his head, and whispering “China”.

Drug Gangs – Eight months ago, there was a “pacification” in Rocinha (this is what they call clearing out the drug lords and implementing a number of programs so the community could take back control of their lives and neighbourhood). Prior to pacification, the drug lords looked after all “policing” in the favela. There was almost no crime reported (drug lords didn’t want the police to come into the favela, so made sure nothing would draw police attention). Now that the police are in charge, the crime rate is going up, although there are far fewer murders or people showing up at the hospitals with gunshot wounds. It was interesting to see small groups of heavily armed police all over the place – but mostly standing around chatting.

They have the power to go into anyone’s home to check for drugs (this wouldn’t work well in Canada) and often there are complaints of police taking items from people’s homes in the process. Unfortunately, there is a lot of police corruption in Brazil, and as such, a lot of people do not trust police or the system.

The pacification of Rocinha was the 20th such project; the number is now up to 28 favela pacifications. Time will tell how the drug lord evictions work.

Education – we were told that many of the 100,000 or more people living in Rocinha, (as in all other favelas) are poorly educated and many are illiterate. This of course, leads to much hardship, as you are not able to get good jobs. There are 3 kindergartens, 3 primary and 3 middle schools in this favela… not nearly enough to meet the needs of the populace. We were also told the colour of your skin is no longer an issue in Rio… it is education or the lack of it that draws a societal prejudice.

Political Life – There are city elections later this year and there are signs everywhere you go. On every sign there is a picture of the candidates, their names and a number. When you go to the polling booth you will punch in the number of your candidate, a picture appears which you confirm is the person you are voting for and then you push the button to vote.

Sewage and other concerns (for us) – The favela concept started in 1886, when a promise by the new Republic of Brazil to African Brazilians was reneged upon. African Brazilians (who had just been freed from slavery) were tasked with wiping out a city of 25,000 who were not in agreement with the new Republic and had started a community of their own. The Africa Brazilians completed this task with, unfortunately, great success and returned to Rio to get the land the new government promised them. The Republic turned their backs on the African Brazilians and told them to go find land themselves. As there was none in the city, they built on the hillsides around Rio, covered with fava plants – thus the nickname for their impromptu communities, now used to describe squatter settlements throughout Brazil.

There is a law in the Republic of Brazil that states if you find a piece of vacant land, build on it and improve it, and if no one contests this, after 5 years it is yours.

So, people started to build up the hillsides. They would make a dwelling and then sell their roof to someone else who would build a home on top of the first, they would sell their roof space, someone else would build, and so on… all this with no property taxes (no public services either, though).

There are few roads in the favelas… a lot of walkways to homes… some of it looks pretty dark to me. The folks who live close to the roads often pay for electricity, but the majority hook their own lines up to electrical lines and use the power without paying for it.

The concept of roads or non-roads is very important. When you are living on a road or street, you have an address and if you don’t, you don’t have an address… this can affect all kinds of aspects your life… you can only vote if you have an address, you can only get credit or bank loan if you have an address, you can only get ambulance help if you have an address, etc.

Speaking about ambulances… when ambulances were called to the favela, the ambulance driver would stop at the entrance as they were too scared to go inside the favela. This meant people had to be carried through the narrow passage ways to the ambulance. This favela is huge, so you would think people may not make it in time to medical attention, especially if they were having a heart attack or something else very serious.

Things have changed a bit in that area. The government built a hospital a few years ago, but before pacification they couldn’t get any doctors or nurses to work there. Now there is better health care for the folks living in Rocinha.

Sewage also is a problem. When people build their homes they stick a pipe out of the toilet to the outside of the building and it is connected to other pipes that seem to go into the ground (I couldn’t see the bottom of the building, so I am not sure where the pipe ended up).

Brenda was very encouraging about the life in a favela. She said, yes we saw poverty and people having to look after themselves, but… we don’t see misery. That was true, but often misery is hidden whether it is in the favelas of Rio or the comfortable homes of people in the lower mainland of Vancouver.

We also went to see Vila Canoas, which is a small favela that started as a place for golf course staff to live on a patch of land near the exclusive club, but eventually expanded right up to the edge of the upscale neighbourhood. It consists of 3,000 people and is a favela that has never been ruled by a drug gang. It is orderly and quiet, but I think I would find life more interesting in the vibrant community of Rocinha. It is all a matter of taste.

So, we were back in the van heading back to our hotels and in our case, apartment. I found it ironic that on the way home, just after coming face to face with poverty, our Brazilian passengers got off at the Gavea shopping centre… the one I mentioned that sells the most expensive clothes in Brazil…

Now back to the dog days of summer, here’s wishing all of you lots of sun, great sense of community and, as always, happiness.


3 thoughts on “dog days and favelas

  1. Wow, it looks amazing! I really wanted to see the favelas but we didn’t get the chance. The tour sounded really informative! Great post, thanks for sharing! We are in Uruguay, tops of 13C and some drizzle, what a difference being further south can make.

  2. Excellent article about Rio. We were there but to visit james and his family who lived the ex pat life there so it was not at all connectd with what you describe. So interesting and so true.
    I will buy your book when you guys put it all together!!!!!

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