The dominant image of favelas (shantytowns) is one of violence. Last
month, they made front page news across Brazil after a shoot-out between rival
drugs gangs in the middle-class suburb of Copacabana, in Rio de Janiero, claimed
several lives. Days before, the feature film Cidade de Deus (City
of God), which depicts gang rivalry in a Rio favela, received similar
levels of publicity.
The critically acclaimed
film unexpectedly failed to receive an Oscar despite being nominated in four
categories. Cidade de Deus has for many in Brazil and abroad reinforced
the demonization of favelas as places of poverty, drugs and gangs.
But in Rio several organisations
are working to give a more balanced view of life in favelas. Several
guides offer tours of favelas for Brazilians and tourists. One, Favela
Tour, was set up over fifteen years ago and ploughs 40 percent of ticket revenue
into community projects in various favelas across the city.
Guide Alfredo Sousa admits
that violence is a serious problem in favelas. "You have the police
shooting the drug dealers, the drug dealers shooting the police, the drug
dealers shooting the other drug dealers," he said. "The police and
the Government are in charge in the city, but the drug dealers run the favelas.
(But) there is not much robbery in the favelas because the people know
that that will attract the police. People from the favelas go into
the city to rob instead. You are more likely to get robbed in the city than
in the favela."
The tour also shows another
side, painting a picture of economically deprived and politically neglected
communities that are nevertheless attempting to improve the lives of their
inhabitants. There are over 600 favelas in Rio, home to some 20 percent
of the population.
They cling to the side
of the hills overlooking the citysome occupying prime areas of real
estate. Many border middle and upper-class neighbourhoods, as is the case
with Vila Canoas, the first favela we visited, which lies alongside
São Conrado, one of the wealthiest districts in Rio. On one side of
the road is a jumble of crudely assembled bare brick buildings, on the other
smart detached houses with lush gardens and high security fences.
Here Favela Tour provides
financial support to a school and a handicraft centre. Initial concerns that
the tour would be a voyeuristic "safari" proved unfounded. Much
of the tour takes place on foot and interaction, but not intrusion, is encouraged
and rewarding. The goal, explains Sousa, is greater understanding and communication.
Sousa says although he
enjoyed Cidade de Deus, and that the film has aroused greater interest
in favelas, it reinforced a stereotype. "I have a friend who lives
in the real Cidade de Deus in Rio and he liked the film. But other people
think that it shows them in a bad light," he said. "It is important
to remember that the film represented a particular point in history that is
not necessarily the case today. As you can see, favelas aren't all
bang, bang, bang."
The next stop on the tour
is Rochina, over 100 years old and the largest favela in Brazilpopulation
estimates range from 100,000 to 140,000. It is made up of hundreds of brick
buildings, piled high on top of one another, covering a hillside looking down
on Rio's prosperous south zone. Electricity is illegally tapped off the nearby
There are two banks (neither
of which, incidentally, has ever been robbed), shops, bars, restaurants, bustling
markets, dentists, health clinics and even a McDonald's franchise. There are
also material signs of wealthinnumerable satellite dishes dot the roofs
and there are new model cars on the streets. There are political and community
organisations that try to provide a range of services. From postal delivery
to health advise to computer training. "A city within a city," said
In the last few years,
money and investment has begun to trickle into the favelas. The European
Union is one international organisation that provides funds for community
and regeneration projects. But much needed Government money, despite pre-election
hopes, has been slow coming.
The final stop on the
tour is at the top of Rocinha and offers panoramic views of Copacabana, Ipanema,
Leblon and Lagoa. A group of local artists sit nearby and paint the scenes.
Sousa explains the meaning of the word favela. It relates, he said,
to one of the bloodiest battles in Brazilian history in 1897 after the overthrow
of the monarchy. The battle took place on Morro da Favela (Favela Hill) overlooking
the town of Canudos, in the state of Bahia, and resulted in thousands of deaths.
On their return to Rio the victorious republican soldiers were awarded the
land on which Rocinha is now built and named the new settlement after the
Sousa insists that Favela
Tour does not attempt to underplay the endemic social and economic problems
in favelas, nor romanticise favela life. Instead the organisation
aims to provide a deeper understanding of favelas and draw attention
to issues that many Brazilians would rather ignore.
Shafik Meghji is a freelance journalist based in London, but is currently
travelling and writing his way around South America. He has worked for the
London Evening Standard and the Press Association and has
written for a number of British newspapers and magazines, including The
Guardian. He can be contacted at email@example.com