Some of the paths through Vila Canoas are so narrow that only one person can pass at a time. When our tour group ran into a resident of the favela coming the opposite direction, we leaned into a corner, letting them pass with a smile and a bom dia (good morning).
Brick and concrete blockhouses soared five or six stories above us, stacked on top of each other in seemingly haphazard fashion. Samba music and cooking smells spilled through open doorways. A rat’s nest of wires ran along pastel-painted walls and overhead, at times so thick they blocked out the tropical sun.
Rio de Janeiro may be the Marvelous City, known for glittering beaches, bronzed bodies, and an ebullient Carnaval, but it is also known for its favelas—lower class neighborhoods that are densely populated and are often described as slums or shantytowns. Those terms are a bit misleading, however, because some of the residences in favelas can be solidly built, with security gates, balconies, and fine tiles. Many residents have satellite TV, and there are small churches, dentist offices, and a thriving local economy.
Favelas hug many of the verdant hillsides that ring Rio, and they are home to about 20% of the city’s 6.5 million inhabitants. A number of Rio+20 events are being held in favelas to try to recognize their importance in the city, and a march of favela residents is planned for today to make their voices heard.
On Saturday, the advocacy group Peace River set up a small makeshift favela on touristy Copacabana Beach. Writing in the sand read, “Rio +20, decide not to decide is a decision that will represent the destruction of nature and man.”
“Favelas have very nice views, because they are up in the hills,” explained Simone Miranda, our guide on this excursion for Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tours. “In most places of the world people would pay a lot for that view, but in Rio the wealthy live closer to the street.”
Armstrong pioneered favela tourism in the city twenty years ago, and his company takes care to frame visits with lots of social, cultural, and historical context. Far from poverty porn, the tours emphasize positive developments within the neighborhoods they visit.
According to Miranda, the locals “want to have visitors.” This was especially obvious among the couple who sold us fresh caipirinhas from a small bar at the entrance to one of the two favelas we visited, and among the handicraft sellers in front of the other.
As my former professor, Robert Neuwirth, makes clear in his excellent book Shadow Cities, Rio has a long and complicated history with the favelas. For research, Neuwirth lived for a few months in Rocinha, a neighborhood of 70,000 and Rio’s biggest favela, and also the first stop on our tour.
When Neuwirth lived there, the government of Rio essentially refused to recognize the favela, meaning it provided few public services and no police protection. As a result, local drug lords ran the security—and so effectively that most crimes were unheard of, according to Neuwirth’s research. One of his neighbors was an Australian windsurfer who had moved to the favela after hearing it had lower crime than Copacabana, a world-famous tourist destination but a place where he was robbed several times. The man told Neuwirth he had had no problems in Rocinha.
Left to their own innovation, favela dwellers built their own streets, routed their own water pipes, strung their own wires for phones and electricity, and handled their own waste. They also developed a bustling local economy, which even attracted big business from the outside; for a time there was a McDonald’s in Rocinha.
But the situation was unstable. Since police refused to enter the favelas, gangs hid out there. Tensions between rival crews sometimes flared up to urban warfare, as was dramatically depicted in the award-winning 2002 film City of God (Cidade de Deus). Many innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire. If the victims called for help, medics refused to respond, and if they died, the media reported their loss as “gang related.”
This is especially unfortunate, because both Neuwirth and Miranda stress that the vast majority of favela residents are not involved in any criminal activity. Most are workers earning minimum wage, largely in jobs in the more affluent parts of town.
Signs of Improvement
According to Miranda, over the past few years, the Brazilian government has taken steps to acknowledge Rio’s 950 favelas and integrate them into the rest of the city. She said the city has been gradually extending services and providing police protection. On our tour, we saw a sizable police presence. We also saw a big orange trash container on a site that Miranda said was previously a giant rubbish pile.
In recent years, more middle class Brazilians have been moving into favelas, because rents elsewhere in the city have been soaring, especially as Rio gains more international prominence as the future host of the Olympics and World Cup. “Favelas are a place for young doctors who don’t have much money to get started, and young architects to start working,” said Miranda. “Many people go to the favelas.”
Home to 3,000 people, the small favela of Vila Canoas (canoes) is perched high in a valley, surrounded by green peaks. Thanks to the thermal air currents, vultures and a steady stream of hang gliders circle overhead. The latter alight from a point high above the favela, and land on the well-manicured beach below, which is fronted by fancy apartment buildings.
In Vila Canoas, Favela Tours contributes proceeds to a private school that serves 80 kids from the neighborhood free of charge. According to Miranda, the tours cover 40% of the school’s budget. Other donors contributed computer equipment. Artwork and crafts made from recycled materials adorned the cheery blue walls, some for sale to help support the school.
Miranda explained, “Favelas are like a big recycling center: they have to use and reuse to make it possible to survive.”
The green movement has also percolated into the favelas. The Rocinha Mais Verde, or Green My Favela, project encourages residents to grow their own food. The group was asked to present at Rio+20.
History and Future of Favelas
“Favelas were the result of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism,” explained Miranda. Slavery ended late in Brazil, in 1888, and at that time the newly freed had few options. Some gathered in shantytowns on public land, often up in the hills.
The first named favela developed on a hill in Rio in the late 1800s. Soldiers who had helped the Brazilian government put down a rebellion in the northeast part of the country set up temporary shelters on Providência [Providence] hill while they awaited housing that had been promised to them. That never materialized, so they stayed there. They called their community favela after a hill they had encountered during the military campaign; Favela Hill had been named after a plant that grew in the northeast.
In the 20th century, favelas swelled as new waves of migrants left rural areas in search of work.
Today, some things are looking up in many favelas, but there are still many challenges. Some favelas still have open sewers, and disease and death rates are too high. Many residents don’t have official addresses and some aren’t able to obtain title to their land even if they can afford it. Most favelas remain stark examples of economic inequality. Across the street from Rocinha is an American school with tuition that is much higher than what most residents there make. Vila Canoas butts against an exclusive golf club.
“There’s a long way to go, but now workers [who live in favelas] feel part of the society of Brazil…In one or two generations we will have better money distribution in Brazil,” said Miranda.
If Brazilians can bring sustainable development to the favelas, then it will serve as a powerful example for the rest of the world, at Rio+20 and beyond.
Brian Clark Howard is on location at Rio+20. Follow updates here.
Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.