The Contradiction of Brazil’s ‘Favelas’

Brazil 2014

By Sarah Kimani

April 25, 2014

Also aired on SABC News

In Brazil, slum tours are common in shanty towns known in the country as favelas. Brazil’s government has encouraged the tours as a way of earning money for a people said to live in some of the world’s most violent areas.

Theresa Williamson stands at the foot of several stairs leading into Rio de Janeiro’s shanty town or favela, Providencia. It is a quiet afternoon for Providencia now popular with tourists who every once in a while will take a tour of the neighbourhood.

A Brazilian town planner, and executive director, at Catalytic Communities, Williamson says, “Favela is the name of a plant a spiny robust flowering plant from the north east of Brazil where the soldiers who served in the battle came back to Rio from. They became the first inhabitants of Providencia. The word favela has no direct translation in English, it is just the name of our informal settlements, based on that plant.”

Pictures of life here since 1994 give one a glimpse of one Rio’s oldest shanty towns. Travel blogs have marketed favela tours as an exciting alternative to Rio’s well known tourism circuit – but who best to tell us what he feels than Mauricio who has lived here all his 45 years.

When asked about impact favela tourism and how it makes them feel, Mauricio says, “I think visitors are interesting for the favelas. I don’t think it’s about people wanting to see poverty; in the case of Rio’s favelas people want to see the people who have entered their imagination. People think of them as very violent. Places that you cannot access, impenetrable, so being able to visit them becomes [impossible].”

“It’s good to come here and get the dimension of the city. This is the downtown in the Tijuca areas, the bay is over there, and all the Faveals are on the hillside,” says Williamson.

Slum tourism has been labelled as poverty tourism – where the well to do come to gawk at and photograph the poor in developing countries. But if you are looking for that photograph of the dirt poor – favelas may not be the place to be, as Theresa explains.

“People think of shanties, they think of cardboards or wood, but if you think of favela housing in the vast houses in Rio it is steel. Rios favelas, like this one in particular, is the oldest, you got a hundred and 17 year history. And obviously if people are investing generation after generation in their homes and communities, you are going to develop out of a slum condition, and you are not going to see a lot of slum conditions in Providencia. You are going to see a low income area with limited infrastructure, low quality infrastructure, low quality maintenance by the government, but everybody has water, everybody has electricity, it is just the quality.”

Favelas are home to 1.4 million out of the 6 million people who live in Rio.

Brazil will, in June 2014, host the FIFA World Cup – the final will be held in Rio at the Maracana stadium.

Sarah Kiimani reported from Brazil on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).