In the heart of the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, I found myself walking down a flight of steps closer and closer to a revolting stench of open sewers. The ground was full of rubbish and there were many dog shits on the path that I had to avoid. The streets were winding down at random directions and buildings were built extremely close with no fresh air. I was only in that dark alleyway for 5 minutes and felt quite uncomfortable. There are thousands of people that have spent their whole lives in this Rio favela in very bad living conditions.
With the dramatic increase in a number of tourists coming to Rio de Janerio for the Olympics in the next few month, there is an important question many would ask “Should we visit a Rio favela?” The answer to that question revolves around some very complicated issues. The problems of tourists visiting these favelas are mainly about the morality and ethicality of poor people watching.
The main criticism made about these slum tours is that tourists are here to experience and see poverty rather than having a real cultural exchange. Who wouldn’t find repulsive about a tour of wealthy people coming to visit the favela for three hours and go back to their comfortable accommodations as if they had visited a museum? Especially when some companies operate their tours like a safari adventure.
Most of the local residents actually have a good opinion of the presence of tourists in their favela. They are good for the local economy as they bring money into the community. Most of the tour companies also contribute to build social projects in the favelas. Also tourism is also helps improve the image of Rio favela where most people associate with violence which is not true. Ironically, you may be safer in the streets of Rocinha Favela than in the Copacabana beach at night. The mafias who are in charge of this favela have made strict no violence rules within the favela. Especially towards tourists.
Favelas have been around in Rio de Janeiro since the 1940s when industrialisation brought thousands of people migrating into the city for work. When many of these workers couldn’t find jobs and afford housing, they started housings in the hills. Favelas are always visible wherever you go in Rio de Janeiro and have a huge cultural importance. For example, the famous dance, Samba are invented in these Rio favelas.
Our tour guide told us that when his parents first moved into Rocinha favela, the place felt like a paradise. The place was still part of a rain forest were streams flowing down the hills and monkeys roamed. Rocinha Favela began building in the flat areas close to the rich suburbs but was constantly taken down by the government. However, the building of the favelas persisted over the years and the government have clearly lost control. Today this Rio favela looks like a jungle and maze of concrete houses.
Naturally, Winny and I wanted to see a favela when we are in Rio de Janeiro because they are such a big part of the city. We joined a tour called the Favela walking tour for 90 BRL per person. We found this company online and checked them via TripAdvisor before booking a tour with them two days before via WhatsApp. They were quite a good company and we had an amazing guide called Edson.
Edson grew up and still lives in the largest Rio favela called Rocinha. His English is extremely good and he said he had only learnt the language for 4 years. We learnt a lot about this Favela from him.We started our tour by meeting Edson at a meeting point in Copacabana beach. We then picked up a few more people on our way to the Rocinha Favela. We had 14 people in total in our group.
Currently, the government estimated that there are around 75 thousand people that live in Rocinha Favela but Edson believes the number is far greater than that. He thinks there would be at least 200 thousand people in the Rocinha Favela. Rocinha Favela is one of the safer Rio favelas to visit. Favela only becomes dangerous for two main reasons. The first one is when the mafia groups that control the Favelas are at war for drug trafficking control or for territory control.
Since Rocinha Favela is further away to other Rio Favela, this risk of mafia war is significantly lower. The true danger is ironically when the police arrive in the Favela. Bullets rain during these times and often, many bystanders can get hurt. To keep safe during the tour, we kept to routes where the police would not sporadically appear. It is an interesting world to see people trusting the mafia and disliking the police.
During our visit in Rocinha, we did not feel threatened by any of the residents in the favela. Most of the times the locals either walked past us normally probably because they are so used to seeing tourists around or passionately shake hands and greet Edson. One of the older ladies even pinched my cheek and called me handsome. Edson said that other Rio favelas can be a lot more dangerous and even he would be in danger if he went into those favelas without a local from that particular favela with him.
This is quite a contrast to teenage boys following us on Copacabana beach and chanting racist comments. Edson also specifically lead us to places in the favela that are not guarded or patrolled by any mafia members so there will not be any major conflicts. We were also invited to watch three young men playing street music for some tips.
Rocinha now has slightly better infrastructures compared to many other Rio favelas. They have two health clinics and a hospital. Although they may not have doctors in the hospital all the time. People in the Rio favelas don’t need to pay for electricity and water even though many houses have meters installed in front of the house. However, water is only available roughly 3 days in each week. That’s why most homes have a water tank on top of their roof to store water for the days they don’t have water.
Also during summer, there are constant blackouts across all the Rio favelas when the supply of electricity cannot meet the demand. It is also almost impossible to implement good postal service in the favela as none of these houses has addressed. For posts to be delivered, they have huge shared post box usually has more than 10 different addresses per box.
The worst infrastructure system in the Rio favela is their sewer system. They have an open sewer system that stenches dreadfully and relies on rainwater to flush down the waste. To make matters worse, the slum doesn’t have good garbage collection system so many residents choose to dump their rubbish into this sewer.
During our visit, we could see a broken computer in the sewer bed. The smell of this open sewer could be smelt far away and people in favelas have lived in these conditions all their life.
There are now schools in and around the Rio favela but education is not compulsory. Sadly boys usually drop out of school around the age of 14 to work to sustain their family or join the mafia. In the Rio favela, there are usually more girls than boys but many also drop out at a young age when they become pregnant.
The favela has only around two main streets that services most of the houses and in these were filled with on motorbikes offering transportation up and down the this Rio favela. Not all of these people have a motorbike license. The price is 3 BRL to go up and 2.5BRL to go down. The majority of the favela are connected with small windy paths that are covered with waste and litter and extremely hard to navigate. If you haven’t spent time living in these favelas, you could easily get lost.
Rocinha has an excellent location compared to many other Rio Favelas. It is located extremely close to a very expensive and classy beachside suburb and big shopping centre. As jobs are easier to find around Rocinha Favela, many people from other Favela always move into this favela. However, Rocinha is now restricted to expand any further by the government so buildings in this favela are growing taller and taller as there are no restrictions on how you build. You can rent an apartment in the Favela as cheap as 300 BRL for one month but the location is extremely hard to get to and you have no access to any road.
There are many businesses in the Rocinha favela and there is a huge economy that runs inside the favela. Some people do have money as a result from these businesses but still lives inside these favelas. Edson said that the reason is mainly that they don’t have to pay taxes in the favela. Although people don’t need to pay tax to the government, they do have to pay protection fees to the mafia. The Mafia runs and controls most of the activities that occur in the favela. During our visit, we saw a big van transportation system that is solely run by the mafia.
We spent almost 4 hours in the favela walking from the very top to the bottom. We saw a cross section of the favela stretching from the narrow alleys to the business districts. The living conditions in favelas are indeed sub-optimal. People are constantly exposed to hazardous conditions due to poor sanitation conditions.
Howe, we felt about visiting this Rio favela
Health care system and access to clean water are poor. Also, there is a problem when you know that you need to be reliant on the mafia to keep order in your living area. There are many things that should be changed in these slums before people can live in a good and healthy environment.
Change doesn’t start with being ignorant about these conditions and I do believe tourism is a good medium to start showing people around the world that these places exist. More help and funding is needed to make these favelas a better place to live. We were glad that we did this tour and we hope we will see improvements here in the future.