Before going to the Thematic World Forum in Porto Alegre for one of my work’s mission, my colleague and myself stopped in Rio de Janeiro. We took advantage of these two days to discover the city and investigate for other missions.
The latter brought us in front of Santa Marta’s favela this morning, at 9 am when the sun was already hitting hard. Our interpretor, Renata, met us between the Shell gas station and the tourist booth. Before starting the ascension of Santa Marta (it IS an ascension), we asked her to give us an overview of the favela’s situation.
So why is there a tourist booth at the entrance of Santa Marta?
That’s what shocked us most when we arrived: it was not the luxurious and huge 19th century style buildings at the very bottom of the favela, nor the beautiful colours of the favela houses (the paint was a donation and they used it well..). No, it was this tourist booth.
Santa Marta is the first favela to have experimented the Peace Keeping Unit system (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora) in 2008. The Unit is composed of Police as well as Military forces. According to the UNDP, in implementing this policy, “Brazil adopted a human rights approach to combating violence in which policybegan to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of its citizens”. This unit is supposed to protect the favela dwellers from violence and illegal trafic, starting from drug trafic. Today, Santa Marta is considered drug free and, as we were told later by a small bar tender in the favela, that was far from being the case a few years ago.
Today Santa Marta dwellers feel safer and have access to more services that enable them to earn a decent living and to no longer be second-class cariocas: they have free wifi access with computers they can use, they are quite well integrated to the rich neighbourhood (some work as maids or cooks there) and Lula’s social policy has helped them gain a bigger purchasing power…
So we have the answer to our question: Santa Marta has become a relatively safe favela and hence an attraction for tourists who want to see how a favela looks like (or, unfortunately, simply say ‘I’ve visited a favela in Rio’ when they go back home).
Is this “model favela” all pink?
When you start climbing the favela, you realize it is not bad indeed: the favela has a sanitation system, several shops and services and houses in concrete (for the big majority) that are painted in beautiful bright colours.
But the situation is not that simple: the dirt is everywhere, the smell is quite difficult to stand in some places and the rat we met in a small passage didn’t look too friendly. You can also see a lot of young people in the favela that are at home on a Monday morning (which means that they probably won’t go to work today). My colleague and myself were also quite surprised by the young aspect of pregnant girls we met.
To sum up: the favela is not that bad for a three hours visit but very little tourists would be willing to spend more time there.
How about asking Santa Marta dwellers how life is at home?
Conducting our study, we got to interview several shop keepers to understand how their business worked. In the favela, you will find many kind of shops; Like Marujo’s Mini Bazar where you can buy carnival disguises, cell phone chargers and plumber’s tools. Like the family-owned Bakery that has bread, branded food products and toilet paper. Or like Claudio’s small shop offering everything you could ever think of…and more.
The little shop at the bottom of the favela is kept by Claudio. He has been in the community for 33 years (and doesn’t look much older than that) and has run his shop for more than 10 years. He dreams of becoming big. He sells everything from coffee to havanaeïs (the famous flip-flops), plumbing objects or dog food. His model is Eike Batista, one of the richest man on earth who, like him, is Brazilian, started very small and grew big. He gets most of his products from the suburb, where it’s cheaper, and he carries them back to his shop by bus. He looks very optimistic and positive. He says he is thankful to Lula, who has done many things for him in the past years, and to God. As the translator will tell us later, ”if Catholicism cannot bring them (Brazilian lower class) the answer, they turn to other religious movements and create an interesting mix. That’s what helps them to go through hard times. They believe that going through this is a necessary condition to become a better person and to lead a better life”. Our shop owner doesn’t believe he needs to wait: his better life awaits him if and only if he works hard (and gets a little help from the politics and God…).
The person who we interviewed in the bakery is an employee from the prefecture working for the third age secretariat. Today, he is on holiday and that’s why he’s helping out his parents on their family-run business. The profit of this bakery is around 200 Reals a day (100 euros apprx.) and during our 30 minutes interview, we indeed saw a lot of customers buying their bread and other products. The bakery gets its products from an intermediary that delivers everything at the bottom of the favela. Needless to say that carrying those products up the hill is tiring and probably not a present for one’s back. But all the shops in the favela work like that, “it’s normal”. The shop is open from 6 am to 8 pm and the man who is on holiday will surely spend the whole working day behind the counter. He seems happy about it. Work is a value that many interviewees share: they believe that they can grow and be successful only if they work very hard.
Another shop owner we wanted to interview refused to talk with us. He told our interpretor “People ask questions and then they write a book about what we say”. He’s not that far from reality, actually. He was quite hostile to our presence and we understood that it was not only us that bothered him: there are quite a few tourists climbing up and down the favela each day, sometimes accompanied by a professional guide that has nothing to do with the favela. In this case, tourism doesn’t benefit to our shop owner or the favela since all the money goes outside. All they get are people walking around, taking pictures of their homes and neighbourhood without even interacting with the local population. So, this kind of tourism is not really helping the community. However, we also saw a guide who was from the favela whose tour looked much less superficial than the others. This kind of tourism can have a positive impact on the community.
Do they care about us?
The shopkeeper who refused to answer our questions might think that people don’t care. After all, Santa Marta’s favela is the place Michael Jackson chose to shoot his video clip “They don’t care about us” (link as a reward for reading this post at the bottom).
But now that Rio will welcome the Rio+20 Summit (June 2012), the Football World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016), the favela’s issues need to be addressed and Rio’s population, the local authorities and the government have started to care about it.
The security issue is an important one in the favela. We visited one of the safest in Rio but others are said to be quite dangerous (I am cautious in saying that because I know that the violence in the favela has sometimes been over-mediatized). But reputation or reality, this violence issue needs to be tackled as soon as possible.
Apart from the violence, the inequalities in Rio are striking and need to be addressed. Even if I spent a few months in India where inequalities are strong, I have never seen such a geographical proximity between the very rich and the very poor. This doesn’t give the best image Rio can offer to tourists who will be visiting during the coming events.
Favelas are not only threats, they are opportunities
The favela is full of potential. Starting from an economic point of view:
Many dwellers work outside. The average income of the dwellers is 1000 Reals (500 euros appx.), according to our translator. They have an increasing purchasing power that could be interesting for businesses.
The favela has many services and facilities to help its dwellers live better and in a stable environment. Some people (mainly women) need to take care of their family but they have know-how and could work from home as micro-entrepreneurs (like the Asta model using communities to produce crafstwork) for local businesses.
From a cultural and human point of view:
Santa Marta’s favela has its own culture, its own history. Michael Jackson chose this favela to shoot his video clip in 1996 and Madonna and Alicia Keys also followed. Its people are friendly and proud of their home. They have their own story to tell and I can assure you that once you hear it, you will care about them.
As promised Michael’s clip is here. Enjoy!