In this article, Isabel O’Brien discusses the disregard for Rio’s favelas in the midst of political corruption and the impact of increased Olympic spending on the city’s poorest communities.
I cannot help but think officials gave as little attention to the creation of the Rio 2016 Olympic slogan as they do to the issue of favelas, the city’s crime-ridden slum areas. The promise of a new world is no more than a fallacious narrative, a narrative that the favela communities of Rio de Janeiro are tired of reading. They care not for the next chapter but rather that the entire book is rewritten, that they be given the voice of a protagonist and not a character who is encountered so fleetingly they are barely worthy of a name. Favelas are repeatedly excluded from public legislation and fiscal policy rendering their existence invisible in the eyes of the state, despite their conspicuous nature across the urban landscape. The relentless desire to silence the favelas has not gone unnoticed. A Perspex ‘acoustic’ barrier constructed between the Complexo da Maré, a large network of slums, and the Linha Vermelha, the main expressway connecting the airport to the city is known locally as “the wall of shame” reaffirming the disheartening idea of second rate citizenship that continues to percolate favela mindset.
Rio’s favelas, however, are rich in organic Carioca culture. I was fortunate enough to visit Rocinha in June, the most populous favela in Brazil, with an estimated population of over 100,000. Whilst I speculate that my experience of Rocinha was highly sanitised, the things I encountered did little to subdue my social conscience. Children samba, but dance in their own sewage. Women nurture but worry how they can protect the health of their babies. Men admire the ocean view but do so under the surveillance of gun-wielding drug lords. Yet beyond dystopian observations, Rocinha’s community is defined by enviable bonds of kinship, liberal artistic displays and a shrewd level of entrepreneurship that sustains the favela’s informal economy.
All of this, however, is fundamentally undermined by the Brazilian drug trade and endemic police corruption. Although Rocinha was pacified in 2011, drug-lords continue to infiltrate Rocinhan society and the impasse between state officials and narcotic dealers is undoubtedly worsening. The police’s approach to rectifying the drug-fuelled monopoly over Rocinha is paradoxical to say the least and inhibits development schemes seeking to deliver educational services and health awareness to residents, essential given current concerns regarding the Zika virus. Drug lords facilitate the laundering of hush money, benefitting the police who seldom apologise for the impact this has on aid provision and eventually kill those who have exhausted their use. 10,699 people were killed by police in Rio between 2003-2014. In the midst of their politics, there is still only one high school in the whole of Rocinha but the intimate relationship between the government and the police ensures that positive state intervention remains at a dismal level, jeopardising the health, education and future of Rocinha’s youth.
So can the Olympics bring some relief to Rio’s favelas? Despite an Olympic ‘taster day’ at Rocinha’s Sports Centre, the scaling back of favela pacification in order to accommodate for the
Olympic budget suggests otherwise. It is estimated that 39.1 billion reals (£9.1bn) will be spent on the games however it is unlikely that favela communities will share in any success. The inclusion in the Opening Ceremony of Favela Brass, an NGO-led brass band, and the Passinho dance, a funk-samba hybrid birthed in the favelas is moderate recognition of favela culture but it does little to compensate for the cuts to essential development programmes. Rocinha needs improved infrastructure to cope with its growing population and its physical vulnerability. Due to its hillside location, the favela is subject to frequent deadly landslides during periods of heavy rainfall but the community is unsurprisingly ill-prepared for these and less than half of residents have piped water systems. The charmingly narrow lanes typical of Rocinha are resented by those whose lives depend on scaling the steep steps every day. There is perhaps no better metaphor of government attitudes towards favela development than the half complete cable car structure that watches over Rocinha.
Unfortunately, favelas are not in keeping with the global Olympic facade. They have been omitted from official Olympic maps and tourists have been awarded priority to use Rocinha’s first subway station, a decision that endorses the fear of second-rate citizenship. The favela communities require government support yet subscription to a state system steeped in immorality seems regressive. The legacy of Rio’s Olympic games is unlikely to be that of ‘a new world’ and rather that of a deeply divided city.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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