A week before the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil, soccer’s international governing body has expressed concern that three of the stadiums won’t be ready, and legendary Brazilian striker Ronaldo says he’s “appalled” by his country’s preparations for the sport’s biggest event.
The tournament, and Olympics that come two years later, has also turned the world’s attention to Rio’s favela neighborhoods, where hundreds of thousands of Brazil’s poorest citizens live.
University of Oklahoma anthropologist and international studies professor Erika Robb Larkins lived in a favela during a long-term research project, and says she could absolutely everything she needed without having to leave the so-called “city-within-a-city.” But even though most residents work outside the favelas, the population is still socially and politically marginalized.
“But in terms of thinking of their role in the city, they’re absolutely central,” Larkins says. “If you didn’t have the favela, the city wouldn’t function. Who would drive the buses? Who would clean the houses? They’re in the middle of everything, making everything else in the city possible.”
Robb Larkins says there’s always been a government police presence of some form in the favelas, but it has never been a positive thing for the residents. Government officials tend to categorize all favela dwellers as criminals, even though residents say organized crime participation tends to only hover around 1-3 percent.
“So residents are very skeptical of police. They don’t trust police. They’ve been persecuted by police,” Larkins says. “With the World Cup and the Olympics coming there has been much more pressure on the city to be rethinking how favelas are policed. Unfortunately, much of [these efforts] have not benefitted favela residents.”
An entire tourism industry has also emerged around Rio’s slums, and Larkins says after Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Rocinha favela is one of the city’s most popular tourist spots.
“On the one hand, you want to go and see the ‘real Rio.’ It is an important corrective to the beach, and the luxury areas where most tourist hotels are,” Larkins says. “But at the same time, you have to ask…it’s still about the tourists’ education, and the tourists’ awareness, and that’s the focus. It’s not on the community. The community is a tool for the tourists to learn something.”
World Views is a collaboration between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies to bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.
On the colonial racial inequality and unequal access to land that created favelas
People were moving off of plantations, into big cities, and there was nothing in place for these people to settle. So they moved into the parts of the city that nobody wanted, which at the time in Rio was the places on the hillside. Those were the precarious places with landslides and mudslides and rain, and the lower places closer to the ocean were more desirable. Much of this land was owned by large landholders who were not present and there wasn't really anyone to police the development of these communities. Every so often somebody would come in and maybe tear them down, but people would put them right back up again. So over time you have really small favelas that grew into these large cities, almost, and became increasingly more difficult to remove. Over time people fought for and gained right to their land, and were able to stay there.
On when “slum tourism” can be a good thing
As long as you go, and you have your awareness raised, that's one thing. But that's not enough. It's not just about having your awareness raised, or you being more educated as a tourist. You have to also choose to do something with that knowledge. So I think if we think about it in that way. If people choose to do something with what they learned, then it becomes a more real form of social awareness.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Erika Robb Larkins, welcome to World Views.
ERIKA ROBB LARKINS: Thank you.
GRILLOT: So, Erika, you have a very interesting book that you're about to publish. You've spent a lot of time working and living in Rio de Janiero in Brazil. So you've written a book about this experience. A very interesting experience that you've had living in a favela in Rio. Let's just start there. What are these favelas? We hear about them. We've heard you before in previous shows talk about them. What are these things? What are their history? Where do they come from?
LARKINS: We have to go way back. So the favelas are basically a product of Brazilian colonial history. It's rooted in racial inequality. It's rooted in unequal access to land. Brazil received the most slaves of any country in the New World. When they abolished slavery - they also had the distinction of being the last country to abolish slavery - they had a huge African-descended population, and they didn't have land or really anywhere. So what you find was people that were moving off of plantations, into big cities, and there was nothing in place for these people to settle. So they moved into the parts of the city that nobody wanted, which at the time in Rio was the places on the hillside. This is really different than in other places where the hillside with the beautiful view tends to be the place of the wealthy. In Rio, it was the opposite. Those were the precarious places with landslides and mudslides and rain, and the lower places closer to the ocean were more desirable. So you have lots and lots of people that come and start to build their own houses in these areas, and not only are they building their own houses, but at the same time, they're building the city itself. This is the labor that built Rio and built every major Brazilian city. These people would trade. They would work for their boss in the city, and he would maybe give them some extra materials that they would use to go home and add an extra room on their house, et cetera. Now this land - this goes to the other issue, this other colonial legacy - which is that much of this land was owned by large landholders who were not present and there wasn't really anyone to police the development of these communities. Every so often somebody would come in and maybe tear them down, but people would put them right back up again. So over time you have really small favelas that grew into these large cities, almost, and became increasingly more difficult to remove. Over time people fought for and gained right to their land, and were able to stay there.
GRILLOT: Well, these communities are clearly something that are just incredible to see, and there are over a thousand of them. A thousand of these hillsides where communities have been built?
LARKINS: Actually, most of them are not on the hillsides. Most of them are located on level land. But the ones that have tended to always be the iconic favelas, the ones that you see in pictures and in movies, are the ones that are next to the wealthy neighborhoods overlooking the beautiful beach. Most of them have not nearly such a privileged view, but these favelas in particular have become iconic of Rio, and iconic of what a favela is, but it's important I think as you mentioned to realize that there are lots of them, and they're incredibly diverse. You have favelas that are very small - a couple hundred people. The largest favela in Latin America is in Rio. The government says it has 70,000 people, but the community itself says it has 300,000 people. And not only do you have differences between favelas, inside of every favela you have an internal diversity that's often overlooked from the outside. You have an internal class structure. You have property values that are different. And all of it depends on your access to the so-called "formal city." So if you live near the road, for example, your house is worth more money, because you can get on a bus. You can go to the city. It takes less effort for you to get to your job. If you live in an interior part of the favela that doesn't have roads, that only has alleyways; you have to wait for 15-20 minutes maybe to get your bus. So those properties would be devalued, and those people would be seen as more lower-class favela residents. You would think these things wouldn't matter inside of a poor community, but they really do.
GRILLOT: Well that is what's so striking when you see them. Some of them are these cities-within-the-city of Rio. And the buses are going through them. You've got businesses lining them, McDonald's is there, banks are there. It's not like these images one might have in their mind of these shanty towns with buildings built-upon-buildings, houses built upon houses. They're actual cities within cities, at least some of the bigger ones are. That's what's really striking. So that's where the workers live, and that's where people that are working in the main city of Rio. But they're not all the same is what I'm hearing you say. You can't necessarily see one favela and say you've seen all favelas. They're very diverse, and very different, and even within them they're diverse and different.
LARKINS: Right. Absolutely. The idea of the city-within-a-city is really wonderful. When I was doing my long-term research here, I lived in a favela. One of the biggest ones. And I could get pizza delivered to my house. I could get sushi delivered to my house. I could buy almost anything that I needed inside of the favela. If I didn't want to leave, I didn't have to. I could get groceries. I could get DVDs. You could get everything. Absolutely everything. So there is a way in which they're a city-within-a-city, and yet for most of the people that live there, they do work outside. They sometimes call it a pendulum city, where in the morning everybody goes out to work in the city, and then in the evening everybody comes back. So there is that movement and that connection between the favela and the city that is absolutely essential to understanding both sides. If you didn't have the favela, the city wouldn't function. Who would drive the buses? Who would clean the houses? There would be no one. One of the big things that has existed is the idea that favelas are very marginal. So they are. People are socially marginalized. They're politically marginalized because they're poor. But in terms of thinking of their role in the city, they're absolutely central. They're not at the margins. They're in the middle of everything, making everything else in the city possible.
GRILLOT: Well let's talk for a minute about the government response to these communities, because obviously their history comes from the fact that these were ex-slaves that did not have land, they settled in this land that was basically public land that nobody owned, nobody was watching, nobody was managing. So over many, many years, and particularly in recent years, there have been these attempts to make formal many of these pieces of property, provide ownership to these pieces of property. There are schools, low-income housing areas that actually look different from the historic favela homes. So the government seems to be responding to a lot of this. They're giving them official house numbers, and they're also sending in the police, and they're trying to clean up some of the organized crime that has grown up in these previously-ungoverned areas. So tell us a little bit about that.
LARKINS: So I think the government has always been present in some form or another in favelas. Whether or not it's through their absence. That's a form of presence, as strange as that sounds, through neglect, through not providing essential services like water or electricity. But the government has also been very present in terms of its policing. This is going to vary. If you're in a favela that's in a wealthy neighborhood, for example, that favela will probably be much more heavily policed. Favelas that are located on the margins of the city might not get as much police attention. And police attention in the favela has not ever been a positive thing for residents. Just like this idea that all favelas are the same, which is sort-of a dominant theme in thinking about them, police and other government officials have tended to think of all favela residents as the same. And have reduced all favela residents to a category of criminal because there's a very small percentage of the population that is involved in organized crime. It's really hard to get accurate estimates for this kind of thing, but residents will say something like 1 percent to 3 percent of the population. But in the eyes of police, it becomes everyone. So the favela has always had a very violent, repressive policing. That has always been the style. So residents are very skeptical of police. They don't trust police. They've been persecuted by police. So there's always been some sort of movements to reform this. It sort-of stops and starts. It's been mostly unsuccessful, but with the World Cup and the Olympics coming there has been much more pressure on the city to be rethinking how favelas are policed. It's not just about how they're policed. It's also about how space is managed in the favela. Who controls the space? Things like providing house numbers are also about exerting government control. It's about encouraging people to think about mapping their space in different ways according to state models, with roads, and maps. Up until recently, you couldn't get a map of a favela. So it's mapping it, it's policing it; it's also formalizing the economy in certain ways. Unfortunately, much of this has not benefitted favela residents. It's still been rife with a lot of problems, even it's well-intentioned, it hasn't really worked out.
GRILLOT: Well, one of the things is particularly interesting is the tourism that has emerged around these communities. Your book deals with this at length, and you've lived there yourself. You've watched it. You've seen it happen. I've partaken of this "slum tourism," if you want to call it that. Many people do. But the fact that outsiders come in to peer into this life, and see what it's like, which on the one hand seems weird - that you're looking at this community as if you're going to the zoo - but on the other hand, it's incredibly education. It's incredibly important to see it for yourself because there's so much misconception about what these communities are all about. So being there and actually physically seeing it really changes the way in which you perceive it. So the good and the bad, I guess, with this kind of tourism. What do you think?
LARKINS: Well, and I think you've exactly hit upon the tension there. That's exactly how residents and tour operators and everyone that's involved in the favela tourism industry talks about it - from these two sides. The biggest favela in Rio - Rocinha - has had a pretty booming tourism industry since the early 90s. They say that after the Sugarloaf and Christo that the favela is the third-most popular destination in Rio, which would mean thousands of tourists per month. So we have to ask why people are going. How do they even know about it? How does anyone even know what a favela is? So this tells us something interesting about tourism is that we don't come to places without ideas about them. The favela has been featured really centrally in a lot of the Brazilian media exports that we see. It's in all the guidebooks. It's in all the films. City of God was probably the most well-known Brazilian film ever - is all about a favela. So people come because they have these ideas. Now, when they get there, they might see something very different, but its oftentimes those preconceived notions that people bring with them to the tours. And that influences what they see. It influences what tour guides say. And how residents act, because residents also have preconceived ideas about tourists. They think tourists want to see this, or they want to see that. So it's not just in the moment of the actual tour. There's all these things that are happening before the tour, too. And the industry itself...it's a number of big companies. They have varying degrees of involvement with the community that they work in. There are some resident-run tours, but they're very small still, and most of them are run by people that don't live in the favela. So there's already a power dynamic there. But beyond that, we have to ask about the tourists themselves. Why do people go? Why do people want to go? I think you're right, that on the one hand, you want to go and see the "real Rio." This is how people really live. And it is an important corrective to the beach, and the luxury areas where most tourist hotels are. So it's important, but at the same time, you have to ask...it's still about the tourists' education, and the tourists' awareness, and that's the focus. It's not on the community. The community is a tool for the tourists to learn something. So we have to ask a little bit about that power dynamic and what that means.
GRILLOT: Well that's an excellent point, and how that tourist industry really comes around to benefit the community. On the one hand, the change in perception intangibly benefits the community, but how does it really come back around? So choosing your company wisely, and making sure it does contribute back to that community is really important.
LARKINS: And I think the other thing that I have come to believe about it is that as long as you go, and you have your awareness raised, that's one thing. But that's not enough. It's not just about having your awareness raised, or you being more educated as a tourist. You have to also choose to do something with that knowledge. So I think if we think about it in that way. If people choose to do something with what they learned, then it becomes a more real form of social awareness.
GRILLOT: Absolutely. Knowledge is never enough. It's just the start. Well thank you so much, Erika, for being with us on World Views to share this very interesting information about an interesting fascinating part of the world.
LARKINS: Thank you for having me.
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