Published: May 30th 2012May 30th 2012
It would be strange to spend three months in Brazil without talking to you about Favelas. Favela is the name given to the shanty towns of Brazil. The favelas exist on the hill sides of Rio de Janeiro and the other major cities, which many people will be aware of. They can also be found in other less well known and smaller towns, for example in Foz do Iguaçu.
Favelas are a somewhat confusing topic in Brazil and almost everybody that you speak to here has a different opinion on them. There seems to be nothing about these communities that can be agreed upon. Not even whether or not they are dangerous. In Foz do Iguaçu, the main favela is said by some to be very dangerous and the proximity to Paraguay where anything can be bought has faciliatated the use of guns. The borders with Argentina and Paraguay have also made it a prime location for drug trafficking, however I never saw any crime or worrying activities while I lived in Foz suggesting that the locals are right when they say if you avoid the favelas you will be safe.
This seems like a common sense approach, however the new generations of travellers seem to yearn for an even more authentic experience and favelas are now becoming trendy. In Foz do Iguaçu, there is even a hostel named Favela Chic. Coming into Rio you find that you can spend Friday and Saturday night on organised tours to nightclubs within the favelas, where you can ´mix with locals´. You can also do daily tours around some of the favelas, these are apparently very popular and seem to suggest that favelas are no longer dangerous. I am not sure how I feel about the idea of touring a Favela, even without the worry of the safety aspect, it seems a little strange to me to pay money to go and look at the poverty in a city. I cannot imagine going to London and paying for a trip down the backstreets where homeless people sleep in cardboard boxes and children cry from hunger, this may be a different picture to what can be found in Favelas but nonetheless I think that I find it discomforting. However, I can understand the draw of the unknown, there is something intriguingly attractive about the labyrinthine nature of these towns and there is certainly a lot to be learned from these communities and how they live.
There has been much work by the government to ´clean up´ the favelas, I am told that some of this work has included building apartment blocks and moving the residents into these nice new flats. But in doing this, they seem to have overlooked the importance of the community and the wishes of the residents. Not long after being given these new homes, the residents sold them and returned to the favelas. In Rio de Janeiro, the goverment and police forces have moved in and taken ownership away from the drug gang leaders who had previously run the towns. This cannot have been a pretty or easy task and there is much speculation from the Cariocas as to how much force was used and what proportion of it could be deemed necessary force. It seems that these ´pacified´ Favelas are those which you can now visit.
As I say, I have been here for three months now and honestly I have no clearer ideas on this topic than I had previously. What I have learned is that everybody has a different point of view regarding Favelas and as with many things in life, the more you find out about them, the less you understand. It is clear that in many parts of Brazil and indeed South America, there are dangerous places, as I would dare to suggest there is in every country in the world.