The New York Times just printed this article about Rio’s new initiative to clean up the favelas.  They’re looking to establish a police rule in forty of the biggest Zona Sul communities.  I guess they had to do something with the World Cup and the Olympics on their way, but this doesn’t seem to be the right answer. Is the Rio government skillful and subtle enough to pull this off without extreme violence? I think there will be fighting that’s likely to spill into what are currently safe neighborhoods.  While living there, I definitely felt like there was an equilibrium between the drug organization ruled favelas and the other parts of the city–they fed off of each other and there was a balance.  I think the Rio government would be much better off offering some kind of incentive to entice the favela communities to buy into these lucrative events, rather than imposing by brute force (and who knows which side has the upper hand) a police presence.  There’s talk of bringing Guiliani in as well, which is sort of interesting.


Pigs in the Sludge

August 22, 2009

On our way back from Teresopolis, we entered the city in a way that I haven’t been before.  Maybe we didn’t notice on the way out because it was dark, but on the way back we passed through new slums, new favelas that were sadder and dirtier and more packed than Rocinha or Canoas.  There was a canal of dense green sludge that ran through and between the precarious brick homes and the highway.  Every building looked tired and broken, leaning on one another for support. Tattered clothes were strung between them, the clotheslines holding up the structures like puppet strings.  Pigs and goats rooted through and nuzzled charred piles and plastic bags where garbage was burned along the sludge canal.  I hoped and prayed that was not their main water source.  I could only imagine what it all smelled like in the summer when temperatures climbed to 40 degrees centigrade (104 fahrenheit).  What’s the way to make this festering mess better? More stable, less toxic? My words do not adequately describe the goats and pigs walking down the streets of this favela, the lack of people.  The hopelessness.

On my run this morning, instead of the usual net of surfers at posto 7, there were surfing lessons.  I was reminded how certain sports have very awkward beginnings and take a while (or forever) to get to gracefulness.  Skiing is one of them, snowboarding-the first few tries are painful and unattractive, and it takes some effort before you are gliding in clean arcs and beautiful slopes.  Surfing, I discovered as I watched a fairly heavy, very white woman a little older than me paddle out on a board, is the same.  Those first lessons are terribly unattractive (and I felt bad for the lithe, super tan instructor who was trying to keep her on her board).  It made me realize, as I stood among the parents taking digital videos of their children slippery and wobbling in the ocean, that I don’t to learn how to surf in Ipanema, where there are people around all the time watching, just in case I look pale and awkward paddling out.

From white caps and whales to white papers–I’m beginning to write a white paper on urban roof gardens in Brazil–how they could work to supply food, improve the environment in favelas, provide a project to occupy kids.  First I need to learn about white papers (any insights, please share your wisdom in my comments section or email me) and then I need to research urban roof gardens (again, wisdom welcome). From the outset, I think this could be an incredibly cool thing.

Cidade de Deus

July 18, 2009

We didn’t go to the City of God today, but we did go on a favela tour, to Rocinha, Rio’s largest, and a smaller one, Favela da Canoa.  Our tour wasn’t that great, we would have liked to see more, get in there more, but there’s still so much to mention.  Rio’s favelas, despite being so large, are sort of hidden.  It’s not really surprising that people pretend they’re not here.  They’ve grown organically, without streets or organization.  The entrances are turns off one main road or another, and you’ve fallen into a rabbit hole.  They become mazes of stairways built haphazardly between homes that are next to and on top of one another.  If you put Rocinha into google maps, there isn’t anything there, but there are thousands of people living and breathing in this massive jumble of brick and concrete, hanging laundry, and drugs.


This article from The Telegraph is really incredible at describing Rocinha.  We didn’t see any drugs or guns, it felt pretty safe, but I think we were there early in the morning and didn’t get the full experience.  It’s the density that’s overwhelming, the masses of electrical wires at every pole with lines bringing the residents light, internet, cable TV.  It was explained to us that in the favela, the people who live there have everything that they need, they have a bank, and a Bob’s (Brazilian McDonalds), there are stores selling TVs and clothes, restaurants and bars, it’s all there, it’s just a different system.  There are no police, or a nominal presence, the drug lords take care of everyone, provide protection.  The police are useless. There’s a policeman at the entrance to every favela, but they serve more to catch the wealthier people going in to buy drugs than to stop any of the riff raff on the inside.

We learned how the riff raff starts, too, how these kids get in so young.  The public schools in the favelas (and in most places around Rio, it seems) only lasts for about four hours a day.  This leaves the kids with a lot of free time.  The Telegraph article describes the hierarchy and induction of children well.  As the kids get older and want new shoes, or cell phones, they can get money by doing small jobs for the drug organizations, along with protection, a sense of belonging, guns and this whole way of life.  It seems the solution is to figure out how to get kids in schools and after school programs for the afternoon so they don’t have so much time or inclination to jump in with the drug organizations.  These sorts of programs exist, some are successful, or seem to be making some difference.  I plan to look into this extensively.  These kids who go to the public schools don’t really have any chance of ever going to college.  Also, the American School is this huge, lush campus literally right next to Rocinha.

We were told that 93% of the people who live in the favelas are normal people, with normal jobs, who work in the hotels and restaurants, the juice bars, who run the teeming tourist industry on the golden beaches below.  The favelas’ lawlessness also attracts young professionals– doctors, architects– anyone who wants to do something in Rio without going through the difficult processes of getting permits and permissions.  In that respect, it seems like an incredibly vibrant place, a space for growth and exploration.

I have no illusions, I know that we were there for such a short time, and I haven’t even begun to figure out how these rabbit holes of poverty and growth and humanity work, but my first taste of this entirely different side of Rio is totally fascinating.   (Don’t worry parents, we’re being SUPER careful.)

To bring us back to the Cidade de Deus, it seems that the government is just starting to recognize favelas and the people living in them.  They are beginning to build schools and clinics, and there are new systems for garbage collection.  Before, the government’s way of dealing with these naturally growing communities was to knock them out, raze them, and move all of the people to the suburbs (if you notice in the movie, all the houses look the same, they’re government built), where there are no jobs.  This only exacerbates all the problems that exist in any favela, and it makes them more dangerous, as depicted in the film.

I know that I will write more about this, and hopefully Scott will get better pictures (the one above is the only one he liked from today), but this seemed like a good start.

The Little Boy

July 9, 2009

Scott and I stopped at one of our favorite botequims today to have a snack, and while we were sitting there a little boy of about four or five tugged at our sleeves asking for money.  It wasn’t the first time we had been asked for money since arriving in Rio, but it felt more personal.  He was so little.  

Two weeks ago when arrived we were in a cab, about to go through the tunnel to the center of the city.  A different little boy, maybe about seven or eight, was working that stretch of highway-ish road, squeegying windshields.  The stretch of asphalt was packed with cars, edged by sloping concrete walls, and filled with exhaust.  The boy had two water bottles of bottles of suds, one nearly empty and one half full.  He very carefully unscrewed both and put them on the cement wall, gingerly pouring the remnants in the nearly empty bottle into the fuller one, as if they were the most deadly chemicals, not sparing a drop.  His life may have depended on it.

It’s easy to forget here, on the easy breezy beach, what almost the entire city looks like, but these little boys were distinctive faces for me.  Kristof writes well about this today.