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How Favela Tourism Has Changed Over 25 Years

A hilly road in Rocinha.
Wikimedia Commons
A hilly road in Rocinha.

While beach-side resorts and events such as Carnival have long made Rio de Janeiro a hot spot for international tourism, in recent years more and more visitors are venturing outside the glamor of Rio’s wealthy Zona Sul region to explore Brazil’s sprawling slums, known as favelas.

Favelas have become a prominent feature of Brazil’s cultural image, but it was not until the early 1990s that favelas became a tourist attraction, says Brazilian sociologist Bianca Freire-Medeiros.

Freire-Medeiros told World Views contributor Rebecca Cruise it was government efforts to keep favelas out of the public eye during the 1992 Rio Summit Conference that, ironically, opened the market for slum tourism in Brazil.

“The government was trying to hide the favelas and have this army and the soldiers and tanks protecting international visitors from the favela. And it backfired totally. It just made people more curious about it,” said Freire-Medeiros.

Since then, favelas have become some of Brazil’smost visited tourist attractions and the federal government eventually embraced the trend withinitiatives to make favelas safer and attract tourists.

Although the Brazilian government now supports favela tourism, favela communities were not initially the benefactors of these activities, says Freire-Medeiros.

“Most of the time it was about … private agents from outside the favela profiting over it,” Freire-Medeiros said.

Tourism began to spread to more favelas in the early to mid-2000s, and now some favela dwellers are becoming tourism entrepreneurs.

“Many of them having the residents themselves as like, the main agents, the main stakeholders,” Freire-Medeiros said.

Freire-Medeiros says favela tourism has helped create a more positive view of favelas, which are often portrayed as entrenched in violence and ruled by crime.

“We are talking about a community that has been seen in the news and all over the world an extremely violent and poor place. And [favela residents] imagine that tourists coming, they can come have a counter image. They can they can see that it's not only about violence. They can see the tourists, can see it's not only about poverty,” Freire-Medeiros said.

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Rebecca Cruise: Bianca Freire-Medeiros, welcome to World Views.

Friere-Medeiros: Thank you. Good to be here.

Cruise: Well it's wonderful that you're joining us and we can talk about it a number of issues relating to Brazil. But one of the issues I think that comes up very frequently, something that you have studied is the favela situation in Brazil. So maybe we could step back and you could tell us a little bit about what exactly a favela is. How would we characterize it? Who is there? How do those people sustain themselves? Anything that you think would be helpful for our listeners as we try to understand a term I think that's thrown around more and more but perhaps we don't exactly know what we're were thinking of.

Friere-Medeiros: OK. It's a very complicated term to be defined to start with. Right. It became favela was related to a specific urban form that started in Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century but it became generalized as a term to every poor and segregated and violent neighborhood throughout Brazil. So in this process it became more general, less specific, less historically related, and with all sorts of consequences to it. Right. And what we see in the beginning, especially the beginning of the twenty first century, was also commodification of the favela brand, as a brand. So this is something new that adds also like another layer of complexity to something that was already very complex. And especially because this idea that every poor person in Brazil lives in a favela is a mistake. That's not true. This idea also that every favela is about poverty and violence. That's a misconception as well. So yeah. So it's complicated.

Cruise: Well it's a uniquely Brazilian concept, then, a Brazilian term. And how would we characterize it separately from other poor neighborhoods. As you said, not every person lives in a favela but there are these unique urban settings that constitute a favela. So what exactly makes them unique, other than these perhaps stereotypical ideas of poverty and violence?

Friere-Medeiros: Well that's a challenge even for the census in Brazil in how to classify these neighborhoods. In very basic terms, what it all, they all have in common is deep informal or. Yeah. The lack of formality in terms of ownership of the land. Right. But this can mean many things, but this would be like the common ground. And and precarious sewage system, that would be another characteristic. But it varies a lot depending on where they are located in in the city. Most people have, especially international audiences, they have the idea that favelas are necessarily up in the hill with the beautiful view to the ocean.

Cruise: We often see images, pictures.

Friere-Medeiros: That's kind of the favela that inhabits the international imagination. But most favelas are in on flat grounds and they are far from the ocean. It implies also a different dynamic in terms of distribution of land or or in terms of transport or in terms of mobility within the city. Yeah. So it's it's one favela is big enough, as for instance, Rocinha where I conduct my research, there are variations within the favela itself. So you have parts which which are more urbanized, for instance, or other parts which are very precarious. So you have differences within that that space as well. I'm not avoiding the question but it's just that it's it's something. It's has been debated on within like amongst urbanists and sociologists. I don't know anthropologists, whatever. What does the term favela mean and how useful it is in terms of … it's not a concept in terms of a scientific concept. It's much more of a common sense and an idea which is very very bad in prejudice and stereotypes.

Cruise: So there's a great deal of stratification even within the favelas and they in many ways take on a life of their own in terms of governing structure and those sorts of things.

Friere-Medeiros: Yeah but that's a problematic idea too because then it comes to mind the whole ghetto idea, right. And, no, favelas are part of the city. And they are totally within the city structure and the city and that we have the saying, even, like a political statement of course "favela é cidade." So favela is city, right. And the city, like Rio, would be unimaginable without the favela population. If if all those workers stopped going to work, you know, doesn't matter which kind of activity they do, the city would just stop because it's completely dependable on that workforce. So it's not it's not a ghetto in those terms. They have the same political rights, the same social rights and civil rights. But of course we are talking about a very uneven country, right. So many things that are deemed acceptable, like police violence would be accepted if you were talking about a favela territory and things that would be totally unaccepted in the formal neighborhood quote, unquote.

Cruise: So the police is seen different. They're treated differently because they are in a favela, because there is often a racial component as well.

Friere-Medeiros: The racial component it's totally part of it and it's completely related to the militarization of daily lives in Brazil. We of course we are, we're a democratic country and we've been for over two, three decades now. But we still have this presence of the police force in very violent and arbitrary ways. And so it's very common to have on a daily basis people being killed in the favelas regardless of being related to any form of illegal activity. So this would be something that people would like, would be totally unaccepted if it were Copacabana or Ipanema or you know and yeah that's how it is.

Cruise: Well you mentioned the economic impact of many of these workers that are contributing throughout the city. We've also seen in the last couple of decades the commodification of the favelas in terms of tourism. And Westerners in many cases, but other tourists coming and looking at the favelas, taking tours throughout the favelas. Rocinha you mentioned this is one of the big ones. Tell us a little bit about how this got started and what the people inside the village feel about this. I imagine it's both an economic boon in the sense that there is money coming in. But at the same time there are strangers, international people looking in, kind of voyeurism that's taking place perhaps.

Friere-Medeiros: It's a very complex phenomenon and we're celebrating, quote, unquote, twenty five years of tourism activities because the the origin would be the 1992 Rio Summit Conference. And it has actually an interesting origin because it started as a grassroots activity led by Greenpeace and some some local groups actually to denounce the whole thing that was going on during that event. And the whole thing about the government was trying to hide the favelas and have this army and the soldiers and tanks protecting international visitors from the favela. And it backfired totally. It just made people more curious about it. But it was then that it started like the market itself. Right. So we started having this private tourism agents taking groups and charging for for it. Right.

Friere-Medeiros: So it started very very marginal in the sense that it was had nothing to do with the government in terms of sponsorship or or regulation and it had, it was like this for almost like yeah like over 15 years and it started actually getting the government involved during the mega-events phase. Right. So we started having this with the Pan American Games in 2007. And from then on the government started to be more and more involved in the activities.

Cruise: And by involved you mean regulating, taxing?

Friere-Medeiros: Not taxing but giving incentive, financial incentive, offering courses for tourist guides and things like this. But it's so. So yeah what we are talking about is a very diverse phenomenon because in Rocinha, the first one, we're talking about like the pragmatic one, for most of the time it was about private people, private agents, from outside the favela profiting over it. Right. Take international groups of tourists in different ways like on a on a Jeep, like a safari Jeep, or a walking tours or motorcycle tours with all sorts of different packages. But from the 2000s on or at least mid-2000s on we started having other favelas and having different tourism activities. And many of them having the residents themselves as like the main agents, right. The main stakeholders. So it does makes a lot of difference.

Friere-Medeiros: And so yeah and this is going back to your question about how the residents feel. It all depends. Right. And but even in Rocinha when I was doing my research in 2000 I was there between 2005 and 2009, 10. Yeah. Residents would mostly support it although they were not having any sort of profiting out of it. Right. We're talking about a very big community, it's like one hundred and seventy thousand residents, although the tourist market it's it is sold as one million people but it's nothing like that. Right.

Cruise: So the tours are coming in and not disrupting the lives of these people, and so they don't see this as being detrimental?

Friere-Medeiros: It might disrupt for those who are on the path.

Cruise: Directly yes.

Friere-Medeiros: Yeah. Right. But at this point they're completely used to it. Right. This kind of exposure. But then again it all depends some some some tourism are more invasive. Others are less invasive. There is this generation difference, too. Most young people are more willing to be like taking pics, especially the children. They are very willing to take pictures and and you know like be nice to the tourists. But there's also this, and I think this is something that needs to be highlighted, is the fact that we are talking about a community that is has been seen in the news and all over the world as does violence and an extremely violent and poor place. And they think and they imagine that tourists coming they can come have a counter image. Right. They can they can see that it's not only about violence. They can see the tourists can see it's not only about poverty they will have this more you know, I don't know, this better idea of the place. And in some ways you're right. The residents are right. Because the tourists actually they come, after the tour, they have a more complex image of the place, and a more complex understanding. But it's far from being, how can I say, it it's still you can expect much of a three hour tour.

Cruise: Right. Right.

Friere-Medeiros: Right. And it's mostly about taking pictures. It's mostly about like this visual experience, more than anything else. We have the language barrier. Most tourists come from countries where they don't know Portuguese. Residents, most of them, of course don't speak English. There isn't enough time for interaction. So it's mostly a visual and extremely sensorial experience because it also has all this, it's really overwhelming in terms of landscape and noise and and you know like the people going about. It's very intense. Yeah but it's mostly about international tourists to begin with, like Rocinha. On this more recent experiences we get to have more Brazilians joining. Usually from other parts of the country. They would call but it's more international, mostly, we're talking mostly about international tourist coming from the north. Right.

Cruise: Yeah. So it is a very complex situation, lots of people involved lots of feelings and viewpoints for sure. Well we will continue to see if if there happens to be another 25 years of favela tourism and what's to come next. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your insights with us. We appreciate your time.

Friere-Medeiros: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2017 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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