Rio de Janeiro Struggles to
Live Up to its Beauty Billing
For a city of such a staggering natural beauty, Rio de Janeiro is surprisingly picky when it comes to its public image.
The point was underlined yet again, a few months ago, when city officials complained to Google that it was giving too much prominence to its 600 or so favelas. The search engine giant obliged and its map of the Rio now displays more wealthier neighborhoods than before.
Now, in anticipation of Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games two years later, the whole country, and this beautiful city in particular, started a huge effort to do away with the shantytowns that are such an emblematic symbol of its gargantuan social gaps. Even if it has to evict thousands of people in the process.
In the past 50 years, the favelas have become a focus for ruthless and heavily armed gangs, and periodic battles among them, or gunfights with the police, leave streets littered with dead bodies and empty gun shells.
The push to rid Brazil’s big cities of such blatant focus of criminality and lawlessness is a national trend that may have only intensified during the Lula administration. But for the population at large, and social scientists with knowledge of the matter, using the army to take control by force of such neighborhoods is far from the most effective way.
In fact, there’s a prevalent feeling that such over-publicized operations are cosmetic in nature, and political in purpose, besides the fact that they too leave a fair share of dead residents in their wake.
Two recent initiatives seem to confirm this popular perception, even though both have obvious benefits for the impoverished residents: one is a public contest to attract architectural and landscape designing for the grid of winding alleys and cul-de-sacs that characterize the typical favela. Some call it a face-lift project for such a disfigured urban sprawl.
And the other is a project backed by Natura, a cosmetics firm, to train residents to become door-to-door sales reps, providing loans for them to buy the products they’d sell. The system emulates the micro-financing principles developed at Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen bank. In the process, participating women get free make-ups and beauty products too.
But reality has a way of sneaking in through the cracks of even the best of public image campaigns, or idealistic initiatives such as those above. A recent survey revealed that the Rio de Janeiro state police has a backlog of about 60,000 unsolved crimes, accumulated in a 10-year span.
Among them, 24,000 of the victims haven’t even been identified. While the Brazilian police solve about 8 percent of murders, in the U.S. and Europe, rates are reportedly around 70 percent to 80 percent. Such impunity is cause for great concern for the government and organizers of the country’s two major upcoming sports events.
The term favela, by the way, with its shantytown meaning, may have originated from a bloody historic event in the Northeast of Brazil, in 1896: the Guerra dos Canudos (War of the Straws, in free translation), a two-year conflict that pitted nomadic communities of the arid and inhospitable sertao of Brazil, and big-land owners.
Led by a charismatic leader, Antonio Conselheiro, the 20 thousand-strong group founded the town of Canudos, in Bahia state, where a thorny plant named Favela was very common. It’s possible that the plant itself was named after a Portuguese surname from the colonial era.
The landowners got the support from the Republic, which sent soldiers to end the rebellion. Better armed and prepared, they quickly turned the battle into a massacre with dismemberment and rape typical of both ancient and modern tribal wars.
The irony was that, upon returning to then capital Rio de Janeiro, the former combatants were settled near the Morro da Previdencia, and found similar living conditions to those faced by the Canudos people. The historical record becomes spotty at this point, but researchers believe that they started calling their own sub-living standards favelas.
As a save-face coda for this story, it’s also necessary to note that shantytowns are not exclusive of Rio, or Brazil, and not even the biggest one is located there. Such dubious privilege belongs to Mexico City’s Neza, with 2,5 million souls. Colombia, India, even Spain all have their own versions of such living misery.