Is 'Poorism' a voyeuristic expedition to see people less fortunate than ourselves or is it a sustainable form of tourism that will benefit residents of impoversihed neighbourhoods?
You would be forgiven for imagining that a holiday to Rio de Janeiro involved relaxing on Ipanema beach, trekking up Sugar Loaf Mountain or attempting to dance the Samba. Now it seems however, a new trip is the highlight of a tourist’s voyage to Brazil’s carnival hot spot, a ‘Favela tour’.
There are numerous tour operators in Rio de Janeiro who offer blood thirsty tourists the opportunity to see ‘The real City of God’, Favela’s, or slums in Brazil made famous by Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film The City of God.
Favela’s remain a mystery to people who don’t live there. In fact they remain a mystery to many people from around Latin America. Locals steer clear of the neighbourhoods but foreigners have always shown more interest in Rio’s impoverished underbelly.
Marcelo Armstrong is the pioneer of tours in Favela’s in Rio. Brazilian born he spent many years witnessing poverty in different cultures and returned to Brazil in 1992 to launch Favela tour.
Armstrong prides his company on being ethical; he has trained residents of the Favela’s to help on the guided tours and finances Para Ti Community School in Rocinha which teaches children handcrafts that can be sold to tourists on their visits.
The school of Samba was born in Favela’s and you can witness performances when you visit. As you walk the streets of any Favela in Rio you will hear Samba music blaring from any window. Samba schools that perform at Carnivals are more often than not originated from nearby Favela’s.
In 2008 Rio’s police investigated after a Brazilian reporter went undercover on one of the Cities Favela tours. The reporter claimed he witnessed the tour guide introducing ‘Witless gringos’ to a member of the drug faction that controls Rocinha and watched as they posed for photos holding their machine guns.
Rocinha, a slum in Rio de Janeiro is the biggest Favela in Latin America. With 21 neighbourhoods it is considered to be Rio’s largest most densely populated urbanised slum with an estimated population of 1 million people crammed into a rugged landscape of only 0.80 square miles. A Government census estimates that 56,000 people inhabit the neighbourhood yet it is known that up to 1 million actually live there, crammed into buildings as high as eleven stories high.
A Government census in 2000 ranked Rocinha 6th worst in the Human Development Index (HDI) with 6,000 residents suffering health related disabilities.
More recently in 2008 a Government census measuring the HDI of approximately 510 of Rio’s 800 slums found Rocinha ranked 310th from the top, significantly below the average HDI.
Brick and concrete have now replaced the wooden shanties that originally lined the streets, and they now have basic sanitations such as water, electricity and plumbing since 1990 when the Government realised that the inhabitants weren’t going anywhere.
The main section between Rocinha is Cowboy Lane, a busy commercial centre with 1300 shops and three bus lines. You can witness people selling crafts and homemade produce, performing and be witness to a real slice of Brazilian culture and the talent that comes out of the slum neighbourhoods of Latin America.
Since the 1980s when guide books suggested cunning ways for tourists to sneak a peek at Favela’s without actually going in ‘Poorism’ has been a growing trend.
Within years tour companies have began offering visitors the chance to talk to locals, visit social projects and buy authentic art, i.e. dirt cheap art from hard working Brazilians full of dreams.
‘Poor guides’ charge around £30 a head to take you on a guided tour of ‘The City of God’. That includes transportation and ‘a fully trained guide’ who can educate you of the history of Favela’s. The question of course, is who gets the £30, the tour operator or the residents of the slums who welcome eager tourists into their homes?
In May 2008, reporter Tom Phillips described in the Guardian of being approached by a dishevelled looking North American claiming to be an ‘Alternative’ tour guide. He was taking a young English couple to meet some gangsters and invited the reporter along for the ride. Tom Philips described how the guide offered them cocaine as he stopped to take the drug before taking them on a whirlwind tour of the homes of alarmed looking residents of Rocinha.
The real City of God
The Movie, based on the book of the same name documented the bloody struggle between cocaine traffickers that ravaged the community during the seventies and eighties was nominated for four Oscars upon its release.
The actual Favela that was made famous by the Oscar nominated movie is Cidade de Deus, a slum which at the beginning of this year was rid of drug traffickers who for nearly four decades controlled the Favela and its people.
Brazil’s Favela’s are notorious for being drug havens and associated with gang warfare. Police patrol most outskirts of slums but don’t venture inside where marijuana and cocaine are bought and then sold to middle class Brazilians. Confrontations are extremely violent and frequently result in death. The criminal underworld is both protected and secluded by the Favela’s but in reality less than 1% of the residents are involved in the drug trade.
In January this year however the police flew a Brazilian flag above Citade de Deus, proclaiming its freedom from the traffickers. Citade de Deus is now inhabited with police who have a permanent residence and up to 700 troops who have recently been deployed in the Favela. They aim to build trust with the residents and gather intelligence in the hope of rebuilding other slums. The City of God is the first step to conquering the drugs trade within the Favela’s of Brazil.
The movement by Brazil’s government has not been viewed as a positive one by all, most seeing the plan as a costly marketing ploy by media savvy government rather than one to help the residents of the Favela. Arguing that the ‘City of God’ was only chosen due to its notoriety which would in turn gain coverage by the world’s media.
In the battle against drug traffickers the police have launched ‘Hit and run’ attacks on Favela’s. According to official figures the police are guilty of killing over 1,000 people each year in such raids.
The history of Favela’s
Favelas were created in the late nineteenth Century with a history of racism and resistance when ex African slaves had been released from formal slavery with no land ownership or options for work. They set up home on land in self build shanty towns. Favellas were originally named ‘Bairros Africanos, translated into African neighbourhoods and since then have grown into impoverished settlements.
These places of irregular and poor quality housing are often crowded onto hillsides and as a result the areas suffer from frequent landslides during heavy rain.
From a rooftop in Rocinha you can see the line of demarcation between the poor and the rich, who live in high rise buildings on the other side of the road in Sao Conrado.
Brazil is one of the most economically unequal counties in the world with 34% living beneath the poverty line. Because of this factor the population of Favela’s are growing much faster than that of the surrounding areas. There are about 800 Favela’s in Rio alone, with an estimated third of the City’s population living in them.
The disparities in public health conditions and education for those adjacent communities are startling. The massively over congested communities face dire health related problems and with no local hospital or on call doctor the problems do not seem to be getting any better.
Residents have an average of only 4.1 years of formal education and with less that 1% earning any education over a high school standard it’s not surprising that jobs that pay a liveable wage are reserved for citizens with higher levels of formal education and those not living in Slums. Most Favela residents struggle by earning less than three hundred dollars a month.
If you live in a big house in Rio, the lady who cleans the house is likely to live in a Favela, if you are on holiday in Rio and stay in a big hotel, the workers who serve your dinner will live in a Favela.
World Wide ‘Poorism’
Brazil is not the only country with a trend in ‘Poorism’. The fashion to observe people less fortunate is also popular in India, Ethiopia, Nairobi, Johannesburg and even Counties who have been victim
to natural disasters such as hurricanes or tsunamis are popular. After Hurricane Katrina Louisiana became a big ‘Poorism’ site.
Township tourism in South Africa emerged in post apartheid South Africa and Namibia. South African settlements are still visibly divided into wealthy and historically white suburbs and poor historically black townships because of the effects of the apartheid and racial segregation.
Before 1994 it was rare for tourists to visit townships. Now however the South African tourism industry sees the townships as a resource for attracting tourism revenue, much like Brazil and the Favela tourism trend.
Critics say ‘Poorism’ is likened to a type of voyeurism, exploiting people less fortunate, taking photos as memories but leaving the residents of some of the most economically deprived places in the world nothing in return.
Like Favela tour some companies use portions of their profits to help the communities however. It’s also argued by supporters that tourism in some of the poorest parts of the world raises social awareness for the residents of the neighbourhoods.
Is it merely a voyeuristic expedition to see people in the lowest walks of life? Is there a thrill in seeing starving people in living conditions that are the worst you could imagine?
Regardless of its controversy, this tourist trade is growing quickly, with many agencies springing up to offer tours of impoverished areas. Questions remain as to whether such tours will evoke world change or will further distance those who can afford to travel from those who cannot afford decent living conditions or enough food.