Rio de Janeiro’s winning bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games has drawn both praise and much criticism as citizens question who exactly the games will benefit. The communities that stand to lose the most are favelas, their stereotype as dangerous, overcrowded urban slums considered by many a stain on the city’s otherwise handsome image.
Italian documentary photographer Dario de Dominicis transports viewers to Providencia Hill, Brazil’s oldest favela. His images detail this vibrant and complex community, nearly a third of whose homes are slated for removal to accommodate proposed construction for the upcoming Olympics. Among Providencia Hill’s most vulnerable population are women whom poverty, unemployment, and disease affect at disproportionally high rates. Tiana Markova-Gold documents Centro de Estudos a Ação Excola, a training program certifying 20 women annually as beauticians. By providing essential health and counseling services, it’s one place advocating empowerment and cultivating long-term positive change for the favela’s women.
As Rio de Janeiro readies to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, its massive construction projects and questionable public security programs are turning global attention to the city’s massive wealth gap and deeply-rooted class divides.
A beachfront paradise enchanting tourists and locals alike with seductive samba, lush vegetation, great wealth, and never-ceasing sun, it’s no wonder Rio de Janeiro is known as cidade maravilhosa, “marvelous city”. But this pervading image of Rio as a tropical idyll masks a much different reality. With the majority of its citizens contained in a sprawling maze of favelas spilling over the city’s bordering hilltops, great disparity contests the halcyon stereotype. As Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city, readies to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, its massive construction projects and questionable public security programs—all directed at the favelas—are turning global attention away from the allure of sandy beaches and onto the city’s massive wealth gap and deeply-rooted class divides.
Slave-Era History of Brazil’s Favelas
Favelas date back to the late 1800s when newly emancipated slaves created their own bairros africanos, or African neighborhoods by putting up makeshift homes on unclaimed land bordering Rio de Janeiro’s center. Lacking the education and employment necessary to partake in Brazilian society, they instead created their own self-sufficient and self-regulated communities. Offering freedom and fraternity, the area, known as Providencia Hill, continued drawing former slaves and lower class Brazilians. Generations of communal living among these two groups eventually resulted in a new Afro-Brazilian culture with its own customs, religion, dance, music, and art.
Today, approximately 1.4 million people occupy Rio de Janeiro’s 600 favelas. The same focus on community and self-reliance from which the favelas originally emerged characterizes their people to this day. “It’s incredible, the level of ingenuity and resourcefulness they have,” said Dave Zirin, author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. “People rally around bare land and within months install plumbing for the whole neighborhood and they do it all without the resources of a centralized government.”
This absence of authority allowed organized crime groups called milicias to flourish in favelas, bringing with them violence and a burgeoning drug trade. By some estimates, drug sales within Brazil’s favelas bring in upwards of $150 million each month. Competition is fierce in such a lucrative market where rival gangs and bystanders become victims. Six thousand people are killed in Rio de Janeiro each year—twelve times the homicide rate in Chicago—making it the most dangerous city in the world’s seventh most violent country.
“Pacification” and the upcoming olympics
Brazil’s government could not ignore such alarming figures for long, especially as media scrutiny increased with the Olympics’ approach. In 2008, as part of its largest and most controversial program, they established the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs). Inspired by a similar program in Colombia, these specially trained, armed forces “pacify” favelas by bridling gang activity with their permanent presence.
The UPPs have proven effective on some fronts. Since the program’s inception, the World Organization Against Torture has noted a drop in Rio’s homicide rates. Additionally, analysis of 2012 election results show that UPP-controlled areas exhibit greater variance in candidate selection than favelas lacking police presence, suggesting a decrease in democratic corruption.
But the program has drawn much criticism by some, including Alexandre Ciconello, a human rights adviser at Amnesty International Brazil, calling it a “military occupation.” “The UPPs are meant to contain violence, but you have civilians caught in the crossfire of these shoot-outs between police and gangs,” he says.
The UPPs’ over-aggressive policing tactics, racial profiling, and unwarranted searches are well documented. Additionally, while the country’s overall homicide rate has decreased, a demographic breakdown reveals a Brazilian’s chances of being killed varies wildly by race. While in the past decade homicides have decreased 24% among whites, they’ve increased 40% among blacks, who make up over nearly 70% of favelas’ population.
Residents have good reason to be mistrustful of authority. A military dictatorship in the 1970s resulted in aggressive eradication policies that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents. Even seemingly well-intentioned programs in the past have proved disappointing. At one point, favela residents were relocated to public housing projects that, without necessary support, investment, and maintenance by the government, quickly deteriorated, becoming new favelas.
“There are three players at hand here: the government, the gangs, and the people,” says Ciconello. “The government’s preoccupied with public security, but that’s a war against the gangs. The millions of residents, they’re overlooked. There’s no effort with them.”
Rio’s favela population has increased by nearly 28% in the past decade, compared to just 3.4% population increase within the city as a whole. The government’s failure to provide much needed public services—health, education, and infrastructure—is exacerbated in the face of a growing problem.
Rather than use the influx of publicity and capital that come with hosting the Olympic games as an opportunity to invest in its largest population, Rio’s gentrification efforts threaten entire neighborhoods. Some 19,000 families have already been displaced to make way for development projects such as trolley systems and housing. In total, construction is projected to affect nearly 260,000 households by 2016, many of them headed by residents old enough to remember the forced relocations of the 1970s. Additionally, the UPP project has only secured funding through 2016, worrying some that it’s in fact a public relations campaign meant to placate tourists and the media until the closing ceremonies. But in the government’s perhaps most telling move, recent construction has included installment of strategically placed walls around the favelas, seemingly to hide them from public view.
“It’s a shame,” says William Reis of the AfroReggea Cultural Group, a nonprofit organization promoting black culture in Rio’s favelas. “People don’t hire you if you live in a favela, don’t trust you.”
Decades of negligence and discrimination in favelas by the government have caricatured their public image, type-casting the population as the base inhabitants of lawless shantytowns pervaded by drugs and violence. According to one survey, 79% of people who have never visited a favela reported having a negative view of them. But of those that had experienced the very communities Rio officials are building walls to hide, 72% responded positively.
“But we have much beauty too. Neighbors watch each other’s kids, dance together, help build homes...It’s a family,” Reis says. “That’s what you can’t see.”
For more information
Centro de Estudos a Ação Excola:
Amnesty International Brazil:
AfroReggae Cultural Group: