Sunday, November 13, 2011

How Tourism, The World Cup, and The Olympics Could Reshape Rio's Favelas

Police have taken over Rio de Janeiro's largest favela (legal slum), Rocinha, as part of a program to rid drug traffickers from several favelas ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
Rocinha's location has made it one of the most lucrative and largest drug distribution points in the city.
"Rocinha is one of the most strategically important points for police to control in Rio de Janeiro," said Paulo Storani, a security consultant and former captain in the elite BOPE police unit leading the invasion. "The pacification of Rocinha means that authorities have closed a security loop around the areas that will host most of the Olympic and World Cup activities."
Some estimates say the Friends of Friends gang brings in more than $50 million in drug sales annually in Rocinha and Vidigal alone. Much of the drugs are sold to tourists staying in the posh beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana and to middle- and upper-class Brazilians who live there.
I had the opportunity to take a tour through Rocinha when I was in Rio almost 3 years ago.

The favela I saw was bustling, functional city-within-a-city. Although the stench of piled garbage (handled by bulldozers instead of garbage trucks) stuck to the hot air, it was hard not to be impressed by the dizzying streets and buildings, complete with vendors, restaurants, wi-fi cafes, and even a bank and a fast-food chain.

Although my tour guide avoided mentioning the drug cartel presence in Rocinha, he introduced me to family members, friends, and NGO workers in the neighborhood. This all helped to highlight the surprisingly robust community that has endured despite economic and social hardships.

Now it appears that backpackers, tourists, and even citizens of Rio have taken personal (and economic) interest in other poor Rio communities.
For the past five months, Abreu has led tours of favelas for clients of the advertising agency at which she works, NBS. They have included the Oi telecom company, the fast-food restaurant chain Bob's, and Coca-Cola. NBS' goal has been to show off the potential in favelas such as Providencia, which is to be revamped along with the nearby port. 
"The regular citizen that's living his life in this town needs to know and see with his own eyes what's happening here," she said, stopping to chat during a recent tour. 
Providencia, with its sweeping views of downtown Rio, was a fast sell for visitors such as Mariane Maciel, another NBS employee, who predicted that favela residents would soon enter the lower middle class. Raoni Lotar, 30, who works at Coca-Cola, said it was clear from what he had seen that the favelas were being "integrated into our city."
However, I do wonder how smooth the integration of the favelas into the rest of Rio de Janeiro will be.
"It's a huge experimental stage. Everything is new," said Daniela Tavares, a city economist overseeing new programs in the favelas. "It's a new environment for all of us, for the community, the government, all of us."
Despite the recent growth of the Brazilian economy, how many current favela residents will actually be able to enter the lower middle class? How many people working informal jobs will be "formalized"? How many buildings will be razed for the sake of "zoning deficiencies" and replaced with highrise condos located near some of the most valuable real estate in all of Latin America?

Artists and backpackers have taken up residencies in some of these safer favelas. Will it continue to be "cool" and "edgy" to move into these micro-communities, to the point where waves of artists all over Brazil and the world flock to the neighborhood for cheap rents and favorable exchange rates, and create a bohemian bubble indifferent to the local communities (see also Istanbul, Turkey)?

Regardless, removing organized crime from the favelas closest to future Olympic tourist areas is a wise idea that will legitimately improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

I just wouldn't be surprised if the favelas themselves are removed over time.

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