Rio de Janeiro’s mountainside favelas are putting out the welcome mat for tourists
THEY are proud of the bronze Michael Jackson statue that stands on the edge of a little square in the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro.
‘‘It’s the only one in Rio,’’ says Thiago Firmino, 32, a DJ, local resident and our tour guide. Its arms stretch out to embrace a dizzying view of Rio, and of the shanty town that tumbles down the hillside below. On the wall behind it is a Michael Jackson mosaic.
It was here that director Spike Lee filmed scenes for the video to Jackson’s 1996 hit They Don’t Care About Us. Rio authorities originally opposed the video because they felt filming in a favela would show a negative side of the city, which at the time was bidding to host the 2004 Olympics.
Nearly two decades later, with both the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympics set to be staged here, Rio is no longer quite so ashamed of its favelas. Officially, it has 763 (according to the 2010 census), and they are home to almost 1.4 million people, or 22 per cent of the city’s population.
Lee’s video plays on a loop in the tourist shop that Thiago’s parents run on the square, Praca Cantao. The alleyways in which Jackson danced seem little changed but lower down, a square at the foot of the favela has been brightened up with a 7000sq m lick of paint.
The Favela Painting art project, created by Dutch duo Haas&Hahn, with the aim of boosting community pride, has seen 34 houses painted in a rainbow of bright colours.
In 2008, Santa Marta was the first favela in Rio to be ‘‘pacified’’ under a state program to expel its drug gangs by installing a police base and initiating social change projects. Since then, another 34 favelas have been pacified. Santa Marta is held up as the model and has become a stop-off for visiting celebrities, such as Madonna and Beyonce.
They come to see the effects of pacification: creches, new houses, concrete steps instead of treacherous muddy tracks, and a free tram that glides up at a 45 per cent angle to help its 6500 or so residents get up and down what is essentially a 1000m mountain covered in rough brick, breezeblock and even wooden houses, just below the Christ the Redeemer statue.
In what used to be one of Rio’s most violent slums, residents are turning to tourism. Today, Thiago’s clients are two Dutch tourists, and he has recruited student Pedro Monteiro to translate. The Dutch wander wideeyed through the favela. ‘‘I like it very much,’’ says Mirko van Denderen, a teacher. ‘‘The strange buildings . . .’’
Both peek into Thiago’s house, impressed by the contrast between its rugged raw-brick exterior, and its neat living room, fitted kitchen and flatscreen television. ‘ ‘ The majority of houses are cool inside, all done up,’’ says Thiago. ‘‘It demystifies it.’’
Tours such as Thiago’s offer a glimpse of another side of Brazilian life. But tourists should be aware these are tours of places where very poor people live, which some might find difficult. It’s very useful to have a guide who lives in the area: they’ll be accepted by local people, and are unlikely to gloss over issues the favela faces.
Pedro points out handmade signs protesting at the forced removals of dwellings that perch precariously at the very top of Santa Marta. ‘‘Property speculation,’’ says Thiago.
This used to be one of Rio’s most violent slums, and was controlled by the Commando Vermelho (Red Command) drug gang. Now, like Thiago, residents of pacified favelas such as this are turning to tourism.
Roberto de Conceicao is carrying his shopping up the hill. He likes the tours and says: ‘‘We meet new people. Thiago is from here.’’ Paulo Roberto is selling mobile phone cases, pens and Santa Marta T-shirts designed by his 11-year-old son, on a little stall. ‘‘We are more and more involved. I live from this now,’’ he smiles.
The alleyways get narrower as we descend. Children in flip-flops push past talking football. An old woman is carried along on a chair. Humanity teems in the narrow alleys. Everything is tiny: a barber shop, an electrical products stall, a bedroom with three small bunk beds.
‘‘Every part of the community has a name,’’ says Pedro, as he pauses in front of a wall. ‘‘This was called Beirut.’’ The building behind which traffickers used to hide in is now used for boxing and judo. Outside the Bar Cheiro Bom (Good Smell Bar) Pedro points out bullet holes in a wall.
‘ ‘ This was says Thiago.
‘‘Now there is always a police car and a camera.’’ The Dutch visitors are taken back up the hill on the tram. ‘‘It feels a bit voyeuristic, seeing how poor the people are, but it is part of the country,’’ says bank worker Willem van Durren.
Santa Marta slum houses transformed by the Favela Painting art project