Sunday, 12 May 2013

Favela Life

The Background Story - a Brief Intro into the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

                                                     Favela collage, MAR museum, Rio

I shall start from the beginning. The earliest favelas (slums) in Rio were formed in the late 19th century when masses of soldiers and ex-slaves from the North of Brazil migrated southwards towards the city in hope for better economic prospects. The word 'favela' comes, apparently, from a prickly bush in the North of Brazil. Favelas have always been a thorny issue in Brazil - an ever-expanding mirage of makeshift dwellings on the steep hills of Rio, they are home to drug gangs, police invasions, shootings, demolition, and now 'pacification' and 'gentrification' - a process of 'cleansing' the swanky Zona Sul in the build up to the World Cup and Olympics, pushing the violence into the suburbs.

Art is used to denounce the gentrification and middle-class takeover of the favelas, forced evictions and police racism - MAR museum, Rio

Many favelas in Rio work like this. The 'Dono do morro', or owner of the favela (morro = hill), is a drug lord. Since the police don't do their rightful job of protecting & preventing crime in the favela, this is taken care of by the Dono do Morro, aside from presiding over the drug trade. His job is to protect the favela and all its inhabitants from crimes that he deems unacceptable. Each favela is a law unto its own - the Dono will set out his rules by example. In Rocinha (the largest favela in Latin America, with over 200,000 inhabitants), rape is unacceptable, and is apparently met with the following sentence: being rolled up inside a tyre and burned to death. I would like to think that no crime merits that punishment.

Morro dos Prazeres, a favela up the road from me.

However, neither drug consumption nor dealing are deemed crimes, and both go on in broad daylight. If you want your cocaine fix, simply ask the child runner at the entrance of the favela. This child is either paid a handsome sum or, as a friend witnessed, with a line of cocaine. The Dono has people working for him in all corners of the community, and pays his workers generously. Who wouldn't give up their minimum wage job (currently R$622, or £210 per month) to earn R$1000 per week doing virtually nothing? Such a vast difference in the two income options is also what corrupts the police, who are also paid a measly base salary of R$964 (£320)  a month, one of the lowest police salaries in Brazil - just enough to cover rent in Rio. And life in Rio is certainly not cheap - food, transport and accommodation prices are soaring. The whole procedure is risk free- there is often an extensive network of spies - again, often children - who will light bangers to warn the community if they see the police coming. Most of the time, the drug lords receive a tip off long before the police arrive to give them a chance to get away. 

"Lilia", who used to live in the favela close by, told me the drug lord took a liking to her son and started playing with the child on a daily basis. Luckily, she had the foresight to get out of this situation and leave the favela for good - she did not want her child to be groomed as the Dono's right-hand boy, nor put herself at risk by refusing. She now lives over 2 hours away, but continues to commute to work in Santa Teresa despite the travel costs.

With Pacification, this is now changing. The UPP - specially trained 'Pacification' police officers, supposedly university-educated and idealistic - are stationed within the favelas. The aim of Pacification is to return law and order to the State, with the UPP police working alongside the residents of the favela to strengthen the community, weaken the influence of the traficantes and change the negative image that residents have always had of the police. Pacification has been successful in this respect - many of the traficantes have ceased to operate in the favelas where the UPP are stationed, and are either in jail or in hiding. Many of the favelas which used to be plagued night and day with gunfire are now peaceful, with children playing in the streets without fear of getting hit by stray bullets. The film Elite Squad, the sequel to the film City of God, depicts how relations between the favelas and police were filled with mistrust and gunfire.

Although it cannot be denied that Pacification has been largely successful in reaching its objective of peace in the favelas, it is by no means flawless. It is said that the Donos continue to operate their trade from behind bars - it is in fact a safer existence for them in prison, and they are unlikely to be reformed by the time they are released. The drug trade has not disappeared, but continues to flourish covertly. The UPP are by no means exempt from tales of corruption- if the Dono pays his monthly bill, the police remain quiet. Many favela residents complain of an increase in petty crime, as the police are not as effective at enforcing law and order as the drug lords were. The longevity of the pacification is another great concern. It is argued that the Pacification process is simply temporarily relocating the gangs, drug trade and gunfire away from the tourist areas which will host the World Cup and Olympics to the sprawling slums in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Only time will tell. For an insight into the controversy surrounding the ‘Pacification’ and ‘Gentrication’ of the favelas, see the short documentary Public Domain.

'Pacification' police at the entrance to a favela. Slogan reads 'It is possible to beat crack'

However, not all in favelas is doom and gloom; where the state is absent, NGOs and grassroots community organisations (and of course, the Church) have stepped in. The heart of samba is found in the favelas, with samba schools organising events, dinners and rehearsals throughout the year. Born out of necessity, recycled materials are used in ingenious ways and transformed into art. The mini-houses below are made out of recycled materials by the woman's collective in the community centre where I worked, the Atalie Mulheres de Santa, and sell for handsome sums in the tourist markets of Rio.
An example of the mini house built in the JO community centre. They also made beatiful artistic paper out of recycled cardboard, which is sold  in the boutique stores in Ipanema.

One of the most impressive projects I saw in Rio was that of the Project Morrinho. Whilst walking along the South Bank in London last year, I came across a mini-favela built out of bricks right outside the National Theatre. I stopped to take it in. It's details seemed endless: this life-like favela was complete with people, churches, sexual health clinics, baile funks, graffiti, schools, police fights, drug traffickers, bars and slogans demanding social justice. When I arrived in Rio, I found out that the ProjetoMorrinho was born a 10 minute walk away from my hostel, and I decided to visit it and meet Cilan, the founder of the project. According to Cilan, it all started out as a children's game. Faced with a lack of alternative forms of entertainment, Cilan and his friends created a world out of the redundant bricks lying around their favela in which they could simulate gun fights and muck around. The mini-favela grew and grew. It has since transformed into a large-scale project, taking him and his team around the major cities of Europe to recreate the favelas of Rio and demonstrate that Art can be used to promote social change. The installation in the South Bank was built in collaboration with a group of disadvantaged youths from Lambeth. 

This was in the entrance to the project's headquarters in the favela Pereira da Silva, Rio. The signs read "Project Morrinho. The fight is only over when life finishes" / "Focus, strength and faith".

Project Morrinho's headquarters, in Favela Pereira da Silva, is the hut at the top of the hill. Humble on the outside, inside it contains the latest Apple technology and all material relating to the project. It is surrounded by the original mini-favela. Most of the work had been destroyed due to rain and falling mangos, but Cilan said he would repaint it in the dry season.

The installation at the MAR museum

Art is used in a similarly constructive way by the Dulcinéia Collective, who worked with the community in Morro da Providencia, the oldest favela of Rio, to create this impressive array of hand-made books. All profits go supposedly go back into the community. (Whether or not the literature is appreciated by the community is a different matter). Here they are on display at the MAR museum:

                                      Book covers created by the residents of Morro da Providencia, MAR museum

The documentary ‘Waste Land’ is a must-see for anyone interested in exploring the potential of Art as a medium for social transformation. Renowned Brazilian artist Vik Muniz travelled to Jardim Gramacho in Rio, the largest landfill site (or rubbish dump) in the world, to work with the team of litter pickers there who fight through mountains of putrifying rubbish for little reward. I say no more – watch the film. Here's the trailor:

Finally, here's a snapshot of favela life - or at least my time spent working there - to leave you with. I was sitting at the bar attempting to learn to play the cavaquinho (Brazilian ukulele ubiquitous in samba and choro music) with Niger, the Brazilian volunteer at the Community Centre I worked in. An old man started joining in with one of the sambas we were singing, and we struck conversation. He proceeded to recount his life story: he was orphaned at 10, was a slave to the drug trade, went to prison, sold his younger sister for sex, but managed to turn his life around, holding down a low-paid but honest job and support a family. Not the story you expect to come from an afternoon of music making, but you have to remember that joy and suffering are both an integral part of life here, each experienced to the extreme.
Niger playing samba 'Canto das 3 racas' on the cavaquinho in the street of J.O.

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