Rio+20 – Starting in Favelas

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Friday June 15, Rio De Janeiro, Impanema district.  My first walk around the town leads me to the “favela” or shanty town close by. It is located on a hill, so I take the elevator to the top. From the elevator, the view across Ipanema and Cocacabana is breath-taking.

The favelas of Rio are like islands, most often located on the numerous hills of Rio city. Noticing the security standing at the entrance of the favela, I worry that my adventure may be reckless for a foreigner traveling alone. As a precaution I travel without any valuables except a bit of cash.  I also bring food so that I look like someone arriving for dinner with friends.  I smile and greet people that cross my path and befriend the local children.

I make my way through the labyrinth of streets, loosing my way before long. The houses are largely improvised and built on top of one another. Narrow streets, crowded with children, hardly accommodate steep staircases.  People squeeze past one another in a churning flow of pedestrian traffic.  My pulse quickens as I feel the curious gave of surprised onlookers follow me as I walk.

I do my best not to look like a tourist seeking the schadenfreude thrill of observing third world poverty first hand.  I pretend to know my way, walking straight ahead, eyes fixed on my imaginary destination. I consider the reasons I decided to come here in the first place. Was it my curiosity to see whether human conditions in favelas are as bad as many reports indicate? I must admit, I cannot say.

On the surface, the reports seem correct.  However, there are some hints that make me wonder. I cross several houses with flat screens and the people that enter and leave the favela appear like well-dressed ordinary people. This makes me assume that even though human conditions are miserable – there is no garbage disposal system and only very limited waste water infrastructure – the favelas are inhabited by ordinary people, pursuing jobs like you and I.  These neighborhoods exist because living expenses, including house prices in Rio exceed the purchasing power of ordinary people, working people.

Re-entering the elevator, a wave of relief washes over me. At the same time, I realize that this experience will accompany me throughout the conference. The people of the favelas are living representations of the maladies that Rio+20 purports to address.  These people, normal working people like you and I, will hardly be able to make their voices heard.

My acknowledgement of the day: Rio+20 should not start with official high plenaries; it should start with the people that are affected by what is actually discussed at Rio+20.  Rio+20 is supposed to be a people’s summit. Care should be taken to make sure their voices are heard.

4 thoughts on “Rio+20 – Starting in Favelas

  1. Great work, Anna! I think it’s really important that the focus should not be the politicos and their negotiations, but the people that they’re negotiating for. Looking forward to reading more from you guys!

  2. Thanks for the beautiful article – it’s always a balance of voyerism, thrill-seeking and real interest. But better err to the side of curiosity.

    Some comments:

    In South Africa, some “well-off” people still live in or close to the townships – for being close to family & friends, for example, to stay connected to their community. Also – different food, music, vibe. I heard reports about people having “weekday” apartments in rich parts of the city, and “weekend houses” in the township from which they originate. Might be a similar case here?

    There is also an economic incentive – in many parts of the world, people living in low-income communities get highly subsidized public services (at least in South Africa and Colombia) – something which is contested. I heard similar stories from Sao Paolo.

    Maybe they then spend some of the left-over money on flat screens 🙂 Also, a flat-screen is not so “expensive” when you consider that it can be used by ten people sitting in front of it, for hours. Plus, it’s a clear aspirational signal.

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