Off The Beaten Path

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Rio in Contrast

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Perspective in Words and Photos

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Just as visible as the Christ the Redeemer statue are the many favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Also known as slums or ‘the hills” the rough shapes and colors of these distinct communities dot the picturesque city slopes when one looks in any direction save the ocean itself. These dwellings are in sharp contrast to the modern skyline and picturesque beaches that attract a world of people to Brazil’s most notable city.

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While Rio is decidedly beautiful and one of the most popular destinations in the Southern Hemisphere, it is one of the most economically disproportionate countries in the world. The top 10 percent of Brazil’s population earn 50 percent of the national income; and while the country boasts a lively gross domestic product ranking (GDP), 34 percent of its people live below the poverty line, negative attributes that continue to wreak havoc on Brazil’s positioning as an economic progressive in a modern world.

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These pitfalls are no less than notorious as often depicted accurately in the Media: Drug wars, murders, prostitution, child exploitation, police abuse, filth and despair. But even within this view are the core – people who brave the violence, to walk the steps each day to work, to school often unaware of what they might come home to find in the evening. Who would want to live in a place like this?

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Answer: A good many people. There is a familiarity of place; family, friends, tradition, contributing to where one opts to be and whether they return. Many people who seek a better life would not leave these hillsides if they could.

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These ‘nature of life’ aspects do not refute the cultural validity of favela existence but more so brings shame from the recurrent street elements that for years deterred the hillsides from becoming the working class communities — with a view, that they could be. The fact remains that Rio’s favelas are home to an enormous amount of people – where 1 in 5 Rio residents live, with the largest neighborhood, Rocinha, estimated to sustain a population of a quarter of a million people, situated adjacent to the wealthy São Conrado district.

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How did it get this way? In comparison to an estimated 645,000 African slaves transported to what is now the United States, Portugal brought approximately 4 Million slaves from Africa to Brazil. Originally a place where fugitive slaves sought sanctuary, barrios africanos evolved to consume larger areas of terrain in the late 1800s as former slaves with nothing and nowhere to go built dwellings on government land in the hills, increasing the frequency of favelas as well as the numbers of their resident populations. Business interests fueled the “push” from Downtown tourist areas as well as a rural exodus in the 1970s, further solidifying the permanence of these densely populated neighborhoods. Eradication and removal have been used in the past but attempts at public housing only served to contribute and transition to even more favela. Case in point: City of God is a classic example, as immortalized by a film of the same name.

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This is home, and preconceived attitudes of what this should mean from those with lives of privilege and excess won’t work here. Though housing varies, many of the homes are constructed of raw building materials, discarded, reused, or otherwise procured materials, ranging from flimsy to more-stable-than-you’d-think, to improved construction.

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Intentional or not, structures are often artistic; vibrant in the use of paint and necessity of design and oblivious to uniformity or concept of cookie-cut in any regard. Steps and rails, plateaued streets, water that runs its course through disconnecting pipes, and frequent appearance and smells of sewage are often aspects of favela life; as is a loose chicken awaiting its contribution to breakfast…Or dinner.

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There would seem to be no standards other than those relevant to a neighbor’s viewpoint. But what is evident amid the conflicting views are efforts towards improvement by those who look towards the future of community and do not consider “escape” an option.

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It’s a tourist’s persistent side glance viewed from the fringes, leaving the beaches pristine enough for the less imposing flavor of the Samba to seep through. Were it not for the favelas Rio might be like some other place you know. But would it be Rio? The elimination of slums often leads to gentrification, the sort of real estate development that permanently displaces needy people to places less visible. Improvement that retains a cultural dynamic contributes to a nation’s diversity, here embellishing already existent Afro-Brazilian flavor. One such neighborhood is Santa Marta, a favela now safe enough to compliment a tourist’s itinerary.

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Santa Marta was “liberated” in 2008 by the Unidade Pacificadora da Policia (UPP), armed with a public policing model that champions the cause of peace by bringing the community and police together for a common cause – elimination of the criminal element. Police present at the entrance and situated at posts throughout use surveillance, curtailment, and strategic actions that disarm the drug dealers and encourage them elsewhere. Brazil has invested millions to increase its police numbers, improve security capabilities, and enhance the cultural competencies of the force; strategic actions and not confrontational battle without end.

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Colorful graphics and designs at Santa Marta reflect a new sense of community, from a tribute to Michael Jackson’s investment (“They Don’t Really Care About Us” video shoot at Santa Marta and the Brazilian city of Salvador), to a city graphic on a wall that somehow fails to mask the bullet holes from execution murders too numerous to count…Perhaps an intentional reminder to vigilance.

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Physical and “lifestyle” improvements are in evidence, such as utility connections and circulation systems, basic services, public lighting, free rail-car service at community’s edge, housing stabilization and enhancement, and playground and sports equipment.

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Santa Marta is only one place, but the number of transitioning communities is increasing. Despite the hype to the contrary, many a hillside and low-lying area are still too dangerous for a community viewpoint beyond a drug lord’s oversight. Solutions include continued intervention to temper crime, continued transition to home ownership and improvements through investment planning that works to improve the quality of life for existing residents, affordable (de-privatized) transportation, improved educational options to eliminate disparities – historic and systemic, access to training and placement to meet the demand for (the many) skilled jobs, and improved acceptance by “the haves” of those who seek a life beyond favela walls.

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Brazil is scheduled to host the World Cup in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016. A mid-year 2011 view indicates there is still plenty to do. It is estimated that 120-130,000 jobs per year will be created in support of these Sports effort. A win-win for the Brazilian economy equivalent to $3.26 US dollars for every $1 invested…A win-win for those in need. Under the watchful eyes of the Christ statue, enough time, perspective and opportunity to forge a unified view that transitions a place once known as a slum into a viable community.

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Rio in Contrast © Pamela Kelly Phillips, 2011
All photographic images (non-video) are © Pamela Kelly Phillips, PK Phillips Photography, 2011

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