Marvellous Rio

Rio de Janeiro: So here’s where it all started 18 years ago almost to the day when world leaders attending the Rio Earth Summit agreed to act to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was born. Two fellow backpackers sharing our hostel dormitory room in Copacabana were themselves born in 1992 – how very little climate progress has been made in a lifetime.

Stairs by a Chilean artist

Most of the climate models suggest that Brazil will be adversely affected by climate change – the heat and a reduction in rainfall leading to a gradual desertification of the green Amazon, our world’s vital lungs, and turning large swathes from forest to savannah. Perhaps the biggest climate risk that Rio citizens face is from flooding due both to sea level rise and an increase in the regularity of the kind of downpours that drowned the city in April – more than a million people live in substandard housing in Rio’s lowlands. Temperature rise here won’t be such a problem for people so used to heatwaves; it will cause many more deaths in São Paulo, according to Carlos Nobre (of INPE), one of the country’s leading climate scientists.

Christ from Copacabana beach

What is certain is that the majority of suffering and deaths from climate change in Brazil as elsewhere will be among the poorest people. Brazil is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world – the national economy grew by 9% in the first quarter of this year, but the majority of those gains are experienced by the richest 10% of the population not the one-third who live below the poverty line. In the cities of Brazil, these urban poor live in slums called favelas (after the first such settlement, which was established on a hill called Morro da Favela), made up of squatters who build incredibly dense shantytowns of increasingly robust materials. Around one in five Rio citizens lives in a favela, and while Brazil accelerates into one of the world’s largest economies, millions of faveladors are left behind in poverty with little opportunity for education, healthcare or sanitation.

A cafe in Santa Theresa (notice the owner is painted on the wall)

I set out to visit Rocinha, the largest, most prosperous and one of the oldest favelas. Visiting a favela is apparently not so straightforward and on Nick’s insistence, we recruit a guide.

Neglected old building
Monkey visiting our hostel
Monkey visiting our hostel

Marcio picks us up from our hostel near Copacabana beach and we drive through this beautiful, marvellous city whose granite mountains and expansive beaches wear the city’s high-rises and spread so very well. The sparkling buildings and long effortless beaches are nestled in forest covered mountains and boulder karsts that continue off-shore into the bay. It’s a city named after a river discovered in January, except the river turned out to be this wonderful natural harbour full of coves and sandy stretches.

Me and Nick on Sugar Loaf Mountain

With the World Cup just days away, Brazil is barely able to contain its excitement. Every street and building is lined with the yellow and green flags, street parties and impromptu samba performances have already begun in anticipation. People are glued to TVs in shops and bars, which are showing, as far as I can tell, warm-up friendlies between small African nations. To say that you’re not interested in football is tantamount to declaring you’re a psychopath – some look pityingly, others are plainly scared of the freakishness. It’s about the only country we’ve been in that Manchester United hasn’t been given as a response to our nationalities – here, there is only Brazilian football. All other countries and teams are not worthy of the sport.

Stairs from Leblon to Santa Theresa

We drive past Ipanema, and the Girl is there, young and lovely. It’s hard to spot which one she is, because everyone is beautiful, everyone is wearing very little, and everyone is posing with rightful confidence. The açaís sorbets are delicious, the green coconut juices perfectly refreshing, the caipirinhas so good, Christ is on his hill (well, half of him is covered in scaffolding and the other in cloud), what’s not to love about Rio?

Rocinha is the largest favela
Young faveladors
Young faveladors

We stop at the bottom of a hill that rises high under a tapestry of buildings so tightly packed that it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins. Marcio parks the car and we ride motor-taxis to the very top of the Rocinha favela on a main street lined with everything from banks to travel agencies selling air tickets. It’s clearly a poor neighbourhood, but not obviously different from other such districts. Marcio warns us not to take photos in certain areas and never of the young men – teenagers – who stand at the corners with walki-talkies and guns under their arms.

Looking down on the wealthiest neighbourhoods
The electricity company has installed new meters

They are members of the Amigos Dos Amigos gang that controls this favela of 250,000 people. They recruited young – more than half of 15-year-olds here are members already with a lifespan of around 10-15 years before they’re dead or in jail – and we pass several boys bristling with machismo, wearing their guns and their gunshot wounds/scars with tragic pride. They are led by Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, (‘Nem’), who has effectively evaded arrest, even faking his own death certificate. Each favela is controlled by one gang and they make good business, especially here, where they process 1-2 tonnes each of cocaine and marijuana a month, turning over a good US$ 150 million a month – tax free, of course.

So many buildings

The gangs make life dangerous and noisy for ordinary people living here. Constant war with the police, who use helicopters day and night, add to the general mayhem of bikes roaring up and down and fireworks and crackers exploding in warning of a police presence. Their reputation for violence and crime tarnishes all the residents, who are discriminated in every way from job acquisition to healthcare. In almost all situations, it’s easier to join a gang than fight an uphill battle against mainstream society for a place in its ranks. Here, unlike in US ghettos, the population is racially mixed, but the proportion of black and mixed-race people is 70% here, compared to less than 30% for the rest of the city.

Everyone has electricity

Leaving the main street, we are immediately ensconced in a labyrinth of winding alleyways and paths that lead up steep stairs through houses and out the other side. It’s too narrow for vehicles here and we step gingerly over garbage and dog shit trying to keep our feet as dry as possible. I’m glad now of Marcio in this maze of paths. Every passerby greets us with a smile or wave, music is everywhere, kids tag along for a while and cats stalk us. We stop at a grocery store to buy fresh pastries – they’re more expensive up here than in the main city, but local people can buy everything on credit, which is the only way to do business in a favela where people have fragile incomes.

Favela stores are well stocked

In comparison to slums we’ve visited in other parts of the world, this favela looks to be streets above – literally: it’s position high on the hill is advantageous because there’s no flood risk (although landslides are an issue), the view is magnificent from here and its residents paying 300 Reals a month look down on Sao Conrado, one of the most expensive bay-side neighbourhoods where rents go for 5 million Reals a month. This reversal of the usual social order of things give Rio’s favelas a unique vantage over other disenfranchised communities. We duck under trailing wires, where houses have hooked up to the few mains wires the electric companies provide – these houses sub-let their power to other households, although the electric companies are adding more connections and metres, which households are circumventing to steal directly from the wires. Mains water too is tapped into, so almost every household has running water pumped from below. There is a closed-ish sewerage system, although the stench hints at problems there. And we pass a couple of guys high up unfurling a blue wire for internet connectivity.

Building to the sky

The favelas first started at the end of the 19th century by freed slaves making their homes on what land was unoccupied. They grew larger and more concentrated during the country’s industrialisation, when the poor migrated from the countryside and were unable to pay Rio’s very high rents. Now, much of the growth is internal, people are born and raising families in the favelas. Despite the enormous problems (for example, there are only four schools in Rocinha, and none for older children), the favelas are ideally located for residents working as maids or labourers in the richest neighbourhoods, the rents are very cheap and there are no taxes because few own their own land, and in many ways the community is strong and supportive here.

Undermining any semblance of normal life, however are the lawless drug gangs that control every aspect of life here. We pass a cute three-year-old girl who cheerfully raises her fist in a hostile gang salute. The entrance to the favela is guarded by a teenager wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a machine gun.

A bus for the City of God favela

What’s the solution? Decriminalising drugs worldwide, in my opinion, but that won’t happen, of course. The ongoing war between the gangs (who are often barely out of boyhood) and the police, who are often corrupt is claiming countless lives on both sides. But Rio is newly conscious it needs to smarten its image as soon-to-be host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and is stepping up it’s war on the favela gangs. Later this year, Rocinha will be permanently occupied by police under a new ‘pacification’ programme. How successful it will be at improving the lives of the favela’s residents, is difficult to predict, but if it gives a generation of teenagers here a few years of gang-free opportunity, then it’s worth the loss of every funk carioca dance party, I reckon.

World Cup fever has intoxicated the nation

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