Usually possessing more or less informal types of housing and close-knit communities, favelas, a term specific to Brazil, continue to mark the collective imagination. In our geography books, we are shown heaped up shelters made of waste material extending out of sight. In the media, we most often associate them with violence and the dominance of drug cartels. Seen from the outside, it is difficult to really understand how a favela functions without ever having lived in one. However, these “cities within cities” are experiencing a process of pacification with police intervention dismantling the organized crime networks rampant in the areas. Initially forgotten, avoided, and dangerous, today’s favelas are more and more permeable, and they are associated with thoughtful urban projects, such as in the case of the Complexo do Alemão.
Like many cities in Brazil, the history of Rio de Janeiro is closely linked to its favelas. They developed beginning in the middle of the 19th century when the municipality’s policies for urban reform chased the poorest populations that converged on the morros (hills) in the outskirts of the center and the southern coastline (Copacabana and Ipanema). Indeed, the center and southern coastlines were, and still are, home to the most well-to-do social categories. The phenomenon grew with the rural exodus of poor workers experienced by Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century, lasting until the 1940s when the country reached a high point in development. In 1947, the communist influenced Brazilian state recognized the favelas and took a census of one hundred and nineteen of them in Rio de Janeiro, amounting to 14% of the population. Due to strong inflation, poverty grew (despite the end of the military dictatorship and stabilized demographic expansion) leading to further expansion of the favelas. They occasionally joined together, giving rise to what are called the Complexos.
Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas made up of fifteen communities, includes more than 69,000 people in 21,272 homes over an area of 296 hectares. Standing on a group of hills, the site was initially an important Carioca industrial hub in the 40s. The demographic explosion of poor workers, accompanied by urban violence, contributed to the departure of industry and to the progressive isolation of the area, which was left to the control of narco-traffickers. The increase of violence and of conquest attempts by police made the neighborhood famous, especially in 2007, when there were about fifty victims.
Faced with these extra-legal zones, the government accelerated its policy of pacification by creating the Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP, Pacifying Police Units) in 2008. These units unique to Rio de Janeiro, are made up of nearby police dedicated to the fight against organized crime. Together with the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, the government wants to reinvest in the favelas and return them to their local governments to make them neighborhoods like any other. Launched in 2007, the PAC aims to develop economic growth linked with sanitation, housing, energy, and transportation.
In 2010 a large pacification operation was launched to bring the Complexo do Alemão under the control of the UPPs. Its great success helped to make Complexo do Alemão the spearhead of government pacification policies. Even cinema has taken up the subject, as demonstrated by the release of a film about the police operation last month. Based upon this reconquest, authorities have decided to develop an urban project on the Complexo centered around the following areas: education, sporting activities, health, housing, socio-economic development and transportation. The key area of transportation is represented by the urban cable car, which unites the project’s other elements.
With its hilly topography and dense urban fabric, it is eligible for this kind of transportation infrastructure. The installation of stations at high points allows service to the area in a fast and efficient manner without engendering too many demolition projects in the existing built environment. Taking inspiration from Medellin, Colombia, the project, designed by the architect Jorge Mario Jauregui, consists of six stations connecting from the multimodal hub of Bon Successo (suburban train) to Palmeiras, the final stop for the cable cars. They have the capacity to transport ten people (or about 30,000 passengers a day) resulting in a travel time of nineteen minutes from one end to other. Taking up the architect’s philosophy for the project, the stations have the goal of becoming new neighborhood centers, integrating facilities, services, and recreational infrastructure. Also acting as centers of positive influence, the stations seek to spread community conviviality created throughout the Complexo. In Palmeiras for example, you can find a library in the station, surrounded by an artisanal market, sporting fields, and new public spaces. Close by, UPP stations remain present permanently to maintain order and security.
In regards to price ranges, upon the presentation of a document proving their residence, favelados (residents of favelas) benefit from daily round-trip tickets costing one real, while other users pay five reals.
The project, begun in 2011 by the president Dilma Rousseff, shows the Brazilian state’s strong commitment to recovering these areas that escaped their control. The project seems to be a success from the point of view of its goals and social integration. However, a visit to the site reveals a completely different reality.
Visiting the Complexo do Alemão allows us to approach the favela from the viewpoint of its urban organization combined with urban transportation infrastructure. The favela is easy to access from Rio de Janeiro’s multimodal transportation center, the Central do Brasil, where one can easily make a transfer from a train to the car. The rail company in charge of the suburban trains hails its accessibility on posters that declare, “Complexo do Alemão as the new postcard of Rio.” This expression was already used in the press by the Vice-Governor during the project’s inauguration.
Once you set off in the car, you discover a unique urban landscape, a group of homes occupying all of the space available in the middle of a confusion of roads and alleys. Some public facilities emerge and stand in stark contrast with the rest of urban fabric. Arriving at the last stop of the cable car, the view is impressive as the favela extends out of view. The network of cable car stations dominates the area, as the original development project intended. We are still in Rio, and despite the point of view, it is difficult to see its center.Upon thinking about the designation seen in the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s station, the description of a “postcard” becomes unsettling, or even perverse. In fact, it confronts the visitor with the goal of his or her visit. Does one expect to find the remains of the violent climate seen in the media, or to stumble upon drug barons like in the movie City of God? Even among Brazilians, opinions differ. Some do not understand the interest of such a visit: “Why visit a favela to see poor people? I don’t see the point,” said one. Another said, “I've always wanted to see what they looked like. It could be interesting.”
From this moment on, we can understand the origin of this uneasiness. It’s not necessarily the fact of visiting a favela that poses a problem, but how to visit one. The urban cable car possesses a double function. Firstly, it is an indispensable means of mobility for the population that also houses neighborhood facilities. Yet the cable car also serves to showcase the government’s peacekeeping policies by transforming them into a sort of touristic safari. The tourists securely look from afar on an area they will never set foot upon. This Disneyland-like journey approaches a dogmatic fantasy, but never truly reaches its core. But all the same, there is nothing to fear for tourists as UPP offices are found at each station, perched on their hills like impregnable fortresses constantly keeping an eye on the urban maelstrom.
Do you consider efforts to promote favela tourism to be disrespectful or problematic? Why or why not?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.