Even in wealthy areas, poverty is hard to miss in Rio. On the outskirts of the city, shanty houses have sprung up in the middle of the highway. Plastic bags, old clothes, sheets and anything else that can be salvaged are tied to pillars that line the median strip. Houses are grouped close together, maybe to denote family groups, maybe for safety. Probably both.
As we drive along in our air-conditioned minivan, people weave their way through the traffic jam selling whatever they can to drivers: bags of chips, drinks, kitchen utensils. When the traffic starts to move again they scuttle out of the way to the safety of the side of the road. It’s a dangerous job, but a way of earning money.
Poverty permeates even as we reach the tourist mecca of Copacabana. The streets are clean, but homelessness is rife, as is petty crime.
But it’s the colourful hills that overlook the city, just above the glossy hotels of Leblon, that serve as a constant reminder of Rio’s wide gap between rich and poor. The favelas are home to nearly 1.5 million people living in homes made from brick, concrete and reinforced steel. These neighbourhoods are chaotic and often lack infrastructure, with many households stealing basic amenities like electricity from neighbouring areas. Communities are close-knit, brought together through the preservation of their neighbourhood against state-sanctioned oppression and police brutality. Despite the harsh living conditions, neighbourhoods remain lively centres of cultural celebration.
In the West, stories of violence, gang warfare and police brutality dominate the favela narrative. Morbid fascination sparked by these news stories and movies like “City of God” have seen many people come to Rio wanting to see the “dark side” of the city.
Favela tours are conducted through “pacified” favelas such as Rocinha and Vidigal. Guides sell the experience as an opportunity to witness the diversity of the community and to contribute, often through a visit to a school or community centre. Tourists are rewarded with a glimpse of the “real Rio” and the knowledge that they have made a contribution through the purchase of snacks or souvenirs.
Why it’s problematic:
In a world obsessed with instant gratification, the slum tour is the “quick fix” to cultural enlightenment and moral fulfillment.
The biggest problem is the reinforcement of existing uneven power dynamics. Both the tourist and the people living in the community are reminded of their place in society. While the tourist can leave the slum when they like, the community member does not always have the power to exercise this choice.
The argument against slum tourism is not unlike the arguments against “voluntourism”. Each year, thousands of young and optimistic Australians go to countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal to participate in volunteering projects, often paying a large “administration” fee to live in a community for a short amount of time (usually several weeks) and contribute by teaching or helping out in a local orphanage, or doing manual labour. Aside from the detrimental effects of orphanage tourism on the children involved, participating in projects where the volunteer has very few actual skills in that area has little value for the community, and can even limit employment options for locals. Meanwhile, tourists leave feeling they have learned about the local culture and made a significant contribution to the community.
The second problem with slum tourism, is that the slum is seen “through the eyes of a tourist”. The tourist sees the side of the slum that the guide wants to promote, but not enough to understand what life there truly is. This can lead to a skewed understanding of the community and the perpetuation of further stigma when the tourist returns home to tell their friends about it.
One argument for slum tourism is that is drives profits back to the community. In reality, even if tourists are making purchases such as food and souvenirs in the community, the economic contribution from tourism is not enough to address the inequality that exists in the favelas. And even when the money is filtered back to the community, it is most often not a participatory process where community members have a say in where the money is spent. In fact, participation of community members in slum tourism is largely limited to the provision of goods and services to tourists. Community voices are absent from planning and decision-making, contributing to further disempowerment.
What is redeeming?
While there are many reasons not to take a slum tour, there are a couple of validating factors. Many tours promote a more positive approach to the favelas than is seen on TV and film. They showcase community projects and tell the communities’ own stories. Instead of painting community members as either criminals or victims, as reductionist news media tends to, this gives agency back to the community. Most people living in the favelas are not victims, in fact a 2013 study found that 94% state they are happy and 80% are proud of where they live.
Story-sharing is also an important aspect of the tours. By encouraging locals to tell their stories, they are putting human faces to poverty that help to break detrimental stigmas and tendencies to victimise. This helps to empower community members.
What can I do to support local communities?
There are many ways to contribute positively to slum communities:
- Donate to grass-roots and local projects.
- Volunteering for long-term, sustainable projects and applying your skills e.g. teaching English if you are a trained teacher over a medium-long term period or volunteering at a clinic if you’re a medical professional.
- Talk to as many people from the community as you can, learn their stories and share them to break down stigma.
In the end, it is up to the individual to decide whether they want to support slum tourism or not. But with the proliferation of tours being sold through hotels, travel agencies and tour operators, it is important to do your homework. There are dozens of tours available in Rio, and the more tours available, the more competitive pricing will become, meaning that local communities will receive an even smaller cut of the fare (if they receive anything in the first place). Read up on the options available, speak to other tourists and remember that if it’s cheap, there is probably a reason.
Finally, while you’re in the slum make sure you speak to locals, learn about them and share these stories with others back home. Breaking down stigma is the first step to putting power back in the hands of local communities.
Photo attribution: Favela by Anthony_goto (CC license SA 2.0)