Published on March 12th, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut
Q&A: Douglas Mayhew, Author of “Inside the Favelas,” on Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is known for its sexy beaches and festive atmosphere. But it’s also a place where life can be difficult for some residents — especially in the legendary shantytowns, usually called favelas. In his book, Inside the Favelas, author/photographer Douglas Mayhew takes readers to places that most travelers and Brazilians themselves have never visited, except perhaps as part of an organized “favela tour.” In this exclusive interview, Mayhew talks with LatinFlyer.com about these settlements — and whether tourism really makes any difference.
LatinFlyer.com: Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have been getting more attention in recent years, with the release of movies like “Cidade de Deus” and the introduction of guided tours for visitors. What effect does this kind of attention have?
Mayhew: I’m afraid none, so far. The guided tours have really no affect on the residents – residents are leery of all things that originate “outside” the confines of their neighborhood. They are also, in many favelas that are still controlled by drug lords and arms dealers, not allowed to talk with outsiders. But in an odd way, the recent release of the animated movie “Rio” is the closest nearly all non-favela residents of Rio have come to seeing the inside of a favela, and it’s helping to change what people think about living in favelas and the people who live there — for the better. But for the international audience, I’m afraid movies about the violent side of Rio, most recently the series revolving around Rio’s elite military forces, will continue to take center stage.
How do residents of the favelas feel about the attention?
Again, they don’t have experiences on which to base any kind of feeling or reaction. In general, there persists the feeling among favela residents that the administrations of the city of Rio, the state, and the federal government don’t care about the neediest, they simply care about the “image” of a beautiful Rio, not the tough, exigent circumstances of life in the city.
Brazil has experienced something of an economic boom in recent years. Has this improved life in the favelas?
The economic boom, from the best perspective, has brought money into the country that, through some subsistence programs, has trickled down to the urban poor. The affect of such programs creates infrastructure that seeks to improve the physical conditions, better sanitation, and increased access for instance that better the existing or non-existent physical facilities in favelas. The city is moving forward to combat the high degree of criminality associated with drugs and arms dealers. The program, referred to by its acronym UPP (see the Internet for a concise description) has retaken from the drug lords key strongholds within the drug faction territories and by doing so, traffickers have had to leave these favelas and move elsewhere. The fallout is that those new areas they move to become just as dangerous — unfortunately the suburbs of Rio are the place where the traffickers are going; places once thought immune to the criminal activity found in the city.
Rio is gearing up to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. How does this affect the people who live in the favelas? Are you seeing relocation, beautification, positive and/or negative ramifications for these residents?
It’s hard for me to keep reiterating but very few things affect favela life. Not even the Olympic and Para-Olympics, the finals of the World Cup or the 2013 World Youth Conference make any difference financially or otherwise to the residents. Any difference these events make are to the tourism agencies and the politicians who control them. Tragically, I’ve seen entire communities leveled to make space for parking lots adjoining the Grand Events, as they’re called in Rio. One such community reached out graphically to express their feelings of the unknown — they spray-painted giant question marks all over their houses.
For a visitor to Rio who really wants to understand the concept of the favela and the way of life it represents, what would you recommend as a good way to do so (aside from reading your book, of course)?
The Internet is a good place to start – there are many highly informative articles that can be found on favela history, their layout, and much more. There are ways of visiting a favela that has been retaken by the government that do not, to the best degree possible, make residents feel like they are in a zoo. Too many times, open-back safari style jeeps drive through and don’t stop and everyone keeps taking photos – without the permission of the residents. A good concierge at a hotel can help those interested go to a favela — I would suggest going to Dona Marta in Botafogo — it was the first favela retaken by the government and therefore has the most evidence of social and commercial change. My advice: Wear plain clothing that doesn’t make a resident feel degraded, no jewelry except wedding rings because they’re an expression of wealth, learn a few simple words of greeting in Portuguese and, most importantly move within the neighborhoods slowly and smile — a lot.