The Pacification of Rio's Favelas

Weekends like this. Locked up in my room, or in various cafes, with a constant intake of caffeine to keep my fingers tapping on the keyboard to the rhythm from my tinny laptop speakers. Right now: J-Live.

Yesterday I worked about 12 hours on a single post, a general introduction to the aid transparency movement over at Global Voices. Today and tomorrow I have two more mega-posts.

In between the research and the misery, I’ve found a little asymmetry – specifically regarding the portrayal of the so-called pacification of Rio’s slums in preparation for the Olympics and World Cup.

First, from Sarah Lacy, a Bay Area technology writer who is working on a book about technology in emerging markets. The painfully predictable title of her post: “Coming Up From The Favelas: Brazil’s Slumdog Entrepreneurs“:

One year ago, no one would even deliver pizza here. What’s changed in a year? Specifically, the city is doing something about the problem, embarking on a project of “pacification.” As it was explained to me, newly-trained, SWAT-style cops take each favela back, driving out the drug dealers, by any means necessary, in a recognition that the situation isn’t just a bad neighborhood, it’s an urban war-zone. Being new to the force, these police officers have a clean slate with the residents of the favela, and so are able to continue to protect it, keeping the peace. So far, eight favelas have been pacified. Residents I spoke with talked about the relief of being out from under the daily violence: Suddenly they can be a part of the city. But many are still wary. “This is the best I’ve seen the community in a long time, but I’m still scared,” said Nivea Mendes of the pacified favela Babilonia. “Very few people trust the government. They are just out for an election. I’m still skeptical.” Put another way, even though they’re physically gone, the drug dealers still have power in these neighborhoods—for now.

Next, “Retaking Rio” by The Nation foreign correspondent, Christian Parenti, whose writing I’ve been following more closely after watching The Fixer with Marc in Italy.

When I visited, police had occupied the community for about a week. “When the BOPE came in, there was excessive brutality,” Cláudio explains. Now officers carrying machine guns have a checkpoint at the favela’s entrance and patrol its maze of hillside paths and stairways. Thus far the residents have not received any new services along with the police crackdown. In fact, about 100 families have had their water cut off …

“They are just beating people up. Two weeks ago they took four guys. These guys had work papers, but the cops arrested them on drug charges anyway,” says a short, tattooed 23-year-old named Max. He wears red shorts and plastic flip-flops and leans on the wall of the old wooden shack where he lives with his wife, Amanda. A small radio blares a tinny stream of baile funk, essentially Brazilian hip-hop, as Amanda does dishes by an outdoor tap just off one of the main stairways. A few other young men, shirtless and wearing baggy shorts in the heat, gather as we talk. “Most people just want the cops to go away and find someone else to harass,” adds Amanda. “They treat us like criminals. They force us inside after 11. If you have what they think is too much money, they take it from you.”

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Interesting to see how two different foreigners – each with relatively little experience or knowledge about Brazil – came away with such differing impressions of the pacification initiative, and the Favelas themselves. I think it probably has to do with the fact that journalists tend to write their stories before they arrive to the scenes where they are reporting from. Lacy’s agenda: to show that technology is having a transformative impact in some of the poorest and roughest communities in the world. Parenti’s agenda is a little more complicated, but it’s clear from his prolific writing that he envisions the role of the journalist to be someone who speaks out for the vulnerable and destitute.

Unsurprisingly, I’m much more impressed with the coverage we’ve seen on Global Voices, which relies heavily on the reports from residents of the favelas, and also cites the opinions of local cariocas (Rio residents), and even police bloggers. (So many Brazilian police officers use blogs and Twitter to offer their own perspectives of public security in Brazi that UNESCO commissioned a study of the Brazilian police blogosphere.)

I’ve mentioned Viva Favela before when I interviewed the site’s editor, Rodrigo Noguerira, while we were both in Sao Paulo:

The concept of the project is extraordinarily simple, and in line with the work we’ve been doing at Rising Voices: teach a group of residents how to document their community using text, images, and video, and them upload some of that material to the internet. But the impact of following around police officers with a video camera – which they know will wind up online – shouldn’t be underestimated. This video by Viviane Oliveira shows how police don’t warn children and families to stay inside even as they’re preparing for possible gunfire:

Viva Favela’s YouTube channel is filled with dozens of similar videos. But it doesn’t just focus on the violence. It also gives us a glimpse of daily life in neighborhoods where most people are still to fearful to visit, from basketball to clever movies about recycling to a local b-boying group.

Viva Favela reminds me in many ways of HiperBarrio here in Medellín. In fact, I’ve long thought that Rio de Janeiro should follow Medellín’s strategy of building integrated public transit to the centers of the most violent neighborhoods which are then outfitted with modern libraries, schools, and health clinics. Travis Fox argues that free trade agreements and economic globalization also contributed to Medellín’s recovery:

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Ten days ago I gave some love to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, for her excellent introduction to their website redesign. I felt that it really struck the right mix of humility and ambition. I also think that The Nation is fortunate to have a writer as talented at Christian Parenti, but I hope that increasingly in the future the magazine and website will take advantage of the wealth of important writing taking place within the very communities that they report on.

1 Comment

  1. Nice one, David. Coincidentally, I had read Sarah Lacy’s article on TechCrunch just a little before you sent me the link to your post on Twitter.

    The coverage of the pacification of Rio’s favelas is quite curious in certain occasions. Sarah’s take in TechCrunch is laudable, and although Parenti’s piece is really interesting and bring some recurrent issues in Brazil’s favelas I have some concerns with the way he addresses the topic.

    I prefer coverages such as Viva Favela’s. For me, they’re one of the most interesting projects of citizen media in Brazil, and I do think we need to decentralize this model throughout the country. Their content production is remarkable. I wonder what we should to to bring this type of content and coverage to mass media… I know that’s one hard job, but it might change the way people conduct some conversations on poverty, crime and favelas in mass media circles in Brazil as well as in foreign media.

    A few weeks ago I met Rodrigo again, but now in Rio de Janeiro and he told me the story of a couple of teen girls who take part in Viva Favela’s citizen media trainings and had their cameras in hand while descending the favela. Suddenly they saw a police operation near the favela entrance and according to Rodrigo, the girls asked a police officer if they were intending to invade the favela, and his answer was sort of “Not sure. If they shoot at us, we’ll invade it”. The girls obviously got nervous after the police officer’s answer to that question. The thing is: they recorded the audio of the conversation. Probably only the audio record could not feature a news stories very well in traditional media, but it meant a lot for them.

    If there is more encouragement and a proper environment for them to work in ‘copwatching’, I’m sure this would imply in a serious turn in media coverage of the pacification of favelas in Rio. Maybe all we need to do is to keep reporting on these citizen media initiatives to a worldwide audience, and help putting pressure to media outlets in Brazil to cover other aspects of life in favelas. This would ultimately reflect on citizen’s opinions of the slums as well, since many people still think the favelas are dangerous and Dante’s inferno-like places.

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