A large proportion of the Rio population live in favelas on the hillsides around the city. We went to see two of these favelas.
On the way to Rocinho (one of the biggest favelas near Rio with around 250,000 inhabitants) our guide explained some things about favela life:
- they started in 1950s when the first motorways were built to connect the north and south of the country
- as the new arrivals had no money they built their own homes on the outskirts of Rio
- they then sent money home and more family/friends came to seek work and a better life
- after several years the government turned the land over to the favela dwellers
- they began to build their own infrastructure (roads, schools, drainage etc.)
- even if the residents save enough money to move away they rarely do as their whole community and family is there; they simply improve their homes
- most of the men work in construction (which is how they are able to build their own houses) and most women work in Rio as cleaners, maids, waitresses etc.
- as people run out of space houses are built on top of one another and in some places they are 13 stories high
The guide also explained that the favela residents liked people coming to see their community as they are proud of what they have achieved and want to considered on equal terms with the other inhabitants of Rio.
We arrived and the favelas were nothing like you would expect. The buildings are not shacks but proper brick structures with electricity, water etc (albeit maybe stolen). There are many banks, shops, bars and even a fast food chain. They even have their own cable TV, newspapers and radio stations.
The favelas are actually the safest place in Rio as the drug lords who control the favelas, police the area to ensure the real police leave them alone. This means that the drug lords function like the government – helping people out with loans and taking care of any criminals. Interestingly, it is mainly Rio residents buying the drugs, rather than the favela dwellers who cannot afford them.
Up until now we had been free to take photos but suddenly our guide said no more photos. She later explained that she had spotted one of the ´soldiers´ (security for the drug lords) with a machine gun in the car next to us.