I was in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and visited Rio de Janeiro. I went on a Christ the Redeemer statue tour which included a visit to the Santa Marta favela.
Favela means slum or shanty town in Brazil. Favelas exist in many Brazilian cities. Almost 1.4 million people, or 22% of Rio’s population live in favelas.
About 8000 residents live in Santa Marta. There are kindergartens, a samba school, sports fields and small businesses.
Michael Jackson filmed part of his 1996 hit “They Don’t Care About Us” here.
The authorities originally opposed the video because they didn’t want the city portrayed negatively. Life in Santa Marta was typical of most favelas then. There was rampant crime and poor living conditions.
Michael Jackson’s video highlighted the plight of the residents and many are convinced that it began the impetus for change. More significantly, Brazil was getting ready to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
A square in the center of the favela commemorates Jackson’s visit.
Santa Marta was the first favela to be pacified in 2008. The state program eliminated drug gangs by installing a police base and creating projects for social change.
It led to improved infrastructure in sanitation, housing, electricity and running water. A tram glides up the 1,000 m mountain and provides free transportation.
I was a little unsure about visiting Santa Marta because of the controversy surrounding poverty tourism. I didn’t want to intrude or gawk at the residents.
Our tour guide was from Santa Marta and gave some very specific tips:
- walk in single file on the narrow pathways so as not to disrupt daily life
- do not take photos of the residents or the inside of the houses without permission
- be mindful and respectful of the community
It is very cramped and compact living. You are very much in their space and some of the residents seemed wary but the majority went about their daily business casually.
Most of them realize the significance that tourism plays in their community. It has created jobs and businesses, helped the residents take pride and ownership and have a voice in directing their needs. Most the proceeds from my tour would be used to fund the kindergartens.
All favelas have their own governing bodies made up of local residents. Many of the residents choose to continue living there, even with their improved economic status because of strong family and community ties.
Responsible tourism especially community run ones, can have a positive effect on changing attitudes about favelas.
In too many parts of the world, average residents are being out priced from desirable areas but not in Brazil. The views are spectacular and it is great to see less economically advantaged people enjoying a privilege that is too often reserved for too few.
Life can be challenging in Santa Marta just like elsewhere in the world. The tour clearly showed a proud and vibrant community that is determined to make a successful go and rich contribution to Brazil and Rio.