As tourism increasingly invades favela life, can these Brazilian slums maintain what makes their culture so special?
Among Brazilians, the impoverished slums known as favelas are associated with violence, crime and unsightliness. But foreign tourists see something different: a place where free-spirited people display an elusive, oft-imitated culture of colorful music, vibrant art and unusual fashion sense. To outsiders, favelas and the people who call them home act as a reminder of an almost childlike, uninhibited lust for life. The favela phenomenon has led to a growing tourism segment, with favela residents leading foreign tourists through the slums of Rio de Janeiro, allowing busloads of Europeans and Americans to photograph and videotape a life entirely unlike their own.
But is favela tourism sustainable? And furthermore, is it ethical?
Favela Tourism Workshop FavelaTourismWorkshophas been running a favela tour in Rocinha, the biggest slum in South America and one of more than 800 in Rio alone, since 1991. Favela residents are trained as guides, helping them to learn English, and instilling in them a sense of neighborhood pride, according to the Workshop-¬™s official Web site. The cost of the walking tours is put toward a local school, and toward creating other work opportunities within the favela.
The act of walking through a less fortunate neighborhood and subsequently reaping benefits -" whether a smile from a poor child, a story to tell friends back home, a new collection of eye-catching photographs, or inspiration for an artistic endeavor -" makes the idea of favela tourism disturbing to some.
As a Harvard University graduate student studying Romance Languages and Literatures, Viviane Mahieux experienced Brazilian favela tourism firsthand, and wrote about the episode for Re Vista, the Harvard Review of Latin America HarvardReviewofLatinAmerica. Upon seeing a brochure describing the tours as -¬---Informative and surprising, not voyeuristic at all,-¬~ Mahieux was dumbfounded. -¬---It was ridiculous, I felt, to deny voyeurism while presenting a picture of tourists photographing a community from afar,-¬~ she wrote.
Mahieux also explains why sustainable tourism seems an unlikely, if impossible feat in favelas, which -¬---would need to remain poor and officially dangerous for tourists in order to be worth visiting.-¬~ As tourism gains a stronger foothold in favelas, how long will it be before money and foreign influence change the edgy, sometimes dangerous culture? Will tourism remain a feasible, desirable option if favelas become economically stable?
Joao Vergara is a volunteer with the Morrinho Project, which began as a community-based tourism organization in Pereirao, a Rio favela, in August 2007. Vergara recounted what he sees as the benefits of favela tourism in an article for Tourism Concern TourismConcern, emphasizing that local elected leaders and shopkeepers were consulted while the Morrinho Project was being created, and that foreign tourists stay in local hostels and hotels during their visits. Additionally, favela residents are trained to be tour guides and taught to make various handicrafts, enabling them to generate their own income. A recycling program has also been implemented in Pereirao, and community projects are underway to fund a hospital, a school and childcare for local families. Vergara hopes -¬---that by 2012, the Pereirao community will be recognized as a community that has achieved sustainable development through tourism.-¬~
For the time being, favela tourism companies and those who choose to partake in favela tours can only hope that the most unique and crucial aspects of favela culture will not only be sustained, but will thrive under tourism-¬™s influence.
The Christian Science Monitor CSMonitor interviewed several ex-patriots who have relocated to Brazilian favelas, offering insight into life there. Former violinmaker Max Eichhorn left Germany for Rocinha in 2000, and describes his new home as Tuscany-like in the freedom it provides.
-¬---I go to the plaza and discuss things with people. I know everyone by name,-¬~ Eichhorn said.
If favelas indeed provide an old-world sense of reverence for culture, enlightened discussion and joie de vivre, then perhaps tourism and the injection of new people and ideas is the best way to ensure favelas-¬™ survival. On top of a pulsating culture, there is a sense of loyalty that seems to hold these neighborhoods together, binding residents despite the hardships they face in their daily lives. This sort of teamwork, mutual respect, and local pride could be precisely what is needed from tourism companies and visitors to ensure that favelas grow in a positive, sustainable way.
By Sarah Amandolare
Monday, January 19, 2009