A walk through Rio de Janeiro’s Vidigal favela is a full sensory experience on any given day.
The smell of grilled meat mixes with that of exhaust from motorcycle taxis traversing the slum’s corridors as well as the scent of excrement from the legion of stray dogs that roam the streets. Add in the engulfing humidity trapped within the concrete structures built into a hill overlooking Rio’s posh Ipanema beach. And then there are the sounds. Normally it’s Rio’s trademark funk music blaring from various cars or trucks making their way up the favela’s winding roads, but in the past few weeks, it has been the sound of German, English or French being spoken by its new inhabitants.
Favela chic, as it’s come to be known, has quickly taken Vidigal, as well as its favela neighbor Rocinha and a number of other slums in Rio, by storm. A combination of new security forces, low prices and curiosity by outsiders have brought a wave of new renters to neighborhoods that were once considered unsafe to even visit.
American Kristine Witko moved into Vidigal during the World Cup and says she loves it.
“It has more life because there’s always something going on,” says the 27-year-old New Jersey native. “Bars with people spilling out of them at 6 a.m., music blaring constantly, always people in the street. In other neighborhoods, it’s the complete opposite.”
Witko joined a cadre of other visitors who moved into Vidigal when she signed on to work with Project Favela, a volunteer-placement organization that puts travelers in different favelas to create what it calls “sustainable tourism.”
Similarly, James Cherry came from Ireland to stay in Rio’s Rocinha slum looking for “a bit of an adventure.” He says that since moving into a local guesthouse, he’s been hanging out with the favela’s gangsters who carry AK-47s and refer to him as James 007.
Both Witko and Cherry have plans to return home soon. But in addition to a spate of World Cup visitors, Rio’s favelas have also become popular among venture capitalists looking to rent or sell to higher-income buyers. Less than 10 years ago, a modest home here would cost only $2,500. Today that house can fetch $75,000 or more.
While some former favela residents are being priced out of their homes by land prospectors from the U.S. and Europe, others have been forcibly removed. In Rio, as many as 250,000 have been relocated, many to the outskirts of the city, far from their former homes. Many complain that the compensation packages, when offered, are inadequate. They’re often around $22,000, when an equivalent living space costs between $30,000 and $34,000.
In Sao Paulo, many who lived in the city’s favelas say their homes were demolished or burned to the ground with little or no warning and no compensation from the government. In a series of videos posted to YouTube, former residents of the demolished favelas tell stories of surprise demolitions and unexplained fires that happened in the middle of the night.
“In Sao Paulo there are favelas which have been and are being removed from central or strategic areas so the city and corporations take their place,” says Erik Kaneda, who works with the favela volunteer group Jihad Brazil. “Some of them still resist, like Favela do Moinho and others. Some of them burned almost completely just before being removed. In Sao Paulo they are building stadiums, roads, shopping centers or high standard condos.”
Kaneda also pointed to Ponte Estaiada, which was once home to a favela known as Jardim Edite and now houses only a cable-stayed bridge and an upscale apartment complex.
The removals sparked specific interest from Amnesty International’s campaign End Forced Evictions, which found a number of government misappropriations with regard to relocations in Brazil including: lack of access to information, insufficient time of notice, insufficient financial compensation and resettlement in distant areas (sometimes up to 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, away from their original place of living).
“The resettlement in distant areas has several negative impacts for the families,” says Amnesty International spokeswoman Renata Neder. “First, because they lose the social relations they had previously. Second, due to the poor access to other services and urban equipments and facilities in the outskirts where they are resettled.”
And the favelas are more than just low-income housing for many Brazilians; they are an ingrained part of the country and have a history deeply tied to the country’s Afro-Brazilian culture.
Brazil’s first favela was founded near Rio’s commercial port after the 1897 Canudos War—the most deadly civil war in the country’s history. Soldiers leaving the army were promised housing by the government, but when the war ended they found those promises reneged upon. Now unemployed and without lodging, these men set up settlements with newly freed slaves and groups of people who had been evicted from other communities to create a community on a hill overlooking the city’s commercial center known as Morro de Provedencia.
Since then, favelas have often acted as the shelter of last resort for Brazilians unable to afford other housing options, writes Jason Cummings in his dissertation for Harvard Graduate School of Design, “Confronting the Favela Chic” (pdf).
“From the beginning, favelas have been not only housing for the poor, but also the poor’s preferred housing,” he says, “given the alternatives available and consistent actions of the state to not provide for the poor, but to hide them from sight.”
As the World Cup comes to a close, and with the 2016 Rio Olympics looming on the horizon, what will the gentrification in Rio and throughout Brazil mean for the 12 million people who inhabit the slums out of necessity? Priced out or forced out, this creates a continuing clash of class for which there are no easy solutions.
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Dion Rabouin is a freelance writer currently based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.