My introduction to the “favelas” (slums) of Rio de Janeiro came through watching “City of God” and listening to the speaker-rattling funk carioca music has exploded globally over the past few years. Enjoying these cultural fruits from afar, it’s easy to forget (or completely ignore) the fact that poverty, violence and oppression dominate the lives of those who live in these precariously perched ghettos.
Brazil was the very last country in the Western hemisphere to legally outlaw slavery (in the 1880s) and a vast socio-economic chasm defined largely along racial lines continues to persist in many places like Rio. A journalist friend who used to report from South Africa recently told me that the visceral and widespread animosity against the lower classes was worse in Brazil than anywhere else she had seen.
Like slums all over the world, the favelas in Rio are basically crapped on by the local government. The lack of education opportunities, social services and even basic infrastructure (like functional sewers) in many favelas makes life pretty damn rough. Many of the favelas that the city government has basically abandoned are controlled by gangs. Two years ago, Rio’s governor, Sérgio Cabral Filho called the favelas “a factory for producing criminals.”
But now that Rio is a finalist to host the 2016 Olympics, the Mayor needs to “clean up the city.” So what is he doing about that pesky fact that hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens are living in such conditions? Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, his master plan is to build a giant wall around the favelas (apparently starting with the ones that rich people can see from their houses) and then send in 22,000 more cops to crack some heads.
Of course, the justification for these 10-ft cinderblock barriers (which the planners have creatively named “eco-barriers”) is to protect the forests from sprawl — the favelas have expanded geographically by about 7 percent in the last decade. So now the upper classes conveniently have an eco-friendly excuse to support this scheme.
An extreme conclusion would be that Rio’s rich have chosen to prioritize the lives of trees over the lives of people. The favelas inhabit an extreme space.
While building walls between classes of people is certainly nothing new, the goal of the walls is usually to separate groups, not to isolate one of them so completely (with a few notable exceptions, of course).
How could these looming physical barriers not exacerbate the socio-economically isolated position that the residents of the favelas already find themselves in? Rio’s wealthy may temporarily succeed in fortifying the wide, nasty chasm between rich and poor through this “eco-barrier” plan, but the last paragraph of the Wall Street Journal article suggests that this unjust solution will not be a permanent one:
“While laying cinder blocks on a hillside with sweeping views of Rio, Mr. da Silva says, he has had time to think about how to get over the wall he’s helping to build. Grabbing some paper, he diagrammed one idea — break a series of footholds into the cinder blocks. Another idea: Tie a rope to a tree on the other side.”
One more thing: Sure, this is blatant commoditization of culture for purely commercial purposes, but it’s also really cool. Check out this orange juice ad featuring the classic baile funk beat: