One of the things I noted this time last year when I visited Rio de Janeiro was the perilous situation of the poorest areas of informal housing, the favelas or morros when it comes to flooding and landslides. Just in the last 24 hours, huge amounts of rain has caused land and debris slides that have killed around 100 in the state according to the BBC, and in particular 13 people have been killed in Morro dos Prazeres, a favela I visited with my colleague Paola, according to The Guardian*. The centre of the city is deep in water. My thoughts are with all the people I met last year in Rio, and all the communities affected by this disaster.
One of our most interesting visits last week was to the favela of Morro dos Prazeres, north-west of Santa Teresa. Prazeres has one of the most astonishing views of Rio of any neighbourhood, with an almost 360 degree panorama of the city, it’s perspective to the south only interupted by the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which is hardly a bad view in itself! You might think that the last thing that favelados would care about was the view but they are well aware of the beauty of their location – the assumption that the poor an desperate would not care about such things is a rather patronising misconception. Elisa, the leader of the community association, at least, seems most proud of this asset and says that like many people she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else even if she won the lottery!
But Prazeres does have serious problems. For a start, it is a ‘hot’ favela, occupied by drug traffickers, who control ‘law and order’ in the place. There is therefore no ongoing police presence, although as with many such communities, the community association does have a relationship of sorts with local military police commanders through organised coffee mornings at which problems are discussed. Luckily, despite or because of the almost complete control of a particular gang which is well integrated into the community (i.e.: they are relatives of the more law-abiding members), there are not many problems with violence and the police, ‘thank God’ (says Elisa), have not raided the favela recently, as they have many others.
In fact, as we were visiting Prazeres, as the taxi driver rather anxiously pointed out as he dropped us a safe distance away, BOPE (military police special operations) were ‘invading’ two other favelas next to it, the very hot Morro de Correoa, and Sao Carlos. The operations left eight dead, and we think what we had assumed initially were fireworks was probably the sound of small arms fire in the Sao Carlos operation. However, when we asked a PM at a nearby police post whether Prazeres was safe to enter, he seemed rather blase and relaxed about the whole thing…
Elisa was another very impressive woman. In the absence of men – who, in the favelas are in many cases, either involved in the gangs, working outside, or unemployed and alcoholic – it seems that a whole generation of strong, courageous women has emerged to try to develop their communities from the bottom up. In the past they have benefited from various attempts by previous mayors to provide development for the favelas. Unlike some places, Prazeres does not have a school built during the regimes of populist left-wing Governor, Leonel Brizola (who seems to be fondly recalled in by almost all those we have talked to in the poorer communities). However there was a lot of intervention as part of the Favela Bairro (Favela Community) program of former Mayor, Cesar Maia, and it is this normalisation or the favelas through infrastructure, social and economic development, education, health and social services that Elisa said are the only long-term solution to the problems of Prazeres. The creche in particular is a source of continual delight to her, and her face lit up whenever it is mentioned.
With social development and education, Elisa argued, eventually the ‘cold’ and uncaring gangs will recruit fewer kids, and they will wither slowly away. Confrontation however, only strengthens them by driving more young people to support the ‘insider’ traffickers against the ‘outsider’ police. They must, she said, work like little ants, with lots of small efforts adding up together to long-term success… then perhaps the anthill of Prazeres will function as a normal community.