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Poorest of the Poor

In Rio de Janeiro’s hillside favelas – illegal neighborhoods inhabited by the poorest of the poor, with no authorized electricity or plumbing – apartment-style housing is only slightly better than the corrugated tin shanties of the worst ghettos in the least developed nations of the world.

On one hand, Rio’s favelas are dilapidated and dangerous, and consistently ignored by the Brazilian government, who along with most other Brazilian citizens have pigeonholed their residents as drug dealers, druggies and thieves. On the other hand, the favelas are relatively safe if you live there; each favela is controlled by resident gangs – young members comprise a large percentage of the population – who keep a keen eye peeled for unfamiliar faces, and often times shoot them on the spot. Once they’re dead, they plant drugs on them so it looks like a “drug-related homicide”, a low priority for Rio’s busy law enforcement officers to investigate. Of course, such dangers don’t stop droves of foreign tourists from booking guided tours into the hearts of various favelas. In fact, some even opt to give up their suite at the Sofitel on Copacabana Beach for a night, just to stay in a favela bed & breakfast – a total cultural immersion experience to them, or to those who live there, the ultimate act of disrespect through voyeurism. But ultimately, the bulk of the blame does fall on the aforementioned Brazilian government, whose take on the matter of favelas and their residents is only growing in its disdain.

Brazil has been fortunate enough to win bids for hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics – what exactly does that mean for Rio’s favelas? The requirements of “hosting the world” includes construction of flawless infrastructure, pristine new stadiums, anti-terrorist planning and of course, hiding or removal of unsightly poverty from the tourist masses. As Amelia, a resident of a favela known as Vila Canoas puts it, “I am not stupid. I pay attention. Rio’s reputation and desirability are on the rise, but my home is increasingly perceived as a threat to its future. I worry everyday that I might come back from work and my home will be gone. And my daughter and I won’t have a place to live.”

While the government continues to plan the take-down of Rio’s favelas, there are those few who instead desire and strive to bring dignity to their residents; namely a duo of thoughtful European artists.

Dutch Wunderkinds

When Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn set out to create community-driven “art interventions” in Brazil, they never could have imagined the design impact, not to mention the emotionally uplifting impact such an endeavor was going to have.

Prior to their epic journey into Rio, Koolhaas had studied graphic design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and had worked extensively as a freelance audio-visual designer and illustrator; Urhahn had worked as a journalist, copywriter and art-director. The duo’s efforts yielded two apartment building wall murals in the Vila Cruzeiro neighborhood, widely considered to be Rio’s most notorious slum. The first mural, spanning nearly 500 feet, depicted a youth flying a kite – anyone who has spent any time in Rio’s favelas knows this is a favorite pastime of its young residents. In collaboration with local youth from the Soldados Nunca Mais program, which offers an alternative to a life of drugs and crime, the mural took 3 months to complete. The second mural, positioned on a massive concrete structure that was designed as a barrier from mudslides, was a traditional Japanese design in collaboration with master tattoo artist Rob Admiral; local youth also contributed in this effort. Both murals proved to be radical facelifts to the once faded facades. They brought a smile to most, if not all of the residents, and have proven to make favela residents feel good about coming home. Yara, a Vila Cruzeiro resident, said “I’ve never been to an art gallery in my entire life, but based on what I know about them, I now feel like I live in one. I feel proud to call Vila Cruzeiro my home.”

Both Koolhaas and Urhahn received international attention and acclaim for their contributions to the Vila Cruzeiro community and they continue to plan related projects where they are needed. Unfortunately, the larger, brewing situation in Rio is something they will unlikely be able to fix.

More Darkness on the Horizon

As the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics roll into Rio and crush the civil liberties of favela residents, a city growing with an already built-in international tourist reputation is getting ready to explode.

In addition to the stadiums and infrastructure, there is an imminent need for the city to have adequate “playgrounds” – restaurants, bars, clubs, etc… – for monied visitors to enjoy, which means that the bulldozers are rolling out in force now. Already there have been numerous troubling tales of favela-cleansing, where residents’ homes have been torn down without adequate time having been provided for locating new housing. Estefan, a former favela resident, said “They brought their earth-diggers in and rammed them into my home. It shattered into a million pieces and lay strewn across the street. The place looks like Iraq. Did the government lift a finger to help me into a new place before they did any of this? Have they ever helped me with anything?” Such acts are of course a flagrant violation of basic human rights – even by the Brazilian Government’s standards. Organizations like Amnesty International, United Nations, and believe it or not, even the International Olympic Committee have raised concerns, though there is a dark cloud of uncertainty as to whether their concerns will directly translate to a better situation for favela residents. As for government bureaucrats who have to answer for their actions, their typical response is that by “refurbishing” the favela areas and forcing residents out, they are in fact providing them with a higher level of “dignity”.

Still, the favelas didn’t earn their tough reputation by housing weak residents. And there are certainly those residents who will never leave without a fight.

Residents for Life

While the Brazilian government plots to bring down Rio’s housing for the poor, there is a growing movement within the favelas to defy the government – even more so than in the past – before all is completely lost. As one fed up, life-long resident named Thiago put it, “They can choose to ignore me. They can try and take away my dignity. They can lump me into a group and label me as the scum of the city. But there is one thing they will never be able to do: get me to leave this hill.” With favela residents having such strong convictions and an undeniable sense of self-empowerment, Brazil’s bureaucrats better be careful when trying to hand out their highly suspicious brand of “dignity”.