Last summer I had the opportunity to visit Rio de Janeiro to participate in a conference on environmental ethics and theology in conjunction with Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day 2013. I recently found a disposable camera that I thought I had lost and got some grainy, dark snaps developed that brought it all back.
Rio had fascinated me for a long time before I travelled there, and the week I spent there last July only deepened that fascination; I hope I can go back some day to explore some more. I love the way it is nestled between the luscious rainforest and the turquoise ocean, watched over by the giant Cristo Redentor statue who towers above the city with his outstretched arms. I love the hectic tangle of streets, the sudden, steep hills and broken cobbles, the open air cafes where you can sit beneath the trees sipping iced fruit juice with wild orchids and monkeys quarrelling in the branches overhead. I love the way that even in the most built up areas of town there are giant cracks in the concrete and steep rock faces covered in creeping green foliage behind the fancy hotels and apartment blocks. It’s as if the rainforest cannot be subdued and is waiting for the chance to take back the city.
There is something about Rio that doesn’t quite make sense, like a surreal sequence in a Baz Luhrmann film. Its heart is wild and untamed, and I felt like I was about to tip off the edge of the world, like I couldn’t quite trust gravity to behave normally. I have a suspicion that I don’t think I could feel like I had ‘understood’ Rio even if I lived there for a very long time.
And then there’s the fact that the extremes of wealth and poverty are such close neighbours. It’s a city where the wealthiest people regularly travel to work by helicopter, while the poorest live just around the corner from their mansions and helipads in slums. While I was there, the group I was with visited one of the favelas that had been recently ‘cleaned up’ (meaning that the drug gangs were supposedly rooted out and a strong police presence had been established). The favelas aren’t just on the outskirts of the city; they sprang up to fill Rio’s empty pockets, spreading their sprawl of ramshackle pavements and buildings wherever and however they could, up the mountainsides without any particular regard for safety or comfort. You know when you’re in a favela because they are sectioned off from the normal streets of Rio with walls and gates, and you feel as if you’ve suddenly entered a makeshift cardboard box world designed by children, not for real living.
The narrow, winding streets were filthy, and great knotted masses of electrical wires hung down so low overhead that you had to occasionally stoop to avoid them. Every now and again we would pass a pile of rubble, and our guide told us that they were houses that had collapsed in a landslide, or just because they hadn’t been built with proper foundations. We stopped in a smallish concrete alcove that our guide told us was a marketplace, and he pointed to the multiple small holes and dents in the walls around us and said that this was the spot of a big drug raid when the police had taken over the area – the holes were bullet marks.
Despite the very obvious poverty and signs of struggle all around, we passed many homes that had flat screen TVs playing in the background. I realised then that my understanding of extreme poverty was very limited, and that things were a lot more complex than I had thought. Our guide talked about how many of the people in the favelas are getting by okay, working in the city. The favelas are unauthorised, and therefore outside of the city council’s remit, so they don’t pay tax. They may not have clean water, safe housing, safe electrical wiring, or a particularly pleasant living environment because the council doesn’t look after those things for them, or come to take away the rubbish and clean the streets, but in some senses they are free to build whatever life they can out of scraps there on the mountainside. Things that I think of as ‘luxuries’, like televisions, for example, are actually considered a staple of life. After all, technology doesn’t cost so much anymore.
This article, This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps, reminded me of what saw in the favela, and my own reactions to it. I realised that poverty doesn’t always look the way we think it will. I also find myself returning again and again to George Monbiot’s essay, The Gift of Death, thinking about the surplus and cheapness of stuff. Our world is in the strange situation where the cost of material goods has plummeted, but meanwhile ‘the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared’, as this article from the New York Times explains. This, apparently, is what some economists call ‘the Walmart effect’, resulting in ‘falling prices for a huge array of manufactured goods.’
‘Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory.’
Now, every time I am tempted to judge someone begging on the street because they have a debit card or a smartphone I need to remember Rio. I need to remember that poverty is complicated, and that you can never know all about someone’s story and their struggles by just looking at them.
I love Kenco’s new ‘Coffee vs Gangs‘ project – they are trying to help young people break out of the cycle of drug gangs and poverty by giving them jobs on coffee farms. Although it’s in Honduras, it made me think of the favelas in Rio.