Let's talk Latin America

Rio’s untapped millions

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As Brazil’s cultural capital nears its moment in the spotlight, Bristolatino’s ‘Latin America in Bristol’ editor Tom Webb looks at how the ‘pacification’ of the city’s favelas is beginning to transform Rio’s socioeconomic dynamic.

There are over 100 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, in which around one third of the city’s population lives: 6 million people. The pacification of these residential areas aims to incorporate over 2 million inhabitants into mainstream society and markets; potentially bringing in surplus of £28 million (in the form of income and property taxation) to the municipal government.

This operation is being spearheaded by Rio’s Pacifying Police Units, the ‘Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora’. The operational stage consists of a squad of specially trained Police officers entering any given favela in force, arresting and expelling wrong doers as they go. A permanent presence is then established before the start of what has been dubbed a ‘social invasion’ – in effect this is the forced integration of the inhabitants into ‘society’. This stage confronts an issue that has been on-going since the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1984: the difficulties surrounding the concept of citizenship. One reason for the divide that exists between those who live in the favela (favelados) and those who don’t  (non-favelados) is the dire earning differentials across Rio’s vast social spectrum. The ‘Pacification’, which along with crime control, the instalment of a sewage system, electricity and fresh water supplies, aims to make Rio whole – a city united by its passion for sport, and its yearning for change.

Courtesy of the steps taken to reincorporate the city’s estranged millions into the abstract concept of a ‘greater society’ (which is championed by the municipal government), the favela dwellers are beginning to feel that they have more bargaining power in labour markets. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, that the pacification has created a safer environment for small entrepreneurs. Secondly, thanks to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, there has been a huge (and necessary) expansion in the hotel industry, with over 70 4 and 5 star hotels in the pipeline. The first factor will bring about a much needed facelift to the favelas, with privately owned guesthouses known as pousadas and other small businesses opening their doors in preparation for the influx of an estimated 1.6 million visitors over the next 3 years. The second will in effect create a subsidiary temporary labour market with mainly medium term construction contracts available, though this will raise the question of whether enough is being done to secure the longevity of the achievements of the pacification.

All that has been (and is being) done in preparation for hosting arguably the two most influential sporting tournaments in the world has ensured that all eyes are on Rio de Janeiro. The pacification process in Rio’s favelas proves that the government intends to use these international events as a springboard toward socioeconomic development. Also, it ensures that the world bears in mind that the road to Rio is as much about people as it is about sport. With analysts expecting Rio’s economy to grow by £11 billion with the inclusion of the favelas into its plethora of markets, we can expect to see the city undergo a kind of social metamorphosis; whether that will be a change for the good, remains to be seen.

Header photo: Rocinha favela in 2010, credit Chensiyuan, Creative Commons 3.0.