I’ve long been a critic of favela tours, for any number of reasons, few of which are likely unique: it objectifies the poor; it is voyeuristic; it reinforces a so-called “First World”/“Third World” dichotomy that objectifies both the poor and those in “developing countries” (a term as loaded and barely better than “Third World”); it fails to connect local poverty to broader national and global issues and economics; it rarely provides tourists an opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in the favelas, instead relying on tour guides to “interpret”; and they fail to connect local poverty to broader national and global systems that allow for such poverty to exist and that often implicate and involve the tourists themselves, be it directly or indirectly.
In an attempt to perhaps placate and alleviate some of the guilt the (relatively wealthier) tourist may feel, some favela tours insist that the money made from the tours goes back into the community. However, they rarely provide any concrete data or evidence of such reinvestment, any long-term programs designed to address the fundamental socioeconomic inequalities that lead to favelas in the first place. The end result is you have a number of tourists who have likely spent thousands of dollars to travel to places like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Mumbai in order to gaze upon people who likely don’t make that much in a year. The analogy to people going to the zoo to see animals is as obvious as it is uncomfortably fair.
It was for these reasons I had always insisted on never going on a favela tour, or on any other form of poverty tourism. So how did I end up on a favela tour?
In spite of my promises, I in fact reluctantly found myself on a favela tour last week as part of a school trip. It had been planned as part of the trip, and while my objections remained, I also thought it unfair to preemptively make that decision for the 22 students who were going on the trip. If push came to shove, I’d rather the students go see the tour themselves, and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, since the trip had already been paid for, I figured I’d go; I’d been critical enough of favela tours for theoretical reasons, but perhaps going would allow me to offer a more thorough understanding of the ways such tours operate.
The short version: my general critiques still stand, but with a more detailed understanding of both the more beguiling and subtle problems of favela tours, as well as some rather grotesque examples of the overt objectification and dehumanization of the poor that makes up poverty tourism.
It was rather problematic from the very beginning. Our group was split into two vans with sometimes-differing messages (more on that later). In my van, we were accompanied by a woman who did not live in the favelas, while a favela-resident drove us around. She talked, but not once did we get to hear his voice, his account of life in the favelas. Already, others were speaking on behalf of the favela residents, and it was clear that, no matter how closely her own interpretations and narration might hew to those who live in favelas, we would never have a way of knowing it.
As we drove to the first favela (Vilas Canoas), she insisted that favela residents “are poor, but they are happy people,” that “they work hard,” that “poverty isn’t misery,” and so on. Yet within five minutes, she also said that, as the younger generations begin to get a better education and gain access to better jobs, they are leaving the favelas. It seemed rather clear in the guide’s own narrative that, however “happy” and “hard-working” they may be, the broader social stigmas, the living conditions, and the ongoing lack of basic political rights in favelas (what Brodwyn Fischer has referred to as a “poverty of rights”) was leading many to leave. Some might see in this a sign of social mobility in Brazil, but the fact remains that favelas continue to grow, reflecting ongoing and wide socioeconomic disparities in Brazil.
Additionally, the narrative in the van of favela residents’ happiness and ability to work hard struck me. I’m not sure how many tourists would think they weren’t hard-working or happy. There is probably some tendency to associate poverty with misery and lack of agency, but in general, her narrative seemed in some way not to be designed so much to address our own concerns (we had very few opportunities for questions, something I think, perhaps cynically, was not an accident). Rather than directly addressing anything I’d heard students say, she seemed to be addressing views and attitudes that I had heard Brazilians say far too frequently in my year and a half of living in Rio de Janeiro. Put another way: she wasn’t necessarily addressing our concerns, but what she thought our concerns were, based on how other Brazilians often view and talk about favelas.
As for the tour, upon arriving at Vilas Canoas, we walked through winding little pathways, no wider than 3 feet, between people’s homes. This was the first moment of direct discomfort, as we were walking past people just living their lives, able to see into many people’s homes, effectively ogling the impoverished “Other” without any chance to communicate with favela residents as people. For all of the negatives of favela tours, this was also perhaps the most “educational” element for me; it is one thing to read about the spontaneous, improvised, and close-knit space in favelas, but it is another thing to witness it. Being there, at least I was finally able to better understand favelas spatially.
In spite of a veneer of education, however, our presence did seem highly disruptive, whether we wanted it to be or not. Based on at least some residents’ faces, we were not entirely welcome there, and our tour guide confirmed this, pointing out that, while some thought the tours were good, others “do not like it,” a point that she seemed to brush off and never returned to. (In the other van, they were given a similar line, albeit delivered more aggressively, with the guide basically saying that some favela residents don’t like the tour, but too bad.) We then went to a “school,” which, while educational in function, was little more than two “classrooms,” one a small, poorly-lit room and the other, a covered alcove. This was particularly distressing, as we’d been told that the money from the favela tour went specifically to this “school”; again, there was no quantitative evidence to illustrate that, and it was hard to tell looking at the classrooms and the teaching materials exactly where the money went. Additionally, it was quite clear that we had interrupted the classroom, and one of the teachers seemed particularly annoyed as the students suddenly diverted their attention to us, performing for the tourists. We didn’t stay long, but I did not envy the teacher, who was trying unsuccessfully to restart the lesson that we had interrupted; as we left, it was clear he was going to have to further divert his lesson to try to settle down a room of about 5 now-very-energetic children.
From there, we went to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. As we drove from Vilas Canoas to Rocinha, the tour guide talked more about conditions in the favelas, why they were there, and why the problems persisted. In finding causes for the problems, she always came back to the same problem that Brazilians regularly turn to: politicians. Citing corruption and disinterest, according to her, the problems in the favelas could be traced back to politicians. Yet this again only frustrated me, for it failed to place poverty in its broader national context; with politicians the sole factors for favelas’ problems, it exculpated all other Brazilians. Politicians certainly have contributed to problems in some ways, but the ongoing social prejudice against favelas, the systemic forms of racism in Brazil, the widening gap between rich and poor during the military dictatorship, the dispossession of land and unemployment of peasants, and the effects of the “Green Revolution” all contributed to both the migration that led to favelas’ growth, and to the ongoing marginalization and “poverty of rights” that in no small part define favelas. Far too often I heard middle-class Brazilians speak in overtly racist and classist terms about the favelas; yet blaming “the politicians” for everything seemed to ignore society’s broader implicit involvement in the marginalization of the poor in urban Brazil.
In Rocinha, students got to see the hustle and bustle of the city’s largest favela – markets, people in the streets, construction workers. In other words: things that mark any part of any major city. Though my tour guide was not quite so crass, the tour guide for the other group apparently asked why students weren’t stopping and just taking pictures on a regular street in Rocinha, and this seemed to cut to the core of the problem with poverty tourism. Here we were, on a street that looked no different than any other part of the city in terms of its activity; and yet students were expected to take photos here, because it was a favela, and thus, “different.” The very nature of the tour was designed to highlight differences and to treat people living in one part of the city as something to be photographed, observed, remarked upon, over people in other parts of the city. In short: it was reifying differences and objectifying the poor without making any sincere effort to either undermine narratives of favelas as “other” or point to broader processes that may create socioeconomic inequalities.
As we drove through Rocinha, the tour guide talked about the UPPs, or Pacifying Police Units. This led to another highly problematic narrative. In discussing the rise of the drug trade in the favelas, the tour guide said that it was because “there was no government” in the favelas, that the Brazilian state had failed to consolidate its presence in favelas. This is a narrative that has a particularly limited vision of “government.” Since the late 1960s, police operated as “death squads” in the favelas, going after alleged “criminals.” By the 1980s, the violence between drug gangs and police officers grew dramatically, and even when I lived in Rio in 2006-2008, headlines regularly told of “raids” in which police went into the favelas and killed 13 “traficantes” (“traffickers”), only to later learn that the victims were elderly women at the grocery store, children going to school, or other favela residents who often had nothing to do with the drug trade. Certainly, the police, both military and civil, are arms of the government; yet according to her narrative, it was only now, with the UPPs, that the government was trying to establish itself in the favelas. In short, the “government” had been in the favelas for over 40 years, but in a militaristic sense; yet this did not register in her narrative as “government” presence. She did not make the police pure heroes, pointing out that a few had been arrested recently for working on the side for drug gangs. However, when a student in my group asked if corrupt police were prosecuted in Brazil, she simply ignored his question, remaining silent until we got off the bus. Rather than get into the unequal justice system in Brazil, the ongoing culture of impunity among police forces that dates back to the military regime’s 1979 general amnesty and before, or society’s quiet willingness to tolerate police abuses against the poor, she simply stopped talking.
After that, it was a relatively mild denouement. We went to the top of Rocinha, where we were able to enjoy two rather spectacular views of the city from a top of a mountain. The tour guide pointed out how even those in the favelas had incredible views (though I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d trade it for greater incomes or greater rights as citizens). After a little time to take in the view, our favela tour ended.
I had gone on the tour in part because I wanted to better understand the mechanisms and particulars of how favela tours operated and what metanarratives they provided, but I also wanted to see what the students saw. Afterwards, we met with students, and to their credit, even going in “blind” about the broader questions of poverty tourism, many of them clearly felt uncomfortable with it. They offered their own cogent analyses, and if anything, came away with a better understanding of the issues of poverty tourism than with the issues behind poverty in Brazil itself.
I’m aware of the question of whether there can be an “ethical” form of poverty tourism. I’m still not certain, but one thing I kept thinking throughout the favela tour was how much I wanted to hear their voices, how, rather than having an interlocutor from a middle-class neighborhood, I wanted to hear what favela residents had to say about their own experiences, their own views, their own role in society. I’m still not certain there could be an “ethical” favela tour, but having one that was begun by those who live in favelas, letting them speak, and ensuring that the money does actually go back to the favela seems like it would at least be a better alternative than the way tours such as ours operate now.
Ultimately, there is probably little here that is new to overall critiques of favelas. There may be something to be said for personally experiencing one and understanding just how those critiques play out in practice, but if anybody is wondering if they should also go, I can’t help but think: there are far better and more productive ways to address inequality in the world.