Life inside Rio's slum city


David Shukman takes a walk through the streets of Brazil's largest favela, Rocinha

Along the highway linking the luxury hotels of Copacabana and the conference halls of the Rio+20 summit, the darkened windows of the VIP limousines will not have offered a clear view of the crowded hillside known as Rocinha.

Pronounced "Hosinia", this dense mass of tiny dwellings perched beneath a series of grey cliffs holds the dubious title of being Brazil's largest favela - a tightly-knit community of 120,000.

At the entrance to this slum city, as the police sirens and outriders cut a path through the swirling traffic for a president or prime minister, I wondered about the value of a summit document that makes eradicating poverty the top priority.

The second paragraph of the 49 pages recording the summit's conclusions refers to poverty as "the greatest global challenge facing the world today".

Yet as I was guided around Rocinha by its former leader, Carlos Costa, it became clear that - yet again - there's a gulf between the words bandied about at a conference and the daily grind confronting people outside it.

Carlos Costa with David Shukman and a resident Carlos Costa, right, guiding the favela tour

Carlos wanted to give me a balanced view of life inside Rocinha to prove it's not all bad. Major improvements have been carried out recently and Carlos liked the idea that the summit might conceivably foster better conditions.

But, as he put it to me, the leaders "holed up" in their summit were on a different planet to the struggling citizens of the favela.

Six months ago, the police carried out a massive "pacification" - an aggressive operation to root out the drugs gangs that had made normal life impossible, and the authorities had followed up with a vigorous investment programme in:

  • new schools
  • a library (with a queue of eager children outside it)
  • sports facilities

All this has come in conjunction with the action against the heavily-armed crime lords.

But to see the most startling evidence of progress, Carlos had to lead me through a labyrinth of alleyways, twisting down haphazard steps, and through what felt like the darkened floor of a rainforest beneath a canopy of washing and wiring.

We passed turnings leading to smaller alleys, open doorways through which came the sizzle of frying garlic, women and children peering from windows high above us.

Stacked shack-like homes with satellite dishes in Rocinha Dwellings crowd the hillside

This was not the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa. The children all had shoes - a key test - and satellite dishes sprouted from many rooftops and balconies. Also, this particular route through the slums was surprisingly clear of rubbish.

But as we squeezed through a narrow gap between buildings, and descended further into the gloom, it was hard to imagine the summit dignitaries ever making the same trip. Compose elegant phrases about poverty for the conference text, sure, but pick a path through the mud - no thanks.

The dark soon gave way to the open sky of Street Four - a bright, well-paved road sliced through the alleyways to create a more pleasant environment. This is one of Rocinha's key improvements, funded by the government. It makes a very big difference - but only to one part of the favela, Carlos told me.

Visits to the slums were laid on for conference delegates but, existing behind walls of high security, summits create their own intense bubbles of activity which can become detached from reality. So references to poverty are prominent in the conference text but without any clear sign of how they will translate into change on the ground.

One of the new paved streets in the favela

The same goes for the starkly sharp choices I witnessed in the Amazon rainforest, nearly 2,000 miles to the north of Rio at Carajas.

How to balance the demands of economic growth with the impact on the natural world? The world's largest iron ore mine is smack in the middle of a national park, as I reported earlier this week.

The company operating the mine, Vale, has a terrible environmental reputation in Brazil but has recently adopted a green policy and started trumpeting its green credentials - like many giant corporations, it has a high-profile presence at the summit and promises to restore the rainforest at Carajas.

Protest in Rio against the mining company Vale Protest against mining company Vale

The dilemma for the authorities is whether to allow the mine to expand into new areas - to turn untouched forest or savannah or unusual caves into gigantic chasms to create valuable exports and jobs - or call a halt for the sake of the natural world.

The 49 pages from the summit do not really provide an answer. On the one hand, economic growth must be supported. On the other, environmental impact must be considered. One might say, we already knew that.

For those interested in the exact quote, here's part of it:

"… we reaffirm the need to achieve economic stability and sustained economic growth, promotion of social equity, and protection of the environment…"

In other words, do both - develop and protect.

So what was the point of the whole event? A fair question. I find myself making comparisons with the tumultuous and chaotic climate change conference at Copenhagen in December 2009. For those of us who were there, icy Denmark bore striking parallels with sultry Rio.

Start Quote

The people of Rocinha have come up with a few of their own solutions - there is a business collecting cans and bottles and selling them on, an entrepreneurial recycling operation”

End Quote

The contradictory briefings, the official spin, the frustration of campaigners fighting to get in to the talks or trying to get attention by walking out of them - all this was evident at both events. It is possible that gatherings of this global scale, where the participants arrive with markedly different agendas, are simply too large for any diplomats, however skilled, to manage successfully.

The Brazilians achieved an outcome by closing off debate and forcing the pace. It meant the leaders did not have to waste their time arguing over small print.

But the result was a document that is not recommended reading: laden with jargon, and with phrases counterbalanced to please everyone and mean little.

In the end, one might expect the UN's largest ever gathering, billed as a crucial follow-on to the Earth Summit, to produce something more illuminating.

But reading it provides no tangible answers for the two key questions I have encountered in the past week: how best to assist urban dwellers living in miserable conditions and how to reconcile demand for resources when the natural world has to pay a price.

Mother and daughter in a narrow alley Residents do not want to be painted as victims of circumstance

Meanwhile, the people of Rocinha, ignoring the wail of the VIP sirens and unwilling to be portrayed as victims, have come up with a few of their own solutions.

There is a business collecting cans and bottles and selling them on - a kind of entrepreneurial recycling operation.

And Zenilton Marinho has done on a tiny scale what the mining company has promised to do in the Amazon with its pledge to restore the rainforest. He has started cultivating a miniature wood along the edge of the newly created Street Four. He has planted a line of saplings and protects them with lengths of salvaged cable and plastic bottles.

All week there's been debate about sustainable development and what it means. The most popular definition is that it's about this generation living in a way that does not wreck things for the next one. Zenilton has another definition. It involves having a vision for a better world and not waiting for anyone to tell you how to achieve it.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    jg problem is liberal politicians only know how tax and have know clue how jobs are created. jobs are created when someone either creates or invests in an Ideas that provides products or provides a service for a person that they can not do or is willing to pay for someone else to do.

    since poor people don't have skills there labor is cheap , skilled workers are richer and more educated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I think it is nice that some people care about some people living in squalor.
    Also think it nice that some people care about elderly people.
    But...Facts are facts...
    Squalor,just like our elderly,have been here for years.
    Anyone care to come up with a solution to Poverty?Or Elderly Care?
    Mr Cameron,Mr Millibrand,Mr Clegg...please feel free to respond.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    But I bet the G20 delegates enjoyted the lobster!


  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I thourght they were about to overtake the UK as an economic power!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    "It is generally people at the top of the ladder, who create jobs for those at the bottom"

    That's no reason for them to monopolize all of the wealth and leave everyone else in poverty!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I've seen this favela and the one in Cape Town. The obvious thing they have in common is people desperately needing jobs i.e. paid work.
    The World needs to create over one billion new jobs to pull people out of poverty and improve their lives. The sad thing is Governments don't seem able to work out how to do this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I wouldn't mind having one of those.
    Better than the poxy room I'm forced to rent because the generation before decided that housing was for them and the rich only!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    They say you learn from history. It's a shame our politicians don't listen and seem quite happy to drag our standards down to that lower than Rio's!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    People's opinions and thoughts don't actually mean anything as its based on assumption. The people that it affects don't have an outlet due to lack of resources. The privileged lead a sheltered life and face less difficult decisions. Life is a bitch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    What a silly assumption in this article that some of the world's foremost thinkers on poverty (and yes some of them are politicians) just can't understand poverty the way this journalist does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    Absolutely agree.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Unfortunately Brazil's problems are greater than simply improving living conditions. e.g. They will never have a good public health service. I live in Salvador and you can't walk 150m in the city without seeing a private clinic. With so much money invested in private healthcare - something that's beyond the reach of the majority of the population - there isn't the will to improve public health.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    53. Ex Tory Voter. I can only imagine (and for that I'm thankful) how difficult it must be to be homeless, regardless of location. I wouldn't want to diminish that. The point I was trying to make is that to say people living in favelas have it easier than UK homeless isn't a fair comparison because there are a LOT of people here much further down the ladder than than the people living in favelas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.


    Your arguement has become very tired and lame. The rich don't "give" the poor anything that doesn't serve their own purpose, it's nothing to do with their being socially responsible. That's why the poor stay poor

    Besides; If those at the bottom (who truely have nothing to lose) were to bring the whole rotten edifice down, what would they lose? Nothing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    There are genuine homeless here who have nothing."

    indeed, it's the first thing you discover when you become homeless - virtually no one will give you a break - certainly for single males - and certainly not those who shout loudest about the homeless making the streets untidy. It's always Somebody Else's Problem and Why Don;t 'They' Do Something about it. Try it, I have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I visited the favelas when in Rio in 2004 and found the people I met very friendly although we were warned not to use our cameras at certain times! Similarly the townshop on the outskirts of Cape Town in the same year - an interesting comparison. They all seemed very resourceful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    @Paul, #48 - "They look rather nice"? If you tried living in a typical favela home w/o proper sanitation, windows, proper roads, you'd quickly realise that they aren't so quaint and colourful. Homeless in the UK do NOT have less - they have the NHS, shelters, govt support. And favelados aren't homeless - you're comparing apples with oranges. There are genuine homeless here who have nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    40. brazilwatcher
    #34. It is generally people at the top of the ladder, who create jobs for those at the bottom, so burning the ladder will simply make everybody poor.
    Those at the bottom will still be in the same position as prior to burning the ladder. Those at the top will have no one to exploit, their wealth will diminish rapidly in trying to maintain their status.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    The only way to get rid of squalor conditions around the world is for the Governments of these countries to get off their fat lazy corrupt backsides and do something about it. They have the responsibility and no one else. Tax their rich and spend on plumbing, housing, health and education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Slums you say, I think they look rather nice - could say rustic executive luxury appartments. Not steril, not bland, could do with some laws about satalite dish's, but that would look about it. Homeless in the UK have less, large horible towerblock and estates look and compare alot worse on many respects.

    Maybe a comparision to the UK so called `slums` would be nice, top trumps anybody?


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