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RIO DE JANEIRO—“You don’t have to be afraid of going there—my cousin is a drug lord so the big guns won’t bother you,” my tour guide Filipe assured me. “It’s OK. I don’t need to collect data from that neighborhood,” I responded. We decided to stick to safer favelas.
I nervously clung onto the waist of my motorcycle taxi driver as we sped down the motorway. I was comforted, in part, by his decision to take the potholes slower than he normally would have. The obvious fear that the wide-eyed look on my face conveyed had convinced him to do that, but not to encourage me to wear a helmet—he refused my request, saying it was unnecessary.
I promised my friends and parents that I would only go to the favelas, or illegal and informal settlements, that were “pacificado.” However, the trip to the slum of Vidigal gave me a much better look into the real state of most of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
“Don’t take pictures around this corner,” Fil told me. He had let me take pictures everywhere during our trip this Saturday morning. “This is the drug dealers’ corner.” According to Fil, every favela has an area that drug dealers sell in and everybody knows where that is, so even though he was not from this favela, he knew when to be cautious.
I looked to my right, where an imposing man stood with a large metal gun slung over his right shoulder. In his hand was a huge bag of what looked like cocaine. He was dealing to a 200-pound woman, who appeared to be begging him, mercilessly.
One gram of cocaine here in the favelas sells for about six U.S. dollars. But because tourists don’t know how abundant cocaine is in these hills, the dealers can often get upwards of sixty dollars per gram when they sell on the beach. I was surprised to see the heavyset woman purchasing cocaine, so I asked Fil about it.
“Oh, it’s the old people who normally do cocaine—especially old women! They’re hooked. The young people do marijuana.”
Among the endangered birds and lush tropical rainforests that populate the million-dollar views of Ipanema Beach, lie squatter settlements oversaturated with drug dealers who make thousands of dollars a month, several times greater than the average salary of favela residents (a few hundred dollars a month.) Their business model is to hook young people on their drugs and kill rival dealers. It is a place even the police avoid.
A month ago, I arrived in Rio de Janeiro with a thesis idea and a goal: Surveys to be completed by 110 favela residents on their transportation methods and housing status. However, as I visited more and more favelas, the issue I plan to study seems more daunting than ever. There are over 500 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, each housing some 15,000 people.
The rising cost of living in Rio makes it increasingly difficult for favela residents to continue living there. Furthermore, some of these houses are not in safe building zones, and the pressure to relocate these residents combined with the incentives to build expensive condominiums in the place of the favelas, creates even more tension between residents and the local government.
The 80-page document that I turn in next spring will offer an environmentally and economically sustainable solution that I deem an efficient use of time and money from a scholarly perspective. However, implementing such change when lives, histories, and families are at stake is another battle entirely.
Ling Lin ’12, an associate design editor, is an Environmental Sciences and Public Policy concentrator in Quincy House.
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