By Cecilie Hestbaek, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One of the popular outgoing president Lula’s last initiatives in office was to launch the new program Rio Top Tours – Rio de Janeiro from a new perspective. Lula recently visited the favela Dona Marta, to inaugurate the project, a pacified favela that, with the presidential visit, symbolized a new safety for the area and the first step on the way to big changes for the community.

Vidigal favela from above, photo by Cecilie Hestbaek.

“We are obliged to make up for the time lost and ensure that our children will not have to refer to any area as a favela,” the president told the press, and the intention is to expand the program to communities all over the country.

If the reputations of these areas do actually improve, it will not only be a gain for their inhabitants, but also send an important signal to the world that the government has improved the security situation in a city renowned for its high crime rate.

Recently a hostage episode at a luxury hotel involving a gang of criminals from Rocinha cast light on the almost lawless state of certain areas of Rio and raised international doubt whether the security level in the city will be sufficient for the upcoming Football World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016.

Tourism in the favelas arranged by private operators has been an existing phenomenon for quite a few years. By inviting tourists to experience the cultural life of the morros with locals as guides, the new government tourist project is aimed on bringing development to the pacified favelas.

Bernadete Soares Pereira grew up in the favela Vidigal in Zona Sul, and is now leading a local NGO. She is worried that tourism in the favelas will take the shape of a ‘safari’ instead of an insight into the lives of the people that live and work there. The neighboring Rocinha is one of the typical destinations of the various existing privately arranged favela tours in the back of a jeep, and it is obvious, according to Bernadete, that a lot of these tourist trips are merely about the profit.

“The tours in Rocinha go to the poorest areas, the tourists take pictures of poor people in miserable houses, and then they go back home,” she says.

However, the favelas are not just poor, violent areas but also a place of living, working and partying, and the new tourism project might help bring that to light, says Theotonio dos Santos, economy professor at the UN scientists’ network REGGEN. Dos Santos conducts research into sustainable development and thinks there is a tendency to overlook the significant cultural contributions to the Brazilian society provided by the favelas.

Kids from Vidigal hone their football skills, photo by Ceceile Hestbaek.

Violent media stories from the area contribute to the stigmatization of the inhabitants of the morros and make it harder for them to improve living standards by attracting investments and development projects to the area. But what the media fails to report is that a good deal of traditional Brazilian culture comes directly from the favelas, Theotonio dos Santos explains. “Historically, the favelas have always fostered the best samba schools, and many of the country’s top musicians grew up in them.”

“This is where the special baile funk parties are held, and often you can spot the newest tendencies of the Brazilian fashion in the favelas,” the professor says. Dos Santos is sure that the tourism project has potential and could be a step on the way to higher appreciation of the favelas’ cultural significance for Brazil.

Whether Rio Top Tours will remain a parenthesis in a series of attempts to improve living standards in the favelas or come to stand out as one of the last success stories of the popular Lula government, only time will tell.


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