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Day 51: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilMorro do Cantagalo is only one of hundreds of poor neighbourhoods that have grown up to house, in a fairly chaotic and unregulated way, the million or so poor people, often from the North-East, who have come to the city in the hope of work, wages and a decent chance for their children. For many it didn't happen. There was nothing on offer. The easiest way to make money was to deal drugs or be a runner for an existing drug dealer. The favelas, ignored by the city authorities, fell under the control of organized crime. Weapons were given to children as young as nine or ten. The book Cidade de Deus (City of God) by Paulo Lins, from which the viscerally powerful 2002 film of the same name was made, gives a flavour of life in poor communities that became war zones run by competing gangs, in which bullying and protection went hand in hand. Over the last two or three years, mindful of the damage this was doing to the city's reputation, and with the World Cup and Olympic spotlight about to turn on them, the authorities decided it was time to take back the favelas from the gangs and give control to the majority of law-abiding people who lived there, and without whom day-to-day life in Rio would grind to a halt. Of course, they should have done this a long time ago; but, like so many others, the police turned a blind eye for too long.

They call the new policy 'pacification'. It was first rolled out in 2008. It involves a concerted operation between civilian and military police moving in, ejecting the drug gangs and replacing them with a legitimate local organization bolstered by increased investment in housing, schools and services. A priority is the establishment of initiatives for those most vulnerable to the gang culture, the young men and boys. In Cantagalo, for instance, a surf school was set up to give all the younger people access to a sport previously confined to wealthy white boys. It was so successful that a popular Globo TV show made it their nominated charity and put in 10,000 reais. Surfing is an expensive sport that would have been beyond the means of almost everyone in the favela, but they make their own boards for half the price they cost in the shops, wetsuits are provided and, with the best waves on Ipanema Beach only a short walk down the hill, they can be for a while the equals of any other surfer from any other background. I walk along to watch them. There are boys and girls from up in Cantagalo ducking, diving, riding and tumbling with best of them. Jefferson, one of their top teachers, is only twenty-three and wise beyond his years.

'Surfing is a training for life,' he reckons. 'It's about knowing when to take your opportunity. It's about not being afraid.'

The removal of the drug gangs is one thing, but what matters most is keeping them from returning. This involves nothing less than reversing the long-term effects of a community that has become used to being controlled, and at the same time protected, by organized crime. There are many barriers to be broken down, much mistrust to be overcome, before the favela can be seen as a part of, not apart from, the rest of the city.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 51: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 211

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