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The real Rio: they don't care about us


Favela Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Credit: Speak Your Mind // Sam Bowstead


The statue of Michael Jackson standing proudly over Rio.

Credit: Speak Your Mind // Sam Bowstead

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By Sam Bowstead, courtesy of the award-winning website, Speak Your Mind.

One of Michael Jackson’s most famous songs was the 1995 “They Don’t Care About Us”. The music video became a sensation featuring panoramic shots set in Rio de Janeiro and importantly, of him dancing within the community of favela Santa Marta.

I had the privilege of visiting this 'cominidade' recently, however I wonder if MJ’s words speak more truth today than they did almost twenty years ago. This reflection is particularly poignant, given the number of heads of governments and delegates at the Rio+20 summit.

Walking up the steep winding steps through the community, there were several things evident to me that stood out:

The permanent state of the buildings. Although an “informal settlement”, this favela has street names and numbers, with solid buildings and small open spaces. At the summit there is often talk of moving people from informal settlements. No, these people are here to stay.

The urban structure. Narrow lane-ways broke out onto small shaded areas mean people are kept cool, out of the harsh sun. Modernist designers could perhaps learn a thing or two about climatic response from these guys.

The aesthetics; Santa Marta is beautiful. This is not hard given its position on the steep slopes overlooking the Rio skyscrapers below. Towards the bottom, buildings are painted in colours that have made these favelas famous across the world. Such a simple intervention gives the space a great sense of amenity.

Community structure; this is a close community. You can tell when you see kids walking home together from school, through the maze of stairs and then breaking out onto random open plazas to play football. There was a clear etiquette of how people used the tight spaces and you could tell there was a strong spirit of cooperation and support. This is particularly evident since an intervention to reduce drug crimes in 2008. When people talk about “social infrastructure” in UN presentations, this is what they’re talking about.

Above all, there appeared to be a strong sense of place. Whether it was the row of bars named after their owners, the street numbers enscribed on the buildings, or the political declarations painted across banners which are visible to all who look up the hill. People have a certain pride in what they have been able to develop independently as a community.

A statue of Michael Jackson stands about halfway up the slope, which I found rather comical – I saw this as a testament to someone who brought positive attention to the community.

There was an serious lack of sanitation, and some of the buildings looked worse for wear. Favela Santa Marta is a very poor community. This was even more evident once we journeyed across the crest of the mountain and down to Laranjeiras. Palatial homes with vine-covered fences portrayed the stark contrast between rich and poor that was so often talked about at the summit.

Perhaps delegates should have gone to see it. Perhaps then, petty politics and talk may be have been put aside in favour of real action.

While my experience in Santa Marta can’t be extrapolated to all “informal settlements” across the world, it certainly gave a grounded view when listening to the high level plenary talks at nearby Rio+20.

These communities have so much potential, international leaders need to provide concrete results in alleviating the gap between rich and poor so that their potential can be reached. When this happens, communities will be empowered to sustainably develop from a grass roots level, improving much needed functional infrastructure while perpetuating a strong sense of community and human dignity.

With Rio+20 having just concluded; we have no solid plan of action to deal with the rapid urbanisation of our planet. We have seen lots of talk, some promises, but nothing of substance. The responsibility of “sustainable development” now seems to fall upon the individuals who are forced to act themselves.

I can’t help but think that Michael Jackson may have been on to something. The 50,000 people who were here have turned a blind eye to a perfect example of the issues being discussed at the conference.

Did they not care? Maybe everyone just got a little caught up in their own agendas.

I’ve probably a little bit guilty of this myself. Cheers to Rio+40.