War For Peace

View from Rocinha Favela

In 2011, the government of Rio de Janeiro launched an operation to pacify the Favelas in and around the city. For years, these communities existed at odds with the established social order, and for decades social inequality, crime and misfortune festered while Brazil stood by and watched. This is a story of power, negligence and hope.

For the uninitiated, Favelas are massive, dense communities of the poorest and most marginalized people of Brazil. They arose through a combination of government neglect and persecution. Originally settled by soldiers fighting against farmers in the farmlands - the sertao, they settled in the hills of Rio after their victorious battles. The Favelas experienced massive growth when workers from all over the interior came to work on building the Marvelous City and set up shop next to work sites. While these people were building Rio, Rio was neglecting social, economic and developmental services in their communities as the vibrant beaches developed further and gated communities grew more secluded. Just in time came the US, military dictatorships and drug gangs.

Who would have guessed that the US and drugs could make things worse? USAID funded the attempted destruction of Favelas to “clean up” the postcard areas around Rio, and stop the “threat of communism” which actually just broke down the social fabric and development in these communities, allowing the growing drug trade to take root. I think this is an important point that is often missed in many conversations - the drug trade is a source of life and economy for millions of people. The global embargo on drugs has created a massive community of people disenfranchised from legal economic modes of prosperity, seeking to sustain themselves and their families through the nefarious nourishment of the drug trade. Cocaine flooded through Brazil, earmarked for Europe, as money and power multiplied in back alleys for ruthless drug lords who operated outside of the established morality of legal society. As the Favelas and poor were forgotten by social order, aid and development - they forged a way to sustain themselves through underground economies, at great cost to life and their communities.

Fast forward to the late 2000’s. Brazil is the 5th largest economy in the world and they want recognition on an international scale. The international consortium of global events descends upon Rio via international sports, mounting pressure to erect a shining facade for the world to see the positive while brushing away the obvious social inequality that lurks beneath. Thus, the plan to pacify the Favelas was born. The idea behind the Orwellian sounding process of pacification leaned on the police and military to take forceful control of the Favelas and remove by any means the drug lords and gangs that dominated the communities’ economies and social order. A war ensued that cost the lives of many innocent and guilty alike. 

I visited Rocinha Favela where just 5 years prior, the top honcho of the drug economy that fed 60% of Rio’s coke addiction, was caught by police. The scope of the communities was incredible, and the sheer density of people and houses was immense. I was able to visit because the pacification process opened the Favela up to the benefits of social integration that were denied to it for decades. Schools, artistic communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs could thrive without the threat of violence and could draw from the immense financial incentives from government organizations. The social system set up by the drug lords was rightfully being replaced by Brazil’s government after decades of neglect through infrastructure spending, health care access and business acceleration programs.

I titled this post War for Peace because I believe it strikes at the core of “how” many people in power think of development and social emancipation. For generations, the communities that became Favelas were ignored and shunned by Brazilian power brokers, elite and rich for the favour of few elites; social inequality was insurmountable and communities were forced to find a path of their own forward. The elites historically controlled the stake of poor communities through violent force and total legal and economic domination. Internally they did all they could to segregate and divide and stratify the social makeup. In addition, at every juncture, the global system (usually led by the US) pushed the interests of the powers that be - through the global drug war, through austerity and criminalization of non-violent behaviour. The world stage forced Brazil’s hand into addressing voices that have been silenced for too long. 

Even still, Rio’s Favelas have not reached an equilibrium. The violence that the government used to secure some peace can only thrive if the social institutions are there to serve as a safety net for the communities and they are empowered the build a viable, healthy economy. What happens when the world stops watching, the Olympics pass and the World Cup’s booming echoes fade into the sounds of everyday life? Will these communities be shunned again or will they be permanently integrated into the hearts and minds of Brazilian life? 

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Peace and Love

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