Ethical favela tours in Rio?
October 2, 2013 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I would like to see the favelas while I'm in Rio. I'd also like to not engage in poverty tourism. Is it possible to ethically and safely tour favela neighborhoods?

I should start out by saying I don't speak Spanish and while I'm an experienced traveler overall I've never been to Rio and wouldn't feel safe wandering around a favela neighborhood without a guide.

Poverty tourism and treating poor people like museum exhibits makes me deeply uncomfortable. I have no interest in going inside anyone's home as that seem invasive and bizarre, but I would like to walk around the streets of a favela neighborhood. It's a huge part of Rio and it seems weird to go there and not see how half the population lives. I've been to plenty of shanty towns around the world, but it is my understanding that the favelas are potentially very dangerous (although I think some are improving dramatically). Not know what I'm doinging and not speaking Spanish precludes me from going on my own safely. There are lots of favela tours, but from what I've read the guides bribe drug lords for safe passage, which is also something I'd rather not participate in.

Is there any ethical and safe ways to do a brief walking tour of a favela neighborhood? Any tour companies that are sensitive to these concerns? If it just isn't possible then I won't go. This was my initial instinct, but the more I think about it the more I think it's a unique experience I shouldn't just walk away from.
posted by whoaali to Travel & Transportation around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And by speak Spanish I mean Portuguese. D'oh. I'm also going to Argentina so I've had Spanish on the brain.
posted by whoaali at 8:14 PM on October 2, 2013

If not poverty tourism, what is it specifically you want to do in the favelas?
posted by ryanrs at 8:31 PM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: We do advocacy walks at my organisation in a similar situation, and they have evolved over the past few years, based on feedback from the community, program clients, staff and visitors.

Some of the things we've changed is no photography on the walk - people were focused on their cameras, they inadvertantly offended neighbours by including them in a shot of a house where we did have permission, children in the area looooved being photographed but we have pretty strict child protection guidelines so we kept having to discourage that, and it was just too complicated to do well. Straight out no photographs turns the focus on what you see and learn as well, not your facebook photo album.

We also set aside part of what is raised (we break even on the walks, but they frequently lead to significant donations and volunteering afterwards) to a quarterly community fund that benefits the greater community, not just the families in our programs. We've repaired sidewalks, roofs and paid for events.

We also pre-arrange visits to families and people in sex work. This is the most intense and impactful part of the walk, and the most difficult. These are very small groups, 1-4 people, with a known staff member translating, and we go over the guidelines on what is appropriate to ask, but it's still often difficult ethically. What we're at now is that anyone who participates for interviews must be asked in advance with no coercion (such as feeling like if they don't co-operate, their kid won't get enrolled, or feeling gratitude-forced), they can't be asked frequently so we have a list of possible interviewees we rotate through, and they have to be compensated for their time fairly (we use cans of food at a local value for half-a-day's work, cash for a similar time with sex workers who are on the job, because by talking with us, they're losing client time). Translation helps because we can refuse to ask inappropriate questions, but they're actually not that common.

The biggest request we had from our clients who agreed (about half the people we ask say no) is that people a) have basic local manners like taking shoes off, accepting a cup of water even if they don't drink it, and b) that it be a conversation. So now we encourage people to talk about their families and their jobs. If you're in a tiny slum and you've never been out of it, it's actually pretty fascinating to meet someone from across the world who tells you about their travel and their kids and so on. It makes the interview a conversation and it is so so much better all round.

We have a lot of problems with the advocacy walks and we get feedback after each walk and go over them twice a year and it's just a giant headache. We're still working on them. But they are worth it, not just for fundraising but for preparing volunteers and helping people understand the situation much more vividly than reading an account, and the families who participate have told us that they feel a sense of pride that their stories matter to someone far away, that they don't feel invisible or ignored, and that they want to talk. Not everyone does feel the same, but there are definitely people in poor communities who want you to visit and to talk to them.

Find a tour group connected to a favela-based organisation, preferably with favela-living staff too. Ask them what the tour money goes towards, and what their photography and child protection policies are. Ask them how they get the community on-board with the walks. If they can give you decent answers, I say go and give them feedback on how they can improve it.

It is tourism, but so is viewing Grand Homes in the UK, or going to a farm homestay. This is a very particular culture and environment, and visiting with respect, genuine interest and being willing to share your own story makes a huge difference.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:50 PM on October 2, 2013 [23 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Please note that the OP is asking: "Is there any ethical and safe ways to do a brief walking tour of a favela neighborhood? Any tour companies that are sensitive to these concerns?"
posted by taz (staff) at 3:35 AM on October 3, 2013

This guy, who lives in a favela, says he's a guide. You might try contacting him.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:59 AM on October 3, 2013

Depending on how long you'll be in Rio and how engaged you want to be, you might looking to "voluntourism." A non-profit I know of in Rocinha, Two Brothers/Dois Irmãos, has a voluntorism program for more short term visitors to the city. Might not be a perfect fit for what you want, but it is another option.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:23 AM on October 3, 2013

Dunno about tour operators, but in 2011 we had a survey (auto translated) regarding favela tourism, it's totally safe and mainstream these days. The two main tips are SPEND THERE and be sensitive with photography, people regard it as invasive. Brazilians appreciate it if you try to talk to them before taking the picture, something as simple as a hello, a smile and 'is this your house? it is nice, can i take a picture?' goes a looooong way.
posted by Tom-B at 4:07 PM on October 3, 2013

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