Welcome to Rio

Last Tuesday evening Ella and I were feeling quite down, in part a product of the usual hectic stuff of life (recent house move, raising baby daughter, blah, blah…) plus getting into what we call the ‘hospital zone’ ready for my yearly brain scan (a very long story, blah, blah…). By 2200 however we were feeling so much happier and stronger thanks to the BBC 2 documentary Welcome to Rio and its insights into favela life in the shadows of the stadia and luxury hotels of Rio de Janeiro.

I’m a fan of Keo Films’ Welcome to Lagos, and this first of three Rio episodes adopted a similar format by introducing the slums via three guides. The first was Rocky, a scrap trader and carrier of white goods up and down the steep steps of Cantagolo’s hills where he lives with his family. Second was Acme, an artist and creator of local Banksy like murals, but our third guide offered a very different perspective. Cue Commander Gripp, a senior police officer from a specialist unit responsible for the ‘pacification’ (sic) of the favelas. They had driven the drug dealers from Cantagolo, but the locals appeared equally wary of the heavily armed police patrols that replace them.

The narration was irritating and patronising at times, but the film provided a fascinating environmental health journey into informal settlement life including open sewers, illegal electricity connections and unplanned shack housing. Rocky and Acme were at constant risk of eviction, their homes and businesses classified as ‘illegal’ by the city authorities and rumours rife that the government sledgehammers were imminent. But both also demonstrated their expertise in responding to this turbulence. Acme joined a local action group (including University academics, hurrah!!) that organised successfully to protect his home, whilst Rocky converted the proceeds from his scrap metal store to refurbish his cargo bicycle and no doubt create new business opportunities.

Lastly, I don’t know how government environmental health works in Brazil and therefore my following opinions could be way out of line. However, I’ve worked in a few African informal settlements in the past and within the barbed wire fenced compounds of many hotels across the world. Therefore I fear that instead of working to support slum dwellers like Rocky and Acme to improve their public health, local EHPs are probably busy condemning their now ‘pacified’ homes and working hard to ensure the environmental health of all World Cup and Olympic venues will be ‘fit for purpose’! If our countries and cities can find the billions to stage one-off mega-events like this surely, as many Brazilian protesters argue, we can find similar sums to invest in our schools, hospitals and wider public health? Maybe I’m being naïve, but as I watch the next episode tonight I will be asking myself what kind of urban environmental health we want?

By Rob Couch

For UK residents, past episodes can be watched (for a limited period) via: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045h9nn

A few useful resources for further information:

Environment and Urbanization (an open access and peer-reviewed journal): http://eau.sagepub.com/

Shack/Slum Dwellers International: http://www.sdinet.org/

The Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions: http://www.cohre.org/topics/mega-events

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