The Ethics of Poverty Tourism

Opinions  /  by Emilia Figueroa-Valik '18  /  October 06, 2017

Fiona Gould '18 / The Lawrence

In a bout of Netflix-surfing my freshman year, I stumbled upon the Brazilian film Cidade de Deus and was captivated by the alternate universe flashing across my screen. In a post-apocalyptic world of extreme poverty, gangs of teenagers dashed through crumbling streets wielding massive guns, while innocent citizens struggled under unpredictable drug lords who shot down preschoolers.

The Internet told me that these lawless slums, or favelas, actually existed throughout Brazil’s urban hilltops. So when the opportunity arose to visit Brazil with my father this past summer, I insisted that we take a trip inside one.

We met with Marco, a resident of favela Santa Marta, one of the first favelas occupied by a pacifying police unit (UPP). Although Marco assured us he could navigate the favela, I immediately felt uneasy. The phrase “You are going to die” had been spray-painted across a slab of concrete at the entrance. Past the open-air shops along the main street, an armed policeman presided at the base of a flight of stairs beside precariously stacked houses of hand-laid brick. We were told that at night, drug lords assumed the policeman’s watch.

Once we got off the cable car near the top of the hill, we sidestepped open sewage, walked past tangled electrical lines, and wound through tight alleys past women carrying whining, naked babies. I felt like we were trespassing. While Marco pointed out the best views, I overheard mothers complaining that our group blocked the path. At the sight of two shirtless kids flying a kite in the framework of a house, I decided I wanted to leave. Marco, confused, asked if I didn’t like the favela. To him, my refusal to take pictures at the special sites signified disgust at my surroundings. I wasn’t sure how to answer him.

Later that night, a persistent guilt led me to articles debating the merits and intentions behind “poverty tourism” and favela visits. Some critics claim engaging in poverty tourism is similar to watching movies that invite the viewer into scenes of poverty like Cidade de Deus. At its worst, these slums become human zoos in which the captivity of their residents evokes schadenfreude. Such exhibitions even lead to the romanticization of poverty, feeding the hackneyed idea that “although the poor may have nothing, it makes them so resourceful and grateful for what they do have!”

However, dehumanizing the residents or trivializing their struggles is not an inherent feature of the tours. For one, the tours help support the favela by employing resident guides and increasing foot traffic for local businesses. For tourists with clear motivations, poverty tourism allows them to understand how a large portion of society experiences daily life. For my dad, visiting the favela illustrated the age-old disparity between classes and races and how rural poverty caused mass migration to cities, with new arrivals erecting shanty towns in the meantime.

In short, I went on the tour for all the wrong reasons. I lacked historical context and entered with the expectation of witnessing a live-action thriller or verifying my prior stereotypes. Despite this mistake, visiting the favela profoundly affected my viewpoint and made me understand why I’d felt so ashamed on the tour. Marco explained that while the people inside the favela suffer from both the oppressive police forces and the brutal reign of the drug lords, the favela was still his home, his community. Through the tour, I saw that the residents were people—people whose labor helped keep the city running, people without the glamor of a movie plot or the ability to pick another story.

Later that night, on the drive home from a fancy dinner, the unmistakable twinkling lights from favela Rocinha—population 300,000—pierced the darkness, attracting attention from passersby, demanding not to be forgotten amid the luxury of Rio de Janeiro.