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Travelling through the favelas: A cable car ride over Rio de Janeiro’s slums

City Tour no Complexo do Alemão by Sebástian Freire is licensed - under CC BY 2.0
City Tour no Complexo do Alemão by Sebástian Freire is licensed - under CC BY 2.0

Let’s think back for a moment to the summer of 2014. The entire world had its eyes on Brazil, host of the football World Cup. The country’s government proudly spent years and millions preparing for the games, including the construction of a cable car travelling over the favelas, or slums, of Brazil’s second largest city. The project was originally pitched as a way out of poverty for the estimated 1.3 million of Rio’s nearly 12 million (metro area) inhabitants who live in dire conditions. But with the 2014 World Cup now nothing more than a distant memory (well, maybe not for Germany), and with Russia pegged to host the event in 2018, what’s become of Rio’s ambitious plans?

Complexo do Alemão, Rio’s biggest favela, was long run by gangs who saw violence as a way of life. But after winning both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the government knew it had to do something about the bad reputation and inhumane living conditions of its poorest quarters. So five years ago, the military and police force moved in to occupy the territory. During this time, 40 people lost their lives.

The cable car - a way out?

The favelas are located on Rio’s outskirts, far away from the bustling city’s sparkling tourist areas and famous sandy beaches – and from jobs and educations opportunities. The cable car was to remedy this problem by providing a quick, easy alternative to the winding streets and stairways linking the slums to the city centre. Of course, tourists and their big pocketbooks were welcome to take a ride, too.

Every day 152 cable cars travel back and forth along the 3.5 kilometre-long cable car ride, a 16-minute trip end-to-end.[1] Since its grand opening, the new transport option has earned a place among the city’s most popular tourist attractions, mostly to experience the sweeping aerial views of Rio and the surrounding area. If they’re actually interested in seeing the favelas remains up for debate. At 5 real (approximately 1.50 euros) per ride at the weekends, selling tickets to tourists potentially generates good income for the operators. Favela residents, on the other hand, can pre-register for two free-of-charge rides per day, otherwise they pay a reduce fare of 1 real (around 30 cents).[2]

Tourist sensation or not, the cable cars remain extremely controversial. Yes, the favelas are now better integrated in the city, but what are the net effects on the inhabitants?

Ask around the slums and you’ll find mixed reviews of the city’s latest transportation option. Understandably, many believe there are causes more worthy of huge sums of money than a cable car – like building a basic sanitation system.[3] Some still feel burned for being forced out of their flats to the cable car could span across the hilltops. And ultimately the atmosphere in the favelas remains tense with frequent conflict between the police and gangs. Again and again there are shootings and the police accuses the residents of always taking things into their own hands.

To further complicate things, Complexo do Alemão is the location of a popular Brazilian telenovela and million see the cable car soaring through the background of the scenes every day. The cable cars’ modern design is also repeatedly criticized for not fitting the slums. Cutting-edge transportation may be nice for tourists and the city’s prestige, but it’s of zero interest to those living in poverty.

Olympic Games in 2016

In a little over a year the Olympic flame will arrive in Brazil. In efforts that critics may consider whitewashing, the country continues to undertake great, expensive measures to improving the image of their infamous slums. Police and better infrastructure have certainly rendered the favelas. They are less dangerous than in the past. But realistically we’ll have to wait until after the Olympics to judge if Brazil is genuinely interested in improving the standard of living in its slums or if it was all faked while the world was watching.

What do you think of the project and its intentions? Will the transport option benefit the favelas’ inhabitants in the long run?