On Wednesday I joined another manager from the program I work in, Territories of Peace, and her assistant to accompany their work in a community of the north area of Rio de Janeiro. There is a great difference between the “zones” in which locals divide the State of Rio. The south zone, which comprises the most touristic areas, is wealthier, more populated and busier than the north zone, or the west zone, which are known to be poorer and more desolate. These also works for the communities located in these areas, the communities in the south have the privilege of enjoying more job activities related to tourism and have more resources and attention directed towards them. There are very few if any tourist attractions in the north and the west, thus most tourism gathers on the southeast making more financial assets and investment flow into that area.
In the north there is more poverty, less access to services and less development in general. Communities in the north have been historically more violent than those in the south, with greater confrontation and weapon trade aside from drug trafficking. Also, some communities are more closed and they have less incoming migrants than the south, which because of its wealth and better standards of living is more attractive to emigration. For this, north communities become closer and tighter, a fact that while it brings more familiarity into the process, it does not necessarily make people more cooperative in striving for change and development.
The north community that I went to is a small community of approximately 3,000 people. When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, some former slaves went to settle on this hill and this community started to grow. Since then, it has become a closed community and many of the people that live in it were born there and have lived there all their lives. The historical government’s absence from these communities facilitated that when drug traffic became strong in Rio de Janeiro, in the late 80’s and 90’s, these northern areas with a poorer population became very affected. This community was no exception, and traffic exists until today despite the recent government intervention in the form of the UPP forces that have been occupying the area for the last two years.
Today I took a walk around the community and talked to some of the locals. One of the owners of a bar took us around to find some people we had to establish contact with. They “allowed” me and even asked me to take some pictures, but they were rather quiet all the way. I found this surprising, since I am used to the warm and talky residents of the community that I work in. The streets were almost empty, everything was very quiet and, while there were people going up and down the hill, it was mostly inside of vans. The manager had already told me “people here are very silent.” This was definitely different from what I am used to work with. In Vidigal, people are eager to speak up, they like to talk, generate opinions, make contributions and many usually come to the scheduled meetings and participate. In that community some people do participate in the meetings, but the environment is very closed and there is still a sense of censure in their speeches. This, in part, is due to fear. In the context of this community there are at least two sides to fear that I came to know about. People are fearful to speak up because there is still drug traffic happening, and thus there is also repression and conflict of interests. I was told how during a meeting someone spoke against a process that was not being democratic but done out of exchange of interests. As people started to corroborate, the person who had spoken received a text message with a thread, and so the discussion ended. As very big communities can be hard to work in because there are too many people to reach, this shows how small communities can also be complicated because the fact that they all know each other leads to a continuous sense of vigilance, and everything said or done is taken as personal.
The other dimension of fear is one of suspicion. Because even though there is still traffic there is no longer armed conflict in the community, and people are fearful to get used to this and then for conflict to soon return. Before, there were usual shootouts and confrontations between police and between confronting factions. Currently, arms and ammunition have been removed from the community and many traffickers run away to other not-yet-pacified communities in the north, while others have switched to other occupations or to a “non-armed way of dealing.” For this, many residents are very content with the UPP occupation. Mothers say that they are happy that now their children can play on the streets and on the square, a square that before was known as “the war square.” Nevertheless they are fearful that the government will soon retrieve UPP, the whole initiative will die out and they will have to go back to the old days. Owners of small businesses and bars say that they are afraid to serve policemen in their stores, because if one day soon they leave for good the traffickers may come back and take revenge. However, at the same time, the policemen are trying to go into de community, frequent the stores and make part of their lives there. As the UPP Captain of that department told us when we met with him later in the day, “I need them to know I am just like they are, we are people that like the same things. I like to have a beer, they like to have a beer, I like to have a chat and drink a beer and many weekends I come here and I don’t wear my uniform and I just go for a beer to a bar over here, because I need them to know that we are not enemies, that we are the same people and we like the same things and we can work together. I come here and cut my hair, my father comes here to watch the game on Sundays and someone calls me on the phone ‘Oi, your dad is at the bar’ and I did not even know my dad was there. They have to see we are the same people who just chose different professions.” He said that he did not want to perpetuate the stereotype of policemen as the enemy, but what for them is a new concept of policemen as a worker for the people.
Still, there is reticence from the locals to embrace policemen as partners, which is understandable given the high levels of corruption and the little confidence transmitted by police forces in these areas until very recently. They say that the most difficult sector of the population to approach is being the young population, those between the age of 15 and 30-40 years old. “The children are easy to talk to because they have everything to learn, and the elder are also open to change because they remember a time in the community where violence and drugs did not exist.” They said. The young though are rather conflictive because they grew and learn in the context of trafficking, weapons and violent and intrusive police, thus they are used to those dynamics. Also, another distinction they noticed is that there is more participation and cooperation for change from the side of women than of men. However, the manager and her assistant are both women –and also me- and when we went to talk to the owners of businesses, which were all men, about the forthcoming business project in the community they all were very diligent and I did not notice them undermining us because of gender. But how they treat us, as outsiders, certainly differs from how they treat women from the community.
Concluding, I saw that there is a different environment in the communities on the south zone than in the north zone. To work with each of them is challenging in different ways, and there are good and bad sides to both. I have described some difficulties that arise in Vidigal where everyone wants to participate, have something to say and many times have the last word. Now I am identifying the opposite, which is the difficulty that appears where no one wants to speak and it is harder to reach a consensus not because there are too many opinions but because there is so much silence. The manager of this community, who had attended some of the meetings to plan the Rio +20 event in Vidigal, told me “I saw how you gathered so many people in those reunions, here I find it almost impossible to get people together. You’ve seen it, I can barely find the people because there is nobody on the streets.” But, even though at a slower pace, they are also infiltrating the community. Today, they said, it was a very good day. We talked with a few local business owners and they all were interested in participating on a survey that they will hand out next week. This survey is an attempt to map out and identify needs that commerce in the community has. They want to find out how many business initiatives there are in the area, how many are regulated, how many are getting benefits from the state, if they can connect them with a program that funds small businesses, if they need any course support, etc. It was great to see that those who we asked did not even agreed to take the survey but also wanted to get involved and add and remove questions of the survey themselves.
As the manager said, this is something done for the community and they are beginning to see that. Even though the government can appear as careless or its policies be inefficient, the people that work at the lower levels such as her, her assistant or others in similar positions are of good heart and do this because they find very rewarding and genuinely want to help (I must add here that this a personal impression I have gotten here, because from what I have been asking I found many of the people working in these positions to be extremely well formed in educational terms, while from what I know the salary does not correspond this. Many even had other better paid jobs before that they left to become involved in this initiative.) Once again, in this different context I saw the start of a positive evolution towards development and a more peaceful environment. Hopefully things continue to more towards change in this direction and locals can get a little more of, as the guy on the main picture tattooed on his arm, Felicidade (happiness).