I certainly understand the controversy about slum tours. I am both FOR and AGAINST them. Let me explain this.
I was born, grew up and still live in Brazil's largest slum, or favela. Life is dificult yes, but not impossible. I am proud to live here in Rocinha. I will never leave here, I do not want to leave here. This is my home. This is my feeling about this issue of slum/favela tourism.
What I like about the tours is the contact I get from foreigns who come here. This interaction helps me to educate people about my life here in the favela. When foreigners come here I feel like my home or favela has value and is worth to be seen. The Brazilian government mostly ignores us and helps us very little. We want our voice to be heard. I want to feel that somebody on the outside cares about us and recognizes that we exist. Up until about a few years ago favelas did not exist on maps. Why was this?
Many foreigners come to learn how we create and live in our comunity with little or no goverment involvement. Others come because of the art and culture that exist here.
I do not judge why people come, they confirm that we exist.
I started in tourism becase I saw the opportunity to show my favela and help create jobs for others here.
We live here, and should be making the tours here. I have heard outsider tour companies exaggerate things or tell outright lies about my favela. They do this becase they do not know and do not live here. I am here to share a social experience, not provide some adrenalin tour.
With my work, many visitors return to volunteer with social projects or to start their own programs in the favela. Recently people have contacted me wanting to make projects like a rooftop garden class. Another person wants to help bring solar energy here. These are people who came on visits here in the favela. Is this bad?
What I do NOT like about the tours...tours that use jeeps or trucks are the worst because they present us like a zoo. The tourists have no contact with the locals and this reinforces a sense of possible danger. Tours or visits where the guests walk in the favela are more welcome. There is one company that tells their guests not to interact with the locals if they are approached. This is wrong.
The glamorization of violence is another thing that we do not like here. It is as if these companies are trying to capitalize on some kind of excitement. Favelas are not war zones, and people need understand that real, honest hardworking people live there, we just make less money.
There are tour companies here who use the comunity to make money but they give very little or nothing back to the community. This is not right. They should contribute something for the betterment of the favela. There are plenty of social projects here that could use help.
I am not ashamed to live in the favela and people should not feel shame to come and visit. All we ask is please do not take photos of us like we are animals, and do not have fear if we say hello to you on the street.
If we want to stop or reduce poverty, we need to stop pretending it does not exist. I call it socially responsible tourism. If you chose to tour this type of comunity, try to give something back, however big or small. I work with an art school and encourage people to bring art supplies, not money.
Slums, favelas and shanties are where 1/3 of the population live in all major cities, serving the needs of mostly the rich. Visiting these places may increase your knowledge and awareness at a much deeper level than visiting a museum or art exhibition. Ignoring poverty is not going to make it go away and those who have more, should not feel guilt. Unfortunately, this world will always have this unbalance of wealth. Sad but true.
Read more about Zezinho on his blog, Life in Rocinha or book a favela walking tour.