Community development shows why Rio deserved Olympics over Chicago

A collective gasp swept through Daley Plaza in October 2009 when Chicago’s first-round elimination in the contest to host the 2016 Summer Olympics was announced. I was there – the possibility of the biggest international event in the world taking place where I lived turned me into a supporter of the bid – and I couldn’t help my disappointment as I watched the decision’s broadcast.

Instead, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was selected as the host city, which surprised many. Brazil had already been selected as the host nation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and many said the city’s violence, drug problems and infrastructure failures would make it a less-than-ideal host for either event.

In light of these criticisms, as well as the rising economic influence of Brazil around the world, I was excited to visit Rio and see how all of the international attention was affecting the most criticized aspects of the city and what, if any, changes had been made since its selection as Olympic host.

The Olympic Committee expects more than 2 million visitors during the Games, and believes that this huge influx will benefit all levels of the economy. Not only will private businesses benefit, but community organizers are finding ways to use the increased income as a tool for development in Rio’s favelas.

The favelas, or “communities” in the politically correct terminology, are vast, illegally self-constructed slums set high in the hills of Rio. As a response to international criticism, the Brazilian government began funding police pacification units in 2009, which gave drug organizations the ultimatum to get out before the units would begin occupation of the communities.

The threat worked, and crime rates have fallen. Many of these areas are turning the decrease in violence and increase in international attention into what may be their most sustainable mode of economic devlopment yet: “Favela Experience” tourism. These tours offer international visitors the chance to see a favela through the eyes of its residents. Coinciding with the growing popularity of alternative travel modes such as “voluntourism” and “ecotourism,” favela tourists can actually provide a service to a community. In Rio, I attended one such tour in the Babilônia Community, which has an estimated 3,000 residents and overlooks the famous Copacabana beach.

Babilônia is one of many areas offering specialized tours in order to create an attractive identity. It hosts a rainforest restored and preserved by community members, complete with bananas, marmosets and capuchin monkeys. Other communities focus on graffiti tours or sewing, and one is even famous for Michael Jackson memorabilia.

Neighborhood leaders have reclaimed tour rights from outside companies, which previously led groups into the communities without actually benefitting them. My guide, Edson Vander, has lived in Babilônia his entire life and told me that through the reclamation of the “Favela Experiences” his community has partnered with tourists in a positive way.

Tours begin with a meal prepared by local women, who receive part of the tour fee. Handmade canvas bags and beverages can be purchased from small shops, bringing money directly into the community. Edson told me that since the police pacification units entered the area, co-operatives have been established to provide school tutoring programs and even create communal exercise spaces. The tour guide job also represents a legal alternative to other sources of income such as selling drugs when kids see their own neighbors, such as Edson, speaking another language and working legally within their own communities.

Edson went on to tell me that through the international attention of the World Cup and Olympics, he hopes that favelas can break the cycle of organized crime and police occupation. He’d like Brazil to build a legacy of improved transportation and tourism because of the infrastructural changes that go along with preparations for the Olympics and World Cup.

“Rio has become a fever,” he said, pointing out multiple high profile movies filmed there such as The Incredible Hulk. The international attention and tourism has already helped his community forge economic partnerships with Switzerland and Sweden, which send money and supplies to continue to develop the area.

Babilônia offers a model of how sustainable international tourism and community development can work. The interaction does not focus on charity, but partnership. With the influx of foreign visitors for both the World Cup and Olympics, cooperative relationships will increase, with new audiences, interest and funds.

A Chicago Olympics would not have been able to create venues for development the way Rio has. Rio’s communities will benefit in ways Chicago’s don’t currently have the ability to. This isn’t to say that development in Rio is more important than development in Chicago, but rather that the response to international criticism of Rio has quickly created systems of development for its citizens.

While Chicago tries to downplay its poverty, international attention forced the Brazilian government to address its issues in order to gain acceptance. By stressing Rio’s flaws, the international community can and has created a system for sustainable solutions through partnerships on a global scale.

I’ve come to think it’s a good thing that Chicago lost its bid because of these benefits to communities in Rio. What I saw as the weaknesses of Rio de Janeiro in 2009 I now see, here in its neighborhoods, as reasons the Games actually went to the right city.

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