Slum creates its own web site

Posted: 7 November 2003

Author: Rasna Warah

Our roving reporter, Rasna Warah, reports from Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest slum, on a brand new experience in internet communication.

Deep in the heart of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest slum, a state-of-the-art cybercafe is buzzing with activity. Many of the computer users - residents of Rocinha, who pay as little as one dollar per hour for Internet access - come in everyday to check the latest news on Viva Favela (www.vivafavela.com.br) a Web site in Portuguese designed exclusively around the needs and interests of the city's slum dwellers.

View of the <em>favelas</em> of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio
View of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio
View of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio

"For many years, the government and the mainstream media acted as if these people did not exist," explains Cristiane Ramalho, the editor-in-chief of Viva Favela. "The traditional mainstream media looked at favelas (slums) as places where bad things happen, where there are drugs and a lot of violence." Ramalho says that Viva Favela, launched two years ago, has attempted to go beyond the stereotypical images of favelas by carrying more positive stories on slum life.

"There is so much happening in favelas that we don't know about, stories of courage and hope," she says. "Viva Favela focuses on those stories, in addition to providing important information on jobs, entertainment, sports, health and education." According to Ramalho, Viva Favela is "a great experiment in reducing the digital divide between the rich and the poor of Rio", helping to promote what she calls "digital inclusion".

Breaking myths

An initiative of Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO established in 1993, Viva Favela is today a force to reckon with in Brazil's cyber landscape. With 420,000 hits a month, it has a readership larger than many national newspapers. Most readers are Rio's favela residents, who gain Internet access through various computer centres set up by Viva Rio in the city's over 500 favelas. However, an increasing number of readers are from outside the city, which has even made the mainstream national media take notice.

"We often get calls from O Globo and some of the larger mainstream media organisations, asking for more information on a story they read in Viva Favela," says Ramalho, with a glint of triumpth in her eyes. "Because many of our correspondents are residents of the favelas, they make good sources for stories," she adds.

Viva Favela has also broken some of myths surrounding life in favelas. Ramalho says that far from being sites of miserable poverty and violence, Rio's slums are extremely lively and energetic places where music, sports and businesses thrive. Slum residents are also highly organised , forming associations and clubs that deal with everything from HIV/Aids to samba.

Drug dealers

Rocinha, Rio's largest and most vibrant favela, hosts an estimated 250,000 of the city's over one million slum dwellers, who make up at least one-fifth of the city's population. A stone's throw away from Rio's glamourous Ipanema Beach, Rocinha enjoys a standard of living that would be the envy of many middle class people in other parts of the world.

Nestled against one of the many hillsides that dot Rio's stunning landscape, the favela boasts more than 700 shops, five schools, two free health clinics, over 20 butcheries, a dozen or so video rental stores, an FM station, a samba school, a soccer team, a small "hotel", two post offices, two police stations and even a modelling agency, which has its own Web site, where beautiful models can be seen against the backdrop of a favela.

However, there is a dark side. Gang warfare and shootouts with the police are common in Rio's favelas, earning the city the reputation of being one of the most violent in the world. When I visited Rochinha with a group of journalists, we were almost killed in cross-fire between drug dealers and the narcotics police. It is said that every six days one person in Rio gets killed by a stray bullet.

"The drug dealers are only a tiny minority of favela residents," insists Ramalho. "The majority are ordinary people who have hopes and dreams like everyone else. They want nice clothes, a TV and VCR, and they are willing to pay for them."

Better views

Rio's favela residents, contrary to the myth, are not all poor. Although the average monthly salary of a favela resident is $70 a month, there are many people who continue to live in favelas even after they have moved up the economic ladder, because that is where they find a sense of community.

Many also stay because it is easier and cheaper to add a room or rent out a part of the house to someone else. Rents can be high in some parts of the favela, fetching landlords up to $500 a month. A survey found some property in Rocinha to have higher value than even the famed Copacabana beachfront area - and better views.

Given the increasing consumer spending power of favela residents, Viva Favela is considering weaning itself away from corporate sponsorship and donor funding by getting private companies to advertise on its site in the future. Although Ramalho is optimistic about running the Web site like any other commercial media organisation, she is not sure if Rio's private sector is ready yet to take the plunge.

Ramalho, who worked for various publishing houses and Web design companies before joining Viva Favela, is also contemplating an English-language edition and an International News section. "Yes," she says, when I suggested it, "it would be nice to publish stories from other slums around the world."

Rasna Warah, a freelance writer based in Nairobi, is the former editor of Habitat Debate, a UN-HABITAT periodical.