Rich, poor all struggle to get around in unprepared Brazil

Posted by Tim Vickery

So many of the standard images of Brazil are taken from Rio de Janeiro's South Zone, with the famous beach areas of Copacabana and Ipanema -- and also a smattering of favelas, the informally built hillside neighbourhoods which started life as shanty towns.

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It is an easy story for the international media -- behold the contrast in incomes! The rich on the beachfront and the poor up in the hills.

It is undeniably an interesting story. But it can be taken way too far. In many foreign reports, these favela dwellers have become a symbol of Brazil's poor -- and here things are much more complicated.

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First, there is the specific geography of Rio, with mountains jutting into the centre of the city, permitting this type of contrast. Then there is the fact that even in Rio, these South Zone favela dwellers are hardly typical. They have one huge advantage over the vast majority of Brazil's big-city working class -- proximity. They can live relatively close to their place of work.

But Rio is much, much bigger than that. The city sprawls out for miles, through the North Zone, the suburbs (with none of the English language connotations of affluence) and out into the lowlands. For the people who live in these places -- the vast majority of Rio's population -- one of the blights of their life is poor transport infrastructure. Rio and Brazil’s other big cities are full of people spending two or three hours -- often on foot -- on the bus to work, and another two or three back again. Clearly, such a state of affairs is hugely detrimental to quality of life.

And it is getting worse. Paradoxically, Brazil’s economic boom has played a part here. More wealth means more people buying cars -- which, as infrastructure has not kept pace, means more time stuck in traffic jams, whether in the gleaming new car, or on foot in an uncomfortable bus.

And this is a situation the World Cup has not done enough to improve. True, it would be unfair to expect a football tournament to solve all of a country's problems. But when so much money has been spent on soccer stadiums -- and the vast majority of it is public money -- then civil society has every right to protest.

Especially when, back in 2007, that society was explicitly told that private investors would take care of the stadiums, leaving the public resources for more socially useful projects -- especially urban transport.

But when there is a need to rush to organise a World Cup in time, an area where corners can be cut is public transport. The World Cup is special. People go to the stadium hours beforehand to be part of the event. So once Brazil was so slow out of the blocks -- entirely its own fault -- the consequences were clear. The stadiums would have to be built, with the need to hurry forcing up the price. And some of the urban mobility projects could be quietly forgotten.

And so people take to the streets. There was an explicit protest outside the stadium in Brasilia before the opening game of the Confederations Cup. But there is surely also a connection between the tournament and the demonstrations taking place up and down Brazil in protest at the rise in bus fares.

Certainly some in the Brazilian media have made the connection. The excellent Andre Kfouri, in his column in the sports daily ‘Lance!,' wrote on Saturday that
"the transport in Brazil’s main city [Sao Paulo, where the protests were especially vociferous] is one of the facets of a generalised inadequacy in the country, which lives alongside the megalomania of the stadiums and a tournament made by many for the benefit of few. A tournament which calls on the supporter to take to the streets but which prefers the citizen to be asleep."

Perhaps, indirectly, the Confederations Cup has already left an interesting legacy for Brazilian society. The protests all over the country should ensure that public transport features much higher on the political agenda.

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