Responsible tourism in Brazil

The “land of contrasts” is a much-abused phrase, but in Brazil the overwhelming feeling is that you are continually bouncing from one extreme to another. The country’s immense wealth divide is well-documented, and with rich and poor living side by side, the disparity is enhanced. Copacabana mansions back onto crime-ridden favelas; while slum dwellers open makeshift curtains to reveal white-sand beaches and cruise ship-filled bays. Brazil’s sprawling cities – Manaus, São Paulo, Brasilia – are urban jungles spilling over into real-life rainforests. And the daily incidences of violent crime are offset by the warmth and gregariousness of its people, the lilting bossa nova and fun-loving party spirit that this nation is equally famous for. Brazilian culture is a mashup of Indigenous, African, European and even Japanese – revealed in its religions, languages, food, music and art.

To visit Brazil, then, is to walk a fine line between conservation and destruction, luxury and poverty, modernity and history. This is not a simple destination, and a little understanding is needed before embarking on a vacation to this complex country.

Cities & culture

Reclaiming the favelas?

In recent times, mainly thanks to the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world have been firmly trained on Rio de Janeiro. But there was plenty that the city wanted to hide from the world’s gaze – namely, the drugs gang-ruled favelas that cover the city’s dramatic hillsides. These strangely picturesque slums often lie just a few hundred metres from Rio’s most exclusive districts and beaches, and offer some of the city’s most breathtaking views.

However, although close to 1.4 million people live here, they lack even the most basic infrastructure – proper sewers, rubbish collection, proper electricity. They are considered a “parallel state” – right in the middle of Rio, yet running by very different rules.

Unlike slums in Asia, for example, “cleaning up” the favelas would not be as straightforward as investing in this infrastructure, as they are controlled by heavily armed drugs gangs – as depicted in the 2002 film City of God, based on Paolo Lins’ novel of the same name. Shootouts are regular occurrences – between rival gangs and police – and the murder and disappearance rates are shocking.The new Rio de Janeiro state government has pledged to implement “shoot to kill” policies in an effort to combat drug gangs, an extremely controversial move that is bound to come into conflict with respect for human rights.

Pacification sounds like a positive step forward, but it has not been welcomed by all residents, who claim that rather than being controlled by heavily armed drug lords, they are now being controlled by heavily armed police. Successfully pacified favelas are subject to constant policing to prevent the gangs from returning, and taxes have been imposed for electricity, water, waste disposal – which many favela inhabitants cannot afford, especially coupled with rapidly rising rents.

The darker side of pacification is the desirability of the land. The lush green peaks overlooking one of the world’s most beautiful scenes are prime real estate – and developers of property and hotels are keen to snap it up. Many shacks are being marked for demolition – allegedly because they pose a safety risk to tenants – but residents suggest that this is an underhand way of removing them from now-valuable land.

Burning car, photo by Alex Viera
What you can do
Never enter a favela unless it is as part of an organised tour. The violence might have been glamourised, but the threats are very real.

Favela tourism is a growing trend, yet the jury’s out on its ethical implications. It generally doesn’t provide much-needed stable incomes – yet some fund worthwhile community projects such as clinics, artists’ workshops and nurseries. If you do choose to go on a favela tour, ensure your guide will be local, and that you will be doing more than just gawping at poverty. Ask your tour provider – will I be meeting local people and visiting local stores and restaurants? Which projects do you support? Can I visit them? How is my tour fee used?

Ask the guide or tour company if there is anything you can donate – children’s clothes or books, over the counter medicines, pens and pencils, footballs... Stock up before you come, or take a shopping trip in Rio.

Given the central location and incredible setting, hostels have been springing up in the pacified favelas for some time. Now, residents are jumping onto the homestays trend and renting out rooms or apartments to tourists. Safety is a concern here, so research the area, read reviews and speak with the guesthouse owners. Some may also offer local tours. Security is improving – especially following the World Cup and Olympics – but be vigilant, don’t photograph people on the street and don’t walk unaccompanied at night.

If you’d like to leave a more lasting impact, and have a bit of time spare – look into longer term volunteer placements. These often include teaching or coaching, working with adults or children. They last several months and should include Portuguese lessons to help you – and your local students – make the most of your time in the favela.

Reporting child abuse

Child sex tourism is widespread in Brazil, with between a quarter and half a million children trafficked for sex* – the highest number after Thailand.

What you can do
If you see a child in danger, report it to the police immediately, or call 100, free of charge from any public or private phone in Brazil. The line is open 24 hours a day.

* 2010 Human Rights Report: Brazil, from

The extinction of tribes

Brazil is home to more isolated and uncontacted tribes than any other country in the world. FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, is a government body responsible for monitoring and protecting indigenous territories, and preventing the invasion of this land by outsiders. FUNAI claims there are 67 tribes which remain uncontacted – many of these have less than 100 people left, meaning they are likely to disappear completely. Some tribes are aware of outsiders and have had minimal contact, but choose to remain isolated, while others are cut off entirely.

The greatest threat posed by encroachment on their land is disease. Entire populations have been killed by common colds – which the indigenous population has no resistance to – and malaria-bearing mosquitoes are now present in areas where they previously did not exist. As well as that, their land is being rapidly repossessed by loggers, farmers and miners – both legal and illegal. Enormous hydroelectric dams also cause widespread flooding of territories.

The logistics of policing the Amazon are hard to comprehend, and while there is such high financial value in its natural resources, spending a fortune to protect it poses something of a conflict of interests to the Brazilian government.
Guy Marks, from our supplier Tribes Travel, explains: “The biggest issue in Brazil is that they’re cutting down the rainforest faster than you can blink. It’s just a massive environmental issue. If you fly into Manaus during the daytime, you get to the edge of the forest and you just see hundreds of miles of forest burning. There’s very distinct line between the soya fields and the forest – and the line is moving on a daily basis. So it’s fairly staggering.”
What you can do
Admittedly, this is something of a David and Goliath situation, but people are still fighting. Survival International is a UK charity fighting for the rights of tribal people around the world, including Brazil and the Peruvian Amazon. Visit their current campaign page for Brazil’s uncontacted tribes – with information on who to petition, and how to donate. They recently ran an incredible successful campaign to evict illegal loggers from the land of the Awá – one of Brazil’s most threatened tribes. It’s good to know that campaigning really can make a difference.

Visit Brazil’s national parks, to demonstrate that there is money to be made from keeping the forests intact – especially in the Amazon region. Sailing along the river in a cruise ship won’t contribute to the forest’s conservation or local income at all, but staying locally, using local guides and even visiting local communities for guided village tours and buying locally made crafts will make a difference.

Take a trip to Rio’s Museu do Indio – the Museum of the Indian – in Botafogo. Run by FUNAI, there are 14,000 ethnographic items on display, replica dwellings of various tribes and a shop selling authentic handmade artefacts.

Watch Unreported World’s Brazil: The Golden Curse (Channel 4), which reveals the problem with policing the Amazon, and how the Yanomami are succumbing to introduced diseases.

Responsible tourism tips

Brazil is taking great steps in ecotourism. Bonito, near the southern Pantanal, was the winner of the Best Destination for Responsible Tourism in the 2013 World Responsible Tourism Awards.

According to the judges, "Bonito is famous for its crystal clear waters, caves, mountain and forests with diverse wildlife to be found in a national park and ten private reserves. As tourists began to arrive several concerns emerged: there was fear that unregulated tourism could impact on the environment. The private sector businesses and the public authorities realised that tourism development in Bonito needed to be managed so they developed a voucher system to control visitor numbers. The judges were impressed by the voucher system and keen to recognise its contribution to ensuring the sustainability of the destination.”

Visiting places such as Bonito, which have demonstrated their commitment to environmental protection, supports these initiatives and encourages other destinations to take the same steps in conservation.

Standard Brazilian food is surprisingly uninspiring; in this fast developing country many dishes are poor-quality imitations of Western food. But the so-called nova cozinha brasileira has become very popular in recent years, with Brazilian chefs using traditional, indigenous fruits, vegetables and fish to create unique, fresh and healthy dishes that are quite unlike anything you’ll taste elsewhere. São Paulo’s restaurants are the best place to find this modern take on traditional cuisine, but if you’re not in the neighbourhood, look out for local exotic fruits – a real treat. Brazilian beachwear is notoriously skimpy – yet it may come as a surprise to find out that toplessness for women is uncommon and nudity only permitted on a handful of Brazil’s beaches; these are generally pretty remote and isolated. And though many cities may be coastal, never wear bathing suits unless you are actually on a beach. While skimpy dress is the norm throughout Brazil, especially the further north you go, do dress more conservatively in churches. If attending a Candomblé religious celebration, men should wear trousers not shorts, and women should wear longer skirts. White is the most respectful colour. Brazil may be an expensive country to live and travel in, but minimum wage – paid to most service staff – is low. Be sure to tip; 10 percent is customary and will be much appreciated by hotel and restaurant employees – as well as by street vendors, parking assistants and so on.
If you want to go and stay with a remote tribe, you might want to go elsewhere. Guy Marks, from our supplier Tribes Travel, explains more:
“We always get contacted by people wanting to go and stay with tribes – but it’s not something that we actually sell. We take people to meet the Maasai in Kenya or the Huaorani in Ecuador, but in the middle of the Amazon these tribes have remained tribes because they just don’t want to get involved in what the rest of the world is doing. People think they can just turn up and be welcomed and live with the tribe for a month and have a fantastic experience – but they don’t want that! They’re not interested. People want to go and be Bruce Parry – and you just can’t! Of course you can do it for a TV programme, but not as a tourist.”
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tambako The Jaguar] [Burnt out car: Alex Vieira] [Deforestation: Oregon State University] [Ipixunas Tribe: Noe Alfaro]