Tiago, a Brazilian American who has contributed guests posts here before, wrote a great piece about his experience in Medellin, even though he has now moved on to the Ukraine after being accepted into the Peace Corps. The post is a part of the new series Lessons from Colombia.
Medellin, Colombia vs. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Lessons to be Learned
I went to the city of Medellín this past week - as my time in Colombia comes to a close I am using my last few weeks to get some traveling in, and this was at the top of my list of places to see.
I had heard many things about Medellín during my 6 months in Colombia. It looms large in the Colombian imagination, and stories of its high quality of life, beautiful women, and mild climate serve as both a point of pride and an important example for a nation struggling to determine how it is going to bring its cities into the 21st century without sacrificing the values and traditions it values so highly.
But I wasn't prepared for how amazing a city Medellín really is, and was surprised to realize that it was only the second city I have ever visited that I could see myself living in for the long term (the other being Rio de Janeiro). In this post I will try to explain why I think Medellín should be a model not only for Colombia, but for the rest of the world as well.
Read more after the jump.
The first thing you will notice when you enter Medellín is that it is a remarkably clean, organized, well-planned city. Streets are wide and free of potholes; signage is logical and helpful; trees, bushes, and grass in public areas are cut back; pedestrians are given priority with good sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian bridges; and both public and private buildings are very well-maintained. Anyone who has spent time in the developing world will recognize how rare these things are.
The Medellín metro is perhaps the pinnacle of this tendency, and is truly impressive. It is the only metro system in the country and Colombians are so proud of it that even residents of distant cities will ask you if you’ve “visited” it, as if it was a major tourist attraction in itself. The city borrowed $1.6 billion dollars in 1984 to construct it, and today it carries over 400,000 people every day. This may seem like a huge sum, and in fact it will take the city 60 years to repay it, but just go for a short ride and you will immediately see that the positive social and economic benefits of the project far outweigh the costs.
First of all, the metro is actually above ground, more like an urban train. It runs on elevated tracks that give a nice view of the surrounding area, giving you not only a clear sense of direction as you watch the buildings and hills go by, but also a hard-to-explain feeling that you are a part of the life of the city even as you cut swiftly across it.
In stark contrast to underground metro stations, where passengers can hardly wait to get out of the dark, gloomy corridors as soon as the train stops, the stations of the Medellín metro have become social focal points where the city has constructed open areas and parks. Large groups of people gather to drink and hang out in these areas as street performers and street vendors entertain and haggle. One weekday afternoon in downtown while looking for the nearest metro stop I encountered a crowd so large and festive I was sure that some type of event was going on, only to discover after asking around that this was the normal state of affairs in the squares facing downtown metro stations (picture #3).
The economic benefits are significant as well. Just as an example, the journey from the Bello district at the northern end of the valley in which Medellín lies to Envigado at the south end that used to take two hours by bus now takes only 30 minutes by metro, and is cheaper. Imagine what three hours saved every day means to a poor worker struggling to make ends meet.
The city metro extends to two lines of hanging cable cars (the metrocable) that link into the network and bring passengers from the bottom of the valley high into the hills on either side of the city, where the poor and displaced build makeshift homes in what are known as the comunas. The metrocable brings poor communities that would be far from the city along winding, dangerous mountain roads to within minutes of downtown via this original system.
The closest equivalent to these communities in Brazil would be the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In English the closest translation would probably be “slum.” But these translations are totally misleading, as the comunas of Medellín are something altogether different.
I first noticed this difference before I even started ascending the hills that surround Medellín, in the way that Paisas (people from Medellín) spoke about the comunas. They would ask me if I had visited them, if I had seen the view, and most of all if I had ridden on the metrocable to the top. They were spoken of as something to be proud of, something unique and worthy of visiting. In the three years I have spent in Brazil I have never once heard a Brazilian speak positively of any aspect of the favelas.
I soon had the opportunity to see for myself what the comunas were like: I got in touch with a charity called Pan y Paraíso (www.panyparaiso.org), a Catholic foundation that provides daily meals to over 600 kids and senior citizens from poor communities as well as church services on the weekends, and they offered to let me tag along for the day as they visited their comedor (cafeteria) in one of the comunas.
Within minutes of starting the half-hour journey, I could tell things were different. The houses, even when made of scrap metal and pieces of wood, seemed to be better taken care of. Flowers popped out from small gardens on the hillside and from hanging pots on balconies. Elementary and high schools seemed very well constructed and maintained. Road construction proceeded with effective detours to facilitate traffic flow. Many of these things would be unusual in many middle-class neighborhoods in Latin America, and here I was in supposedly one of the poorest comunas in the north of Medellín.
We arrived at the comedor near the top of the hill and piled out of the van to greet hundreds of curious kids who seemed very happy to see us. They hugged the foundation workers as if they were their own parents, seemingly happier to see them than to eat their meal. At first they were shy at the weird blue-eyed stranger, but soon I had little people crawling all over me, begging to take a picture with me, asking me to say things in English, and asking about my family and my pets. Some were deaf and/or mute, and used upturned thumbs and ear-to-ear smiles to convey their jubilation. I for one wasn’t sure what to do, as I wasn’t contributing anything by my presence (or so I thought at the time) and didn’t feel like I deserved this welcome. The kids, needless to say, didn’t care.
I could say more about the physical infrastructure of the comuna, about the anti-erosion measures, the libraries, the public parks, the brightly painted houses, the sports courts, the extension of the metrocable currently under construction to reach even higher, even poorer communities. But these things aren’t what really make the comunas what they are. These things are not the main difference between the comunas of Medellín and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to which they are often compared.
The main difference is the spirit of each place. In Medellín I felt hope, and progress, and optimism. I felt that, although there were still a lot of problems and difficulties, life was good and getting better. The residents of the comuna, many of whom were displaced from distant regions by the activities of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, or government counterinsurgency forces, consider themselves members of their new society. They feel that they have an invitation to participate in the civic life of the city, whether this invitation takes the form of a new metrocable line or the activities of the many local NGOs that work in the community.
I spent four months last year living and volunteering in Rocinha and the neighboring favela of Vidigal in Rio, and I must say that the spirit of those places was very different, even though they are among the most well off favelas in the country. It’s not that they don’t also have significant infrastructure – Rocinha especially is known for its city-like public utilities. Like I said before, it’s not these physical constructions that matter.
The spirit of Rio’s favelas, in my experience, is usually one of survival at best, and hopelessness at worst. Although many or most residents are able to find a reasonably stable if precarious balance between their income and expenses, I only very rarely encountered someone with ambition and hope for a better future. The favelas are seen and subsequently see themselves as outsiders, as a social disease, and as parasites, despite the fact that the city runs only by the sweat of their collective brow.
Now before I get attacked for criticizing the residents of Rio’s favelas, who hardly need another burden to carry, I want to make clear that I don’t place the blame on them. In fact, I think that’s part of the problem: placing the blame is a national sport that rivals even soccer in Brazil, and it clearly isn’t helping.
I don’t have any original, clever answer to the problem of Rio’s favelas. Frankly, I just don’t know enough about the complex sociological and economic issues involved. But one thing I do know: no amount of economic development or job training or infrastructure building or education is going to have any effect until the residents of Rio’s favelas are seen as legitimate citizens of society, as the valuable contributors they actually are.
The Brazilian government and all the NGOs in the world can pour as many resources into these communities as they want, but they need to learn one important lesson from Medellín: it is only when you promote a genuine message of inclusion both in public and behind closed doors, a message backed up by concrete action, that you are able to inspire the energy and will from all sectors of society that you need to conquer such an intractable problem.
There is something I think we should never forget: people don’t need something to believe in despite having trouble putting food on the table; they need something to believe in because they have trouble putting food on the table. In this case, believing in the promise of being recognized as a valuable member of the community has been powerful enough to transform the “murder capital of the world” into the “city of eternal spring,” and not only because of its climate.
That is exactly the kind of promise each and every sector of Brazilian society needs to make to the residents of its favelas if it is to see a future in which these neighborhoods are tourist attractions not for their shocking poverty and armed traffickers, but instead for their example as progressive, uplifting communities within a larger society that appreciates their contributions. --Tiago Forte
See the original post to check out the accompanying photos.