Lately, it seems everyone is talking about slumdog millionaire. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been assured it is the thing to do. Having recently returned from a little overseas adventure of my own, I’ve been thinking a lot about slums. What does it mean to live in a slum? Or a compound, a favela, a township, depending on your nation state boundaries. I’ve got a feeling it’s not not as glitzy and glam as Mr. Boyle would have us believe. According to this really cool website, 2008 marked the first time in global history that more people are living in an urban than rural setting. In fact, urban slums are the fastest growing habitat on earth, with one billion people calling a ‘slum’ their ‘home.’
And yet governments around the world continue to treat slums as illegal settlements, refusing to acknowledge the community, culture and necessity they provide for millions. Earlier today, The Washington Post reported that Brazil has begun a counter-insurgency occupation in the shantytown of Santa Maria, located in Rio de Janeiro. The government is taking the concept of police state to new and exciting levels, employing a counter-insurgency pilot project that aims to emulate the tactics used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq to stem drug related criminal activity in the favela.
Maybe it’s just me, but the whole operation seems a bit extreme. When did being poor become illegal? (I know, I know, governments around the world have always tried to criminalize the poor just for being poor…) I’ll be the first to admit that Rio has had its share of crime related issues, but employing war-time tactics in a peaceful country effectively violates the rights of the citizens who occupy the communities. And I stress the word community. Since its inception, the occupation of Santa Maria has successfully stunted local culture, shutting down businesses, dance parties and motorcycle taxis. While citizens report feeling safer, they also lament the days of yore, when you could walk down the street and chat with your neighbour. These days, no one leaves the house for fear of an interrogation, or worse…
It all prompts the question — in taking the concept of a police state to the next level, are we really engaging in a ‘war on drugs’ or a war on people?