The crime-riddled favelas that have often defined Rio de Janeiro in film and television have suddenly disappeared -- at least, on Google Maps.
In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Brazilian tourist boards and Rio’s city hall have been keen to maintain a squeaky-clean image not only in the real world but the digital one as well. So much so, that they asked Google to remove the word “favela” from its city maps.
The term itself means slum or shantytown in Portuguese. Hundreds were previously identified as such on maps, but are now labeled as “morros” or hills. Officials believe the change will reduce the prominence given to the favela communities, which they said were given greater importance on maps than conventional neighborhoods like Humaita and Cosme Velho.
Some favelas, like the famous Favela do Vidigal near Ipanema, remain on Google Maps. Google has reportedly removed the term from nearby Favela da Rocinha and areas like Favela Sumare and Favela Morro do Chacrinha in the north of the city.
The slums that tumble down the hills began as housing blocks for returned soldiers and later housed former slaves. Now, they’re filled with rural Brazilians, who’ve flocked to the city in hope of earning higher wages.
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Roughly 6 percent of Brazilians live in favelas nationwide, and Rio’s in particular have long been synonymous with drugs and violent shoot-outs between traffickers and police.
Rio recently launched a citywide offensive against crime in preparation for its spotlight on the global stage. Police, backed by army troops, initiated a campaign of “pacification” to take back control of notorious slums from powerful drug traffickers. The hope is that it will not only improve the city’s image, but also its safety record.
Rio has a murder rate in excess of 40 people per 100,000 inhabitants. The statistics are much higher in the favelas, and critics fear that removing the term from maps could cause tourists to unwittingly walk into dangerous neighborhoods.
“The virtual removal is part of a city project that tries to hide poverty and the poor as much in virtual environments as in reality, with forced removals,” Rio’s Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics, an organization created to chronicle and redress any violence, abuses and illegalities in the run-up to the events, said on its blog.
Google has declined to comment on the changes, saying it “does not disclose the particulars of negotiations with partners.” Local media in Rio claim the city officially asked the search engine giant to differentiate between slums and neighborhoods in 2009, following a request from the tourism board Riotur.
Residents of Rio appear divided on the issue.
"I agree with what the city is doing,” Fabio Nobre wrote in a comment on the blog Possible Cities, which posted contrasting Google Maps screenshots from 2011 and 2013. “This attitude prevents certain prejudices against local residents stigmatized as living in 'slums'."
"They want to mask the reality, putting tourists at risk,” another countered. “I trust Google Maps to plan my itinerary, but I'll end up going through a dangerous place because the city felt like it was a good idea to hide information.”