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Sightseeing in the slums

When tourists drop in on the poor

Munich, 03/18/2011

From destitute slum-dweller to TV star – the film Slumdog Millionaire is a modern version of the Cinderella story and won an Oscar for the best film of 2008. It also seems to have prompted in many cinemagoers a desire to see for themselves what life is like for the underprivileged in slums. LMU social anthropologist Professor Eveline Dürr has been studying slum tourism in Mexico, at an urban waste dump that provides several hundred people with a livelihood – and gives North American tourists the chance to take a close-up view of poverty. Is this simply a case of exploitation of the inhabitants, or do the visitors really become aware of their plight for the first time? “In this case, some of the scavengers clearly benefit from the visitors,” says Dürr. However, slum tourism can also have decidedly negative effects when, for instance, despite improvements in their situation, slum-dwellers continue to play the expected role so as to preserve the “authentic” impression for visitors. The Mexican dump has become an official tourist attraction, although it remains an eyesore for citizens who are better-off. The contributors to a new book, edited by Dürr and entitled “Urban Pollution”, discuss the factors that determine whether or not things are perceived as being “out of place” in an urban setting, and what effects such perceptions have on social cohesion. Refuse and sewage are but one class of dirt. Immigrants or the homeless may also be seen as “unclean”.

About 1000 million people currently live in slums. Large shanty towns are found on the edges of megacities, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, and are a consequence of massive flight from the land. Most of their inhabitants have no address and are not otherwise officially registered. The slums may not appear on urban maps even when they are home to several thousand people. However, in recent years they have been receiving attention from an unexpected quarter: Slum tourism now brings mostly well-heeled holiday-makers to see the world of the very poor.

Tours to the poor have also aroused interest among social anthropologists, as the trend has reached African townships, Brazilian favelas and even Dhavari, one of the poorest parts of the Indian metropolis of Mumbai and probably the largest slum in Asia. Professor Eveline Dürr chose to study the impact of slum tours in the Mexican city of Mazatlán. Here, in a slum area that has grown up around a rubbish tip, hundreds of people earn a living by retrieving and selling recyclable materials from the tip.

Tours to this slum are organized by an American church, which is also active in other projects, of both a social and a missionary nature, in the city. Most of the organizers are senior citizens from Canada and the US, who spend the winter, or the whole year, in Mazatlán. The tourists who take part, most of them comparatively well-off, seem motivated by a taste for adventure as well as humanitarian concerns to leave their luxury resorts with private golf-course and private beach to pay a visit to a different sort of closed community.

Once there they are given an insight into the way of life of the garbage sorters, are shown the various stages in the recycling of different materials, and distribute bottled water and sandwiches that they themselves have made. Not everyone welcomes such gestures. “Many slum-dwellers are ashamed of their situation, have no wish to accept gifts and avoid outsiders,” reports Dürr, who has had intensive contacts with inhabitants, tourists and tour organizers. “Some guides try to bring groups into the slum-dwellers’ living quarters, but this practice is highly controversial. Many people make it clear that they regard such visits as an intolerable intrusion into their private lives, and tour guides then respect their wishes.”

Others are proud that visitors from all over the world take an interest in how they live. “It is impossible to pass a blanket verdict on all tours,” says Dürr. “With commercial tours, one has to make sure that inhabitants benefit financially and at the same time avoid provoking conflicts with those who feel left out. One must also take care that the inhabitants do not forego any chance to improve their lot because they feel obliged not to disappoint the expectations of tourists.  Furthermore, there is always the danger that poverty is presented and perceived as exotic and slums come to be seen as a kind of theme park.”

The rubbish tip in Mazatlán has become an officially recognized tourist attraction, although not everybody in the city is happy about that. The locals seldom go near the slums, which they regard as problem zones and as a blot on their fair and flourishing city.  But how is urban “pollution” defined, and what effect do the definitions have on social relations? This question is at the center of the recent book “Urban Pollution“, which Dürr edited together with Dr. Rivke Jaffe of Leiden University.

Refuse, sewage, smog, dirt are typical material forms of “pollution”. But very often people who have to do with refuse are themselves regarded as unclean. In India waste disposal is the assigned task of the dalits, or untouchables, while in Muslim countries the job is often done by non-Muslims. Poverty itself can also be regarded as a stigma. For example, in India and other countries, the homeless may be subject to regular attacks and can be forcibly ejected from the cities. In Brazil in the 1990s children living on the streets were murdered by corrupt policemen hired by rich citizens.

Often one only needs to stick out in a given social environment to be perceived as unclean, as in the case of migrants belonging to an ethnic minority, who may “be viewed as a kind of cultural pollutant,” says Dürr. “This perception is based on the concept of a natural order of things that specifies who and what belongs where. Citizens in Western countries may resist plans to build mosques, other societies may protest against the arrival of fast-food chains. One’s own sense of belonging is bound up – at least in one’s own mind -- with notions of ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Taken to extremes, this approach can lead to episodes of ethnic cleansing.” (suwe/PH)


Urban Pollution: Cultural Meanings, Social Practices
Edited by Eveline Dürr and Rivke Jaffe
Published by Berghahn Books, 1 August 2010

Professor Eveline Dürr
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology
LMU Munich
Phone: +49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 9613

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