Brazil boasts a rich social fabric - it is home to indigenous peoples, people of Portuguese descent, and those of African descent, among others - but poverty and inequality are perennial problems. While the legal minimum wage in Brazil is presently 937 reals per month, this is approximately four times less than the amount required for a decent standard of living, according to a recent survey produced by a Brazilian workers' union. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, participants had the opportunity to learn in-depth about the history, culture and socioeconomic issues of Brazil - Peace Boat's first port of call on the Latin American continent.
Guest educator Marcio Akira Couceiro, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Capoeira Center of the Federal University of Roraima, introduced participants to capoeira - a Brazilian art form which blends dance with martial arts and traditional music. Capoeira was criminalized in 1890 because of its purported links to African slaves, who are believed to have introduced the sport to Brazil when they were brought to the country between 1650 and 1860. However, in 1937 the law was repealed, and in 2008 capoeira was classified as being "Of National Cultural Importance" by the government. Since then its popularity has spread across the world - it is now practiced by over 8 million people in over 130 countries. Through capoeira, Couceiro aims to promote peace and social inclusion by bringing together a diverse group of people - many of whom come from poor communities - and bridging social divides of class, race, gender and age. Couceiro's message to participants is: "if you want to help people, give them education, not money."
Peace Boat participants were also given an insight into life in the favelas (Brazilian slums) by guest educator Shimogo Satomi, a freelance journalist who lived in a favela in Sao Paulo between 1992 and 1994. She explained that over 900 favelas exist in Rio de Janeiro alone, and are home to almost 20 per cent of the city's population. Shimogo highlighted the challenges facing inhabitants, including poverty, a lack of access to quality education and healthcare, and violence perpetrated by drug gangs which still operate in many favelas. However, she also underscored many inspiring examples of individuals who have developed grassroots organizations to improve the favelas and the lives of community members.
In Rio de Janeiro, Peace Boat participants visited one such organization in the Vigário Geral favela. Established in 1993, the Afro Reggae Cultural Group (ARCG) is an NGO which empowers youths living in the favelas through music, dance and art. Children who may otherwise have had little hope of escaping a life of violence and crime can participate in free workshops, share their problems with their peers and mentors, and cultivate self-confidence. ARCG's activism has gained international acclaim - it participated in the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and has conducted activities in Colombia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and India.
After receiving a guided tour of ARCG's impressive facilities, participants engaged in lively dance and percussion workshops. The day culminated with a percussion performance by several local children -their passion, smiles and enormous talent exemplified the determination of the community to strive towards a better future. "Despite the difficult conditions in the favelas, these children are bright and hopeful", commented Horiba Maki, a Peace Boat participant. Following last year's impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's new congress has passed a law which prohibits any increase in spending on social services and programmes beyond the rate of inflation for the next 20 years - the poor will undoubtedly bear the brunt of these austerity measures. Many of Brazil's working class hope for a political change to address the vast disparity between rich and poor; until then they are actively transforming their own realities through grassroots movements.