Favelas: Neighborhoods of Adversity and Ongoing Violence

Imagine living in a neighborhood where you don’t pay any rent or utility bills.  Sounds quite nice, huh? Then imagine that it’s a crowded, dirty neighborhood made up of numerous barracos (shacks) that are composed of no more than some wood, cloth and iron, many of which are roofless with dilapidated walls.  A place where there is no sewer system, unstable electricity, and where you are lucky to have cold running water.  Somewhere where you are constantly in fear for your life and where the only authority derives from local drug gangs.

Sadly, in Brazil, this kind of lifestyle is a reality for many.  About 11.4 million people live in such neighborhoods, called favelas (slums). In Rio alone, there are approximately 1,000 favelas and 20% of cariocas (people from Rio) live in favelas.

One of Rio’s many favelas

Several “barracos” in one of Rio’s favelas. Yes, people actually live here.

Inside one of the homes of the Complexo do Alemão, Rio’s largest favela

While the living conditions of the favelas are far from ideal, many communities have churches and small businesses, and many inhabitants even have satellite TV.

History of the Favela

The word “favela” originally comes from the name of a tree often found on the hillsides of sub-tropical areas.  Because most favelas in Rio are found on hillsides (and this is the city where they originated), this is the name that was given to them.

The strong racial divide that defines much of Brazil (almost all of the wealthy are white and a large percentage of the people who occupy the favelas are black) stems directly from its history.  As National Geographic describes, “favelas were the result of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism.”

Favelas saw their origins in bairros africanos (African neighborhoods).  These were communities on the periphery of the city, developed by freed slaves in the late 19th century, who were pushed out of the downtown area with nowhere else to go. The favela developed its name around the same time, when former soldiers built shelters on the hillsides of Rio, waiting for housing from the government that they had been promised – it never came.  And so they named those hillside shelters “favelas.”

One of the many hillside favelas of Rio

In the 1970s, favelas proliferated as a result of the large-scale migration from rural areas into the cities.  Once again, many people could not find a place to live and so were forced to live on the outskirts of the city itself. This is why today, most favelas are found in the large cities of Brazil.  Residents had to not only build their own houses (which do not have land permits), but they also had to construct their own streets, direct their own water pipes, compose their own sewer system and even thread their own wires for electricity.

Blatant Inequality 

There are few places in the world with such unmitigated economic (and racial) inequality as Brazil.  Such inequality is staggeringly apparent in cities like Rio and Sao Paulo, where many of the favelas lie directly next to some of the most expensive neighborhoods.

Sao Paulo’s shocking disparity

Rich Rio neighborhood, Sao Conrado, contrasted with the Rocinha favela

Yet for years, its residents have been completely excluded from the rest of society, unable to get jobs simply because of their address (that is often not even official!), which breeds distrust amongst potential employers.  This is extremely unfair, since most favela residents actually hold clean track records and are just trying to earn a living off of minimum wage.

They are also ignored and abandoned, as the government refuses to acknowledge the favelas.  They are invisible; in the eyes of the government, the favelas (and the people in them) might as well not even exist.  This has resulted in a dearth of public services and almost zero health care throughout the communities.  Hospitals have even been known to ignore emergency calls that come from favelas.  As one Brazilian stated on behalf of BBC,

Governments come and go, but nobody does anything.  There are no projects to urbanize the favela, or to improve water and sanitation.  They promise to enlarge roads and move people to safer areas, but nothing is done.

Unconnected to the rest of the city, many favelas also lack proper sewer systems, which the government does nothing about.  In such neighborhoods, disease is rampant and immortality is high.  The government treatment towards favela inhabitants is nothing short of inhumane.

Surrounded by Danger

As a result of their elevated location, favelas in Rio are known for their killer views.  At the same time, the houses at the very top of the hill are often subject to falling rocks from above; and if the rock is big enough, it can easily demolish the delicate houses.

Favelas at the top of the hill are often subject to falling rocks from above

But natural disasters and disease are not nearly the biggest problems that these neighborhoods face.  Unrecognized from the government, the favelas throughout Brazil have no police protection whatsoever.  A complete lack of official authority means that drug traffickers have been able to take full control of the communities, demanding loyalty from the residents.  One favela resident stated that, “we’re all hostages of violence and the criminals who rule the favelas.”

As a carioca friend informed me, drug traffickers are essentially “owners” of the favelas and nobody can do anything inside the favela without his permission (the trafficker is always male).  For instance, if a TV channel wants to film a report or documentary on the favela, they must ask the trafficker or “owner” for permission and give him money.  This self-established hierarchy that governs the favelas ensues frequent violence between drug lords, who are constantly battling each other for territory.

Moreover, the only state intervention comes from frequent police invasions that generally result in nothing more than bribes with drug dealers and more shootouts.  Recurrent shootouts in such close quarters mean that many innocent people catch stray bullets and die. Since the barracos (houses of the favelas) are made up of scrap pieces of wood, favela residents are not even sheltered from such violence in their own homes.  Once again, this leaves the homes at the top of the hill especially vulnerable, as, unlike the houses below, they do not have other surrounding structures to protect them. World Watch told the story of how one 11 year-old girl was in bed, sleeping, when she was suddenly hit by a stray police bullet.  Fortunately, she survived, but she lost most movement in her right hand as a result.

In addition to the dangerous stray bullets and appeasement of drug lords, residents live in constant fear of the extremely corrupt police themselves, who will shoot innocent people if they so much as look suspicious.

The solution to this deep-rooted problem is not an easy one.  Because rather than pacifying the situation, police have only fueled this perpetual cycle of trafficking and violence, leaving them understandably despised by most favela residents.

A police raid

Since many kids that reside in the favelas are taught the ins and outs of the drug trade at a very young age, some claim that education is one way of solving this seemingly endless cycle.  But how can that be the answer when kids are tempted by traffickers offering them 300 reais (150 dollars) a day to assist in the drug trade? Furthermore, the drug trade is how the favelas make money; what will happen then once they are gone?

The solution is not an easy one. But fortunately, pacifying police units are now being placed in favelas throughout Rio, ensuring a promising future for the city’s favela residents.


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