Favelas were originally slums located on the outskirts of major cities in Brazil, notably Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
The oldest in Rio, Providência, was established in 1897, less than ten years after the abolition of slavery, and housed formerly enslaved people. But it was the rural exodus from the 1940s to the 1970s that contributed to the rapid development of these cities.
Poor migrants faced with exorbitant housing prices in city centers had no other recourse than to squat the land around the agglomerations. Concrete blocks and sheet metal now replace the wood and cob of the first constructions. Each generation has worked to improve their property.
Because of their rapid growth, a policy of eradicating favelas was voted in 1960. The idea was to create social housing with sewer, water, and electricity distribution networks to rehouse people to better conditions. Another hidden purpose was to keep them away from the city center.
The “City of God”
Thus was born the “City of God,” which became sadly famous because of the film that takes its name. What could have been a good idea turned into a fiasco. Lack of maintenance and poor living conditions made it a hub for drug and arms trafficking in 1980. The rivalry between the different gangs claiming it makes it dangerous, where violence and crimes had no limits. Rio was then utterly disinterested in what was happening there.
An improvement program was launched
But the rise of the favelas continued, and the municipality had to react. As relocating people was no longer possible, the city voted for a program to rework them in 1994.
Finally, it was a question of recognizing the existence of these places of life, improving them by developing sewer networks, distribution, and sanitation, and modernizing. Health facilities for children and computer centers were set up, roads were paved, residents were educated in hygiene rules, and title deeds for new construction were created.
The whole thing had been built illegally and so there are no title deeds. And it remains as one of the particularities of the favelas even today.
Therefore, residents cannot prove that they are owners to have access to government aid linked to property. All real estate transactions are informal and occur between individuals in the community.
This situation also makes them more vulnerable when militias or local promoters threaten their property. In these cases, their only recourse for protection is community organizations or militias.
The other particularity of the favelas is that, as a result, no one pays taxes on housing.
The pacification of the favelas
In 2008, the government created a police brigade, the UPP, Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, which means the police unit for pacification. Its goal was to make Rio safe for the 2016 Olympics by regaining control of the favelas. Though bloody clashes broke out at the start, calm has returned, and gendarmes and dealers live together.
One million five hundred thousand people live in the 1,000 favelas or 24% of the total population of Rio. It is the same model as in major global cities, where around 25% of inhabitants live in low-rent social apartments.
Rocinha Favela, literally the small farm
This favela is the largest in Rio de Janeiro.
Two hundred thousand people live here in an area of 2 km2, which gives an idea of how parked the population is in this city.
Before coming to Rio, I did not think this tour could even be possible. At first, I was not attracted by the voyeuristic side that it could take. Two things convinced me. The guide is an insider, and a portion of the ticket price would be used to help the community.
I do not regret my choice because it opened my eyes to a lot of things.
We were only shown its most beautiful side but I am aware that daily life must certainly be hard, even though the country has worked to bring better living conditions here.
It is built on a steep hill overlooking Rio de Janeiro like all favelas.
We stayed in the liveliest area, with its main street, shops, and countless motorcycle taxis. It is the primary means of transport for the inhabitants, an alternative to the minibuses which also serve the favela.
Today, almost all the houses in Rocinha are made of concrete and brick. Some buildings are three or four stories high, and nearly all homes have basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity.
Life in the favelas has developed everywhere. A wide variety of businesses and stores and restaurants, religious organizations, schools, and hospitals exist and serve the community’s needs.
Even though I was pleasantly surprised by this visit, if we look closer, what may seem “normal” here is ultimately very far from my reality.
Who runs the favela?
Most unbelievable to me is that two drug lords still run the favela.
Our guide told us about it naturally, without apprehension or animosity. It is a reality and a part of his life. When we walked around the favela, he encouraged us to take pictures, except in a small square where illegal trading could take place.
He acknowledged that for the well-being of its inhabitants, the two wealthy dealers had decided to live in peace and make the area safe. They even have a tacit pact that allows them to coexist with UPP units.
Moreover, still according to our guide, people prefer to manage their affairs by relying on the two leaders rather than calling the police.
Our visit in pictures
We strolled through the narrow streets that wind between the houses.
Our guide told us several times that he was very proud of his favela and has no plan to leave it. And I think that’s the case for the vast majority who would struggle to live anywhere else; the community, culture, closeness, and belonging to a place are really anchored in them. Many were born there and know it’s where they will spend all their lives. Everyone in the neighborhood watches out for each other. We are far from urban rules where everyone is selfish and where we often ignore our neighbors.
The evolution of the standard of living
In 2001, 60% of the inhabitants belonged to the lower class and 37% to the middle class. In 2013, the figures were reversed. More than 65% of the inhabitants belonged to the middle class. A sharp increase in the average salary!
Little facts I picked up during the visit
The bullet holes on the facade of the church
The story is short and straightforward. When two gang members came out of the church drunk, they saw the police and shot them. Of course, they fought back.
The exchange ended quickly, with no injuries. The attackers were not sanctioned by the gendarmerie but by their clan leader because a rule prohibits attacking the police without a recognized reason.
Since there is no title deed, no one has a proper mailing address. Thus, the inhabitants give an official address in their vicinity, such as a store, to receive their mail. So, many people have the same address.
The letters collected are then put in a box on the side of the street, which everyone goes to to pick up their mail.
A funny fact; the bottom of the box was filled with bills!
Though seemingly random, they have their own system for electricity. Everyone plugs in as much as they can and pays very little. In the event of a problem with the network, the technicians intervene, however.
Our guide explained that he had pulled two power cables off his electricity source for more tranquility!
The major problem is water, and the dream would be to have running water. Today, everyone fetches their water from reservoirs scattered around the city. These later are filled up using a massive pump which captures water from Rio and raises it to the hills.
It is undoubtedly the most important building in the favela.
The most unlikely of visits and yet one of the highlights of my stay in Rio.
We hear so many anecdotes about these favelas, frightening stories, that it is difficult to think of this beautiful city without reviewing in our minds the images of the film “City of God.”
This visit put things back in place for me, and even if, perhaps, all is not as rosy as described to us by our guide, the situation of the favelas has evolved a lot for the better.
In any case, our guide did everything for us to leave on a positive note. It worked for me!