Context: The favelas of Rio de Janeiro

“Quartos do Slum, Favela, Morro, Cortiço, Comunidade, Loteamento”

Total population of Brazil: 172,559,000

Urban population: 141,041,000

Percentage urban: 81.7

Percentage slum: 36.6

Total slum population 51,676,000

(UN Habitat Report: Slums of the world, 2001)


In Rio de Janeiro there are over one thousand favelas spreading from the hilltops of Zona Sul to Baixada Fluminense—these neighborhoods or “slums” are home to themost vulnerable and neglected communities of Brazil. Most favelas, built by the forgotten urban poor with little or no provision of public services, have become networksof informal housing, steep staircases, tangles of improvised electrical wiring and plumbing, decorated with displaced refuse and the skeletons of children’s kites. Others have organized themselves and provided for their communities (despite lack of government services), while many have relied heavily on the economy of the drug tradeto provide social services, schools, and roads.

The vacancy left by state government’s absence in service provision and governance was quickly filled by traficantes (‘drug gangs’) simultaneously creating a local economy, local governance, instability, conflict, and fear. Steady population growth and the rise of social need along with social problems exacerbated by violent conflict between rival gangs and police created a life of uncertainty and instability for favela residents. Poverty and marginalization in the favela is compounded by the incessant insecurity and daily threat of violence.

Within Brazil’s population of 172,559,000 people, 81.7% live in urban areas and 36.6% live in slums. In 2001, Brazil had the largest slum population in Latin America at 51,676,000 people. Today there are around 3 million people living in these informal settlements and the population of the favelas has been growing faster than the rest of the city for decades. There are close to one-thousand Favelas in Rio de Janeiro alone.

The favelas, as the shantytowns or slums in Rio are called, are especially visible in Rio due to their hillside locations, and they are seen to be manifestations of Rio’s as well as of Brazil’s failed socio-economical politics.  UN-Habitat writes that the majority of the residents living in this area immigrated to Rio attempting to escape even greater poverty in the rural drought-stricken northeast. Others immigrated from different favelas in Rio after urban renewal campaigns razed their homes. Some also came from poorer favelas on the city’s periphery.

Most lack important infrastructure as sanitation and water, but many have been able to steal electricity from public lines. Clean water is always hard to get, and the wells are commonly at the bottom of the hillside, making the longest walk for the poor people on the top. Sewage commonly runs openly in the street, creating an incredible health hazard. There are other problems than lack of infrastructure that excludes the favelados from other cariocas.  They are easy to spot when applying for jobs and schools. By having an address in a favela, or by not having an address, it is much harder to get accepted at workplaces or at schools, and therefore, are victims of extreme discrimination.