What are Favelas & why did they come about?

According to Wikipedia, a favela is the term for a slum in Brazil, most often within urban areas. The first favelas appeared in the late 19th century and were built by soldiers who had nowhere to live.’  One of the largest favelas, Rocinha, is located on a mountain side overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro.  There are concrete stairways (see below, right) and tunnels throughout the favela from the bottom of the mountain to the top and as a result, not very often will you see many over-weight people.  These slums do keep the residents walking and very active.  However one can often catch a ride from local bikers who will tow you from the bottom of the mountain to the top or to wherever you live, for a small fee – usually in the area of $1.25 U.S.  So why did this favela and others like it come about?

While teaching in Sao Paulo, I was told by one of my students that in the 1960’s, the Brazilian economy was thriving.  HundredsFinal.Local residents of Roncino of thousands of Brazilians, more specifically farmers and their families left their fields and headed to the cities to share in the riches.  Life was exciting and things went well until the late 70’s into the early 80’s.  The economy dried up.  The people retreated to the hills and built little ‘shacks’ hoping that this would only be temporary.  But the jobs never came.  Many were out of work and out of money.  The only life they knew now, was in the favela – it was a source of comfort for many a Brazilian.  To this day, over 70% of Brazilians live in poverty and water and sewage exists in only 40% of this vast country.

Favela communities may vary somewhat, one from another, having their own set of rules and regulations, and crime levels.  In Sao Paulo for example, it amazes me that when local firms want their staff to go in to the favelas to volunteer services (for example to teach the children, or to do community outreach), first they have to get the permission of the local ‘drug-lords.’  What’s even more interesting is that the crime within the borders of the favelas is basically kept to a minimum by the drug-lords and their cronies.  Really! They discourage crime to avoid any unnecessary involvement between themselves and the local police; yes, the favela is more or less, a city within a city.  As a result of this control, crime often spills over into the surrounding areas.

When I took a tour of Rocinha in Rio (see featured picture above), I was surprised to find that an actual city exists within the boundary of the favela.  They have their own banks, schools, shops and restaurants.  It was truly an amazing experience.  Also since many of the houses do not get direct sunlight, tuberculosis is often a problem.  In Rio, the government resolved a lot of the problem by pulling down several of these houses and replacing them with apartment complexes that give way to a more sunlit, healthy living environment.

Therefore to ensure your safety and in order that you do not offend anyone in the favelas, I encourage you to only go with a tour-guide or friend.  Use your cameras discretely, and be respectful of the people.  On a positive note however, the drug-lords do often provide the favelas with other needs such as sewage systems, water and electricity and in return, the people in the local favelas remain loyal to them.