The favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro are a case apart. For a long time, these needy communities suffered from the abandonment of the government and the rest of the population. Today, this reality is beginning to change, little by little. The favelas have attracted international attention and have also begun to be valued and respected in Brazil.
The favelas have existed in Rio de Janeiro for over one hundred years. With diverse origins and histories, these constructions have been part of the city since the end of the 19th Century. Today, almost 20% of the city’s residents live in favelas. There are almost a thousand different communities. Some of them have become complexes and have over one hundred thousand inhabitants.
For a long time, favelas were seen as the cause of social problems, not as their consequence. However, this view has changed in recent years. Society understands that this type of dwelling is not a transitory situation; to the contrary, favelas are part of life in the city, home to a large part of the workforce and at the same time, veritable centers of Carioca culture.
The history of land occupation in Rio led to most favelas arising initially in geographically problematic areas, like steep hillsides, erosion-prone land, garbage dumps, swampy lowland, along the banks of creeks and rivers. However, as time went by, this stopped being the main characteristic of the favelas, as they later also appeared in the flatter areas of the city.
Nowadays, favelas can be located on hillsides or plains, they can have high or low density, and their streets can be straight or curvy. What characterizes a favela is the prevalence of private areas over public areas, an inadequate road system, a lack of infrastructure and services, lack of definition of ownership and low quality of life of the residents.
The favelas are the physical expression of the historical division between the rich and the poor, black and white, slaves and slave-owners. They come from a native African heritage juxtaposed against the European dream of modernity. The origin of each favela depends on its racial configuration, the origin of the residents, their social history and physical location. While the older communities that settled on the hillsides of the Zona Sul were generally founded by ex-slaves, the more recent favelas, like the extensive Maré Complex, were predominantly settled by people from the northeast of Brazil.
Today, a good part of the residents of the favelas were born in Rio, often in the same community where they live. The differences of race and origins no longer serve to differentiate one community from another. Miscegenation still exists, origins are diverse, but what prevails is the lack of alternatives for low-cost housing close to the workplace and access to the necessary services for daily life of the citizens.
Given the lack of government presence, the favelas fell under the command of criminal groups that deal in drug trafficking, which have existed in Rio since 1970. Drug trafficking is one of the biggest problems in the favelas. Only 1% of the population is involved in drug trafficking, but 100% of the residents suffer from the consequences of the associated violence. The criminal groups control a large part of these needy communities. The fight to control the places where drugs are sold leaves residents in constant fear.
Even with all the difficulties they face, the contribution of these needy communities to the development of popular music, one of the cultural treasures of Rio, is undeniable. Much of the samba, funk and hip hop from Rio can trace its origin to the favelas. In addition, Carnival, or Mardi Gras, is a way to express the culture of different neighborhoods and communities that tell their history through the lyrics of samba and the parade.
But the people’s worth is not represented only in music or in Carnival. The people that live in favelas make the city function. They get up early, struggle, make public transport function, work at jobsites, serve customers, clean houses. These people build their homes with their own hands, come together through associations to appeal to government for public services, and fight for better living conditions.
However, the needy communities in Rio have changed greatly since they first appeared. Shanties made of wood and mud have given way to brick houses and buildings, which are now common in favelas. Most of the communities have services like water, electricity and sewage. Some also have a good network of merchants. Nevertheless, some of these services, like cable TV, are often used irregularly, due to the lack of control and monitoring.