Favelas: The Dark Side Of Contemporary Brazil – Analysis


The Federal Republic of Brazil is a unique country that has no equal in the Americas or in the rest of the world. Primarily because it is the only country in Latin America where Portuguese is the official language and not Spanish, it occupies about half the territorial area of South America and is the most populous Roman Catholic country in the world with about 217 million inhabitants. The Brazilian population is one of the most multicultural in the world, since it is an immigrant country from where immigrants arrived from all continents.

Brazil’s economy is the 10th largest in the world, and politically Brazil is a very important country. It is a member of BRICS, G-20, Mercosur. It is currently a medium (regional) power in the international community with the potential to become a superpower. Brazil is often called a wonderland due to its natural resources and specificities. The positive aspects that make it recognizable include the Amazon River and the Amazon Rainforest, the statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janeiro, carnival, samba, football, coffee, impressive architecture, etc.

Popularity of favelas

However, Brazil also has its dark side. With all the resources available, it is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, where the richest 10% of the population owns 50% of the national income, and about 8.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. When many around the world think of Brazil, the first association that comes to mind is the poor city districts – favelas. Favela is a word that in Brazilian Portuguese means a slum, or a poor and overcrowded part of the city inhabited by an extremely poor population struggling to survive in difficult conditions.

The world public is familiar with the term favela through the mass media, mostly through dramatic and shocking action films filmed in Brazil or documentaries that try to explain the significance of the creation and existence of wild slums. Certainly the most famous film that shook the world audience was the 2002 “City of God” (por. “Cidade de Deus”), which takes place in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the same name. Favelas symbolize poverty, crime, misery, and in general, the dark side of contemporary Brazil. Although the favelas are not something the local population is proud of, they have become a symbol of this country of extraordinary potential. The largest and most famous favelas were created in larger cities such as Rio and Sao Paulo, but they also exist in other parts of the country.

Historical origin and development

How did the favelas come about in a beautiful South American country like Brazil? The use of the word dates back to the late 19th century. After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and increased urbanization, many people from the Brazilian countryside moved to the cities. These new migrants sought work in the cities, but with little or no money, they could not afford urban housing. The civil war that broke out at the end of the century created a large number of refugees who began to settle in disreputable and neglected parts of the country in order to survive. The first real favela was built by ex-soldiers who became homeless after the Canudos War of 1895-1898. 20,000 of them returned from the war and had nowhere to live and started to establish favelas. In general, the first favelas were created in the federal state of Bahia.

The first favela Morro de Providencia in Rio de Janeiro was initially called “Morro da Favela”, after the favela needle plant (“Cnidoscolus phyllacanthus”) that grows in the barren territory of Brazil. The characteristics of this plant can be identified with favelas. Since the plant grows in a disreputable territory and in the worst climatic conditions, it can be compared to the population of favelas that manages to survive in inhumane living conditions. A favela is usually created when settlers occupy vacant land on the edge of a city and build shacks out of discarded or stolen building materials.

In later periods of time, freed slaves without their own land and the rest of the poor and neglected population join the existing inhabitants, and favelas become the most famous symbol of poverty. Also, favelas are known as “wild settlements”, and the first newly created neighborhoods were called after African neighborhoods (cf. “bairros africanos”) due to the large number of black residents. In recent times, the population that left the urbanized settlements and accepted the way of life ended up in the favelas. However, most favelas were created from the 1940s to the 1970s when there was an exodus of population from poor, rural areas of Brazil to the cities, particularly Rio. Poor settlers could not cover the cost of buying scarce land or pay rent and these rural migrants had no choice but to become squatter builders. From 1950 to 1980, the number of residents living in favelas in Rio alone grew from 170,000 to more than 600,000, and at the beginning of the 21st century, it was estimated that there were as many as a thousand favelas in the city.

Government campaigns of removing favelas

To tackle the favela problem, the Brazilian government implemented a comprehensive favela removal program in the 1960s and 1970s that relocated favelas to the outskirts of cities. Some of the most brutal removals of favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s history took place during this period. The military regime of the time provided limited resources to support the transition, and residents of favelas (favelados) struggled to adapt to their new environments, which were effectively ostracized communities with poor housing and inadequate public services.

The failure of the state to manage the favelas was the main trigger of violence, drug trafficking and the emergence of gangs from the 1970s onwards. The creation of the well-armed special police force BOPE in 1978 was the government’s response to the violence.

Poor standards of living and government improvement programs

For decades, favelas were shelters for the poor, attracting the gaze of the outside world only because of the vivid colors of the clapboard facades and the cheapest building materials. However, life in them is also changing. Dwellings made of wood, branches and mud were replaced over time by concrete and bricks. The lack of adequate infrastructure leads to improvised and hastily installed plumbing and electrical installations. Water often has to be transported long distances, and rudimentary waste disposal methods pose a health hazard. As a result of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition and pollution, disease is rampant in the poorer favelas and infant mortality rates are high. Most of the favelas still have electricity and water, but in many you can still see a “river of faeces” running through the middle of the settlement. Many favelas, such as Rocinha (the largest favela in South America, with an estimated population of 70,000 people), have somewhat reached the standards of civilization. Rocinha has hundreds of business premises, banks, restaurants, cafes, internet and even its own television station. It is also a popular tourist destination for foreign tourists.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, state policy shifted from a policy of eradication to one of preserving and improving life in the favelas. The “Favela-Bairro” program, launched in 1993, sought to improve the living standards of favelados. The program provided basic communal services, connected favelas to the formal urban community through a series of roads and public spaces, and legalized land ownership. Aggressive state intervention, however, has not completely disappeared. General violence and the activities of drug gangs escalated in the favelas, and from 1995 the state approved a joint military and police intervention called “Operation Rio”. The operation was an attempt by the state to regain control of the favelas from the drug cartels who had consolidated the social and political vacuum left by the previously unsuccessful state policy of intervention. Since 2009, Rio de Janeiro has had walls separating wealthy neighborhoods from favelas, officially to protect the natural environment, but critics say the barriers are an indication of the segregation of the rich from the poor.

Changes and crime

Many favelas are disappearing. Due to the large immigration to Rio de Janeiro, the hills above the city became overcrowded, and the land on which the poor settlements were built became very valuable. Thus, on the site of the infamous favela City of God, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in all of Brazil was built. In Ipanema and Leblon, districts known for their beaches, which were once full of favelas, today only three remain. Some were razed to the ground to build facilities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Given that no taxes are paid in the favelas, many move to them for that very reason. Quieter favelas mean more expensive real estate, and due to the arrival of an increasing number of foreigners, many predict that the renovation and raising of standards will force the original inhabitants of the settlement to move away.

Until a few years ago, favelas were exclusively ruled by violence and drug lords, but the so-called pacification and frequent police raids, which were launched due to international sports events, made these wild settlements somewhat safer. But not too safe. Many of the favelas are still impossible to enter. This requires the permission of the “boss”, which is usually a drug dealer. It should be noted that the majority of the favela population has been living in poor conditions since birth, so they do not know that there is something better or different. A small percentage of people have been forced to choose to live in a favela because there are worse dwellings. Children know the concept of crime from a young age, and it is common to work for the powerful in the criminal industry. A child with a gun in his hand and a mother transporting drugs is not an unusual sight. Drug trafficking is one of the biggest problems, and mostly teenage boys are employed in this criminal business. Shootings in the streets are a frequent occurrence, not only between gangs but also between criminals and police forces. In recent times, the favelas are not so “notorious” anymore, although the Brazilian government always warns foreigners not to venture there alone.

A world unto itself

The population in the favelas is mostly left to fend for itself because the authorities in Brazil have not cared about the poor for decades or only started to do so in the last 20 years or so with the coming to power of left-wing governments like the current president Lula da Silva. Some favelas were not even visited by the police, so they became a world unto themselves.

According to data from 2011, as many as 11.5 million Brazilians (six percent of the population) live in favelas, of which there are about a thousand in Rio de Janeiro alone. According to data from the Brazilian Research Agency, more than 70% of the black population is thought to live in favelas, followed by mixed-race people. Pardo Brazilians are a mixture of races resulting from mixed marriages (mulatto-whites and blacks, mestizos-whites and Indians, zambos-blacks and Indians). The average life expectancy in favelas is 48 years, which is 20 years less than the national average. This fact is blamed on unregulated and primitive hygienic conditions, a lack of sanitary facilities, environmental pollution, but also a high crime rate. These data can never be concretely accurate precisely because the Brazilian authorities do not keep precise statistics.

Positive developments

Despite all the negativity associated with favelas, not everything is so black, that is, many positive things have come out of their existence. For example experts believe that Brazil is a soccer superpower precisely because many soccer stars grew up in the slums of Brazilian cities. The part of children and young people who do not want to engage in criminal activities looks for a way out precisely in sports. Some of the greatest football greats such as Pele, Rivaldo and Ronaldo just started their sports journey on the streets of the favelas. Ronaldinho also lived with his family in a shantytown in the heart of the favela. A difficult life forced young people to play football in order to enable themselves a better tomorrow.

Various music such as samba, hip-hop, funk carioca has also developed in the favelas. The latter type of music was popularized in the favelas and has become popular worldwide. From the mid-nineties until today, tourists increasingly want to visit the favelas to see another side of Brazil. Travel agencies guide interested tourists through poor neighborhoods to show them the true face of this South American country. The fascination with favelas can be seen in numerous pictures, photos, videos, and some buildings around the world were built on the model of favelas. Even some European nightclubs are designed according to the same principle. Favelas remain a permanent symbol of the hard life of the Brazilian people and a reminder that there are still neighborhoods of misery in the wonderland.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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