What does one think of when hearing the word favela? Those familiar with the term would likely connect it with crime, gangs, and violence in the forgotten cities within Rio de Janeiro where the so-called “people of the hill” live. The favelas largely represent a failure of the Brazilian government to cope with issues of social stratification and inequality in the country. The governments approach to tackle this issue has been simple – to brush it under the carpet, thus allowing for the formation of favelas or “forgotten cities” within the borders of Rio. The aim here, however, is not to focus on the negative aspects of the favelas, but instead to celebrate the impressive, colorful, and vibrant mini-societies the residents of these favelas have created for, and – most importantly – by themselves.
A favela can be defined as a slum or shanty town located on the outskirts of larger urban cities, especially Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in Brazil. Favelas start to develop as deprived people find and occupy vacant pieces of land, and start constructing establishments needed in everyday life. With time small communities are born, called favelas. Around 25% of the residents of Rio de Janeiro live in these informal communities. In fact, there are over 1000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro alone, ranging from smaller and more undeveloped slum-like communities to highly self-sufficient unofficial cities which function due to the determined and resourceful residents living in them. We should thus not paint all favelas with the same brush. While poverty remains a major issue they have all reached different stages of development.
Before the Rio Olympic games in 2016 Johnny Harris, a multimedia journalist at Vox, made a short documentary about life in some of Rio’s favelas. While it cannot be denied that most favelas are overwhelmed by gang violence and poverty, Harris went to the favelas to show the other side of the coin, namely the beauty and creativity of life there. In the documentary, the segregation between the officially planned city structures of Rio and the informal hidden parts was highlighted. Instead of focusing only on the segregation however, Harris emphasizes the resourcefulness and beauty of the neglected neighborhoods within the city. A central question is what happens when parts of cities develop without the presence and supervision of a government. As seen in the documentary, gangs undoubtedly flourish with ease but it also allows for freedom and creativity to bloom amongst the diverse population of the favelas.
Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro – the largest and most developed favela in Brazil. (Picture: Talita Oliveira; Flickr)
Perhaps the most famous of Rio’s favelas is the Cidade de Deus, or City of God. If the name rings a bell, it may be due to the 2002 film adaptation of Paulo Lin’s 1997 novel Cidade de Deus, which received significant attention worldwide. Paulo Lin, a former resident of the Cidade de Deus, wrote a semi-autobiographical story portraying the violent life in the favela from the 1960s through the 1980s. For those of us who have not experienced favelas firsthand, the City of God may very well be regarded as a convincing representation of the violent life in the favelas – and in part, it is.
Nevertheless, the City of God is also a home to almost 40 000 people. When asked about life in the City of God, most locals would remind us that while violence does persist in the city, Paulo Lin’s story is largely fictional. Dias Simpson, a local resident in the City of God, noted that favelas are essentially home to the working class of Rio. According to her, if one were to go to the most dangerous parts of these favelas during the day, one would see normal people working and going about their daily lives. Violence and crime is a part of life in most favelas, but like in any other city, it is by far not the only part.
“In Rio, 1.4 million of the 6.3 million people live in favelas, or slums. They are all over the city, but favelas are not always a problem – sometimes they can be a solution, if you have the right public policies.” – Eduardo Paes
While it is not the topic I want to focus on here, it seems impossible not to mention the effect large scale events such as the recent Olympic Games and the World Cup in 2014 have had on the favelas. When such events take place, suddenly the “forgotten cities” are not so forgotten anymore, at least not for the government. Mass evictions along with destruction of structures the residents have worked hard on take place to clear space for stadiums and arenas for the few weeks of sporting events. In 2013, over 19 000 families in Rio’s favelas had already been moved from their homes to make room for the two upcoming sporting events. The segregation here thus gets emphasized, as the negative effect of such events is felt mostly by the city’s poorest.
Segregation is one of the major issues favelas face today. With officials in Rio de Janeiro seemingly unable, or rather unwilling, to integrate the favelas into the society of Rio, more segregation ensues. With increased segregation, development comes to a halt – even for the resourceful favela residents. With the Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian government made promises they did not keep. With the promise of “cleaning up” Rio as a part of their Olympic bid, the government essentially transformed everything except the city’s favelas. They instead decided to hide them from the public and only try to clean up the image of favelas for the visiting sports enthusiasts. This obviously did not fool the locals, who felt more segregated than ever as the approach of the government this time was not only to ignore the problem, but to hide it from the public eye all together – literally, by building a wall around the favelas, decorated with colorful artwork on the outside for tourists to admire.
The problem is not the existence of favelas or even the crime that persists within them, but rather the exclusion of favelas from the rest of the society. Instead of segregation, focus ought to be put on integrating these impressive mini-communities into the rest of the city. Favelas are a part of the culture and history of Rio de Janeiro, and there is a need for bridging the bad features with the good – for integration to occur, the poor image of favelas needs to change for the better.