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Place of the Year nominee spotlight: Brazil’s favelas and the growth of an urban challenge

This extract is taken from Brazil: What Everyone Needs to Know by Riordan Roett

With the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the collapse of the empire in 1889, Brazil’s population of color was basically abandoned. Many left the plantations that had been their only home and began to move south to the developing urban areas of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro was a prime target for the newly freed Afro-Brazilians. Unable to afford housing and subject to prejudice and disdain, they settled on the unpopulated and inhospitable hills. The first favelas or urban slums had appeared in the late 19th century and were built by soldiers who had fought in the Triple Alliance War of the 1860s or the regional armed conflicts of the first years of the Republic. Released from military service, they had nowhere to live. Some of the first settlements were called bairros africanos (African neighborhoods) since many of the settlers were people of color.

As southern Brazil urbanized in the early 20th century, the city became a magnet for the poor in search of employment. Following the change in government that brought Getúlio Vargas to power, the early industrialization process created menial employment opportunities. These positions were filled by the new migrants. Under the Vargas government, in 1937, the Building Code of Rio de Janeiro first recognized the favelas’ official existence. A housing crisis in the early 1940s exacerbated social tensions in Rio and the government began to look for ways to incorporate this new urban phenomenon into Brazilian society.

As urbanization and industrialization in the 1950s accelerated, the de facto recognition of the favela became a reality. The government talked about a public housing project but it never came to fruition. The Roman Catholic Church attempted to address the crisis but it appeared to be too little too late. But an important development hindered the growth of any coherent policy response to the slums. The federal government formally moved inland to the new capital in 1960. With the onset of the military government in 1964, the final steps were taken to consolidate the Brazilian public sector in Brasília. The slum inhabitants, by and large, did not accompany the move. A new generation of poor people from the interior, drawn to the construction opportunities in the building of the new capital, created a new generation of urban slums or favelas on the periphery of the new city.

In Rio de Janeiro, the change was a disaster. Tens of thousands of service jobs were suddenly lost and there were few alternatives. A second phenomenon boded poorly for the favelados (favela inhabitants). The military government decided to remove the favelas from their location on the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro to peripheral areas of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The program, disguised as a government housing effort, provided no infrastructure or municipal services. The program failed because many of the favela dwellers refused to move and those that did found they did not have the means to support the cost of living in government housing.

At the end of the military dictatorship in 1980, a new challenge arose—drugs. With the US-supported program in Colombia and elsewhere, the “war on drugs” sought alternative routes for the shipment of cocaine and other substances. The Rio favelas became a convenient hiding place for the drug traffickers particularly because the Brazilian state—the police—was absent. In one favela after another, local elected leaders were forced out and replaced by agents of the dominant drug gangs. The increasingly lucrative drug and arms trade led to violent turf wars between gangs punctuated by intermittent police raids that used brutal tactics against the drug forces as well as local residents. At the same time, off-duty policemen and security agents took control of other favelas and imposed another form of violent control.

While there is mobility for favelados it is hit-or-miss. Opportunities for advancement are available but it takes a special combination of motivation, talent, and luck to succeed. That is a daily challenge for people in the slums. Few are successful, the majority are not.

The underlying reality is that the favela phenomenon is the result of decades of neglect, marginalization, and violence. The inhabitants of the favelas believe that they have been marginalized by society—and they have been. Given the erratic nature of Brazilian politics and the economic uncertainties of the last century, it has been extremely difficult to create a coherent development program for the favelas. The favelas are either demonized or romanticized. There is now favela tourism in Rio de Janeiro but that is a 21st-century effort to hide or obscure the realities of life in the slums. It will not solve the basic issues that have festered for decades.

Rio de Janeiro is among the nominees for Oxford University Press’ Place of the Year. Follow along as we focus on different places each week and vote for your choice below.

Featured image: City, urban by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay.

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