Favelas in the Spotlight: Transforming the Slums of Rio De Janeiro

By Baena, Victoria | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Favelas in the Spotlight: Transforming the Slums of Rio De Janeiro


Baena, Victoria, Harvard International Review


In October 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced to the world that Rio de Janeiro would host the 2016 Olympic Games. Cariocas, as Rio's residents are called, were euphoric. Nearly 30,000 gathered on Copacabana Beach to celebrate, and then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva broke down in tears in Copenhagen, where the deliberations were being held. Yet barely two weeks later, a violent shoot-oat between drug gangs in Rio spiraled out of control, resulting in 14 people killed, eight injured, and a police helicopter shot down. Witnessed by the world in light of the recent Olympics decision, the incident was a sobering reminder of the challenges facing Brazil as it prepares to host not only the Games, but also the 2014 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup.

At the heart of these challenges is the endemic violence of the favelas, the slums bordering many Brazilian cities. Rio de Janeiro's unique topography makes its favelas particularly prominent: while the city is located on low-lying ground by the beach, the favelas sprawl above, perched on the hills surrounding the city. Their spectacular views notwithstanding, these favelas reveal that Brazil's rapid economic growth and emergence on the world stage do not tell the whole story. There have been multiple interventions by the government, mostly unsuccessful, to remove or rehabilitate favelas. However, the 2014 and 2016 competitions to be held in Brazil have lent a renewed urgency to these attempts. They are a test for the country as to whether it can ensure security for the thousands that will be pouring in, especially in a city where 6,000 people are killed each year. Indeed, many have questioned the judgment of FIFA and the IOC in choosing a host that continues to suffer from such instability. But beyond assessing Brazil from abroad, these deadlines provide a unique opportunity for Brazilian leaders to finally reverse the cycle of violence and poverty in the favelas, ensuring that their residents share in the economic benefits the rest of Brazil has already begun to reap.

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History of the Hills

The Brazilian government has sought ways to deal with the favelas since their very inception. In Rio de Janeiro, the first residents were fugitive African slaves who established homes on the hills outside the city in settlements called "quilombos." Not until the mid-20th century, however, was there rapid expansion. Urbanization in the 1950s provoked mass migration from the countryside to the cities throughout Brazil by those hoping to take advantage of the economic opportunities urban life provided. Those who moved to Rio de Janeiro, however, chose an inopportune time. The change of Brazil's capital from Rio to Brasilia in 1960 marked a slow but steady decline for the former, as industry and employment options began to dry up.

Unable to find work, and therefore unable to afford housing within the city limits, these new migrants remained in the favelas. Despite their proximity to urban Rio de Janeiro, the city did not extend sanitation, electricity, or other services to the favelas. They soon became associated with extreme poverty and were considered a headache to many citizens and politicians within Rio.

In the 1970s, Brazil's military dictatorship pioneered a favela eradication policy, which forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. During Carlos Lacerda's administration, many were moved to public housing projects such as Cidade de Deus ("City of God"), later popularized in a wildly popular feature film of the same name. Poor public planning and insufficient investment by the government led to the disintegration of these projects into new favelas.

By the 1980s, worries about eviction and eradication were beginning to give way to violence associated with the burgeoning drug trade. Changing routes of production and consumption meant that Rio de Janeiro found itself as a transit point for cocaine destined for Europe.

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