Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What Went Wrong in Rio’s Favelas?

Reading Time: 7 minutesRio’s slums have returned to neglect, but there is still an opportunity for revival.
Reading Time: 7 minutes


Reading Time: 7 minutes

Correction appended below

This article is adapted from AQ’s most recent issue, “Fixing Brazil.” To receive the print edition at home, subscribe here.

Standing in the doorway of her mud-and-bamboo cottage at the very top of a favela called Babilônia, Maria Regina Luiz peers out cautiously. She was born and raised on this steep hillside above Copacabana, and has learned to be suspicious of outsiders, particularly around election time.

Reassured that I’m not a politician, and that I’m with the trusted head of the local residents’ association, Luiz invited me inside and pulled down a sheet hung over the entrance to keep out the tropical winter chill. Plastic buckets, laid out to catch the drips of last night’s rain, cluttered the small space. As the tenuous light of an overcast morning streamed in through her home’s crumbling walls, Luiz recounted how officials once came knocking with offers of help.

“The government people came, took my documents, took photos of everything, promised me I would have another home here in the community,” Luiz said, frowning. “That was many years ago.”

That feeling—of promises unkept—pervades many of Rio’s favelas in the aftermath of the Summer Olympics and Brazil’s economic and political crisis. While some critical infrastructure was built in recent years, and the plight of favelas has arguably never been a more prominent part of the public debate, the improvements have fallen well short of expectations raised during last decade’s economic boom.

As recently as 2012, Mayor Eduardo Paes confidently predicted that all the city’s favelas would be integrated into the city by the end of this decade. The goal was to use the Olympics as leverage to ensure these communities would receive basic amenities like sewage collection, running water and safe electricity. The program that could have helped Luiz, called Morar Carioca, aimed to provide safer homes to residents who lived in areas at risk of landslides. Innovative policing initiatives would decrease crime and rid communities of open drug dealing and the heavily armed drug-traffickers who often substituted for an absent state.

“The city of the future has to be socially integrated,” Paes said in a TED talk that year. “Favelas can be the solution, not the problem.”

Just four years later, such talk has abated. President Michel Temer’s new center-right government seems far more focused on budget cuts and economic reforms than on further social inclusion. So what of the 11.4 million, or 6 percent, of Brazilians who live in favelas? What has the failed promise of recent years taught us, and how can the work of incorporating all of the country’s citizens continue?

“The politicians always come around elections,” Luiz said as she bid us good-bye. “If they come again, God will have to forgive me, but I’ll send them away with curses.”

Ending the status quo

Hiking down from Luiz’s home, I talked with the residents’ association president, André Constantine, trying to figure out how Rio, and Brazil, failed to seize the moment to make necessary changes.

To be sure, the greater focus on favelas in Brazil in recent years represents a radical, and positive, change. Favelas were born as an imperfect solution to the chronic lack of affordable housing in cities. Dating back to the abolition of slavery and growing exponentially with the great urban migrations of the 20th century, these communities of disenfranchised working poor, often without title to the land on which they lived, were long tolerated as repositories of inexpensive labor, but denied permanence and services.

The status quo was advantageous to the elite. Favelas could be removed if that became politically or financially expedient. In the 1960s, a federal program destroyed the homes of 42,000 favela residents in Rio, primarily in rapidly appreciating south-zone neighborhoods like Lagoa and Leblon. The communities that survived remained on the margins of governmental oversight for the decades that followed. This policy of deliberate neglect was visually translated in maps: The spaces occupied by favelas were simply left blank.

Within this context, the shift toward incorporating these communities during Brazil’s boom years of the 2000s was startling, said José Marcelo Zacchi, executive director of Casa Fluminense, a Rio-based think-tank. “It was a moment when we talked about facing profound inequalities, deepening democracy, calling the city to be renewed and contemporary, a metropolitan area that faced up to these challenges,” said Zacchi. “We had an opportunity to make a leap forward.”

This emphasis trickled down from the national level. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was fond of saying, “It’s cheap and easy to look after the poor.” His government expanded and installed a range of policies, from redistribution of wealth programs like Bolsa Família, to access to credit, to scholarships for low-income students that, directly or indirectly, improved the lot of residents in such communities. Under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, the government’s slogan became, “A rich country is a country without poverty.” It was the official recognition that a country cannot move forward while leaving a substantial portion of its population behind.

Meanwhile, programs arrived to deliver on such promises. Morar Carioca was launched in 2010 with great fanfare and a budget of 9 billion reais (about $3.1 billion) made up of city funds, federal loans and $150 million from the Inter-American Development Bank. In Babilônia, it promised 117 apartments to people like Luiz. The first 16 units, raised according to international green building standards, won an international sustainability award and much media coverage.

Back to neglect

But then things began to fall apart. After building another ten units, the funding for Morar Carioca in Babilônia seemed to evaporate. The workers packed up and left. The city never offered an explanation for the abrupt end—to residents or to journalists.

Meanwhile, municipal officials removed 20,299 families, or 67,000 people, from favelas around Rio between January 2009 and December 2013, according to the city’s housing department. The justification was that they lived in unsafe areas or were in the way of World Cup or Olympics projects.

But nearly all of those removed were never offered a nearby unit, or sufficient compensation for their destroyed home, as the law requires. This led many to resist the destruction, sometimes violently. The city’s best offer to Luiz was in a federal housing program complex in Santa Cruz, 45 miles away.

As far as Luiz is concerned, it might as well be on the moon. She lives alone, suffers from cancer, and relies on neighbors to reach the nearby public hospital where she gets treatment. It would take her around five hours, round trip, to travel from the distant unit to Babilônia, and nearly as long to reach the hospital. She prefers to take her chances and stay.

This is reflected in other programs, such as the new security initiative launched in late 2008 called Police Pacification Units, or UPPs in the Portuguese acronym. Its goal was to bring trained police officers into favelas, reduce crime, and retake territory controlled by drug traffickers.

Across Rio, UPPs are in trouble: As the program lost credibility and funding in the economic crisis, shootouts with traffickers became routine again. Babilônia, with its tiny population of 3,000 and its privileged location, has largely evaded such trouble, and has attracted many visitors. On the day I visited, I passed clusters of Brits, Germans and Spaniards with their cameras, all drawn by their curiosity about favela life and the great view.

This is the kind of success that raises tough questions: What were the real priorities of these improvements? Whom did they really benefit? In other favelas, the most expensive projects—the Cantagalo elevator, the gondolas in Alemão and Providencia—were intended from the start as attractions for visitors. In Babilônia, millions were spent on security, solar-powered lights, and a deck made of recycled plastic bottles. Yet there was still no regular community-wide trash collection or letter delivery—two principal demands of residents, said Constantine, the community leader.

“It’s as if all this talk of integration were limited to the marketable aspects of the favela,” Constantin said, listing the land, the views, even the culture that appeals to outsiders. It just didn’t include the favela residents themselves, he said.

“The vision that was projected was of a cleaned-up, gentrified city, a city that is good for business, a favela that is open to capital, but doesn’t really include us,” he said. “We’re in the way.”

Misguided priorities

I walked down Babilônia’s narrow passages and left Constantine at the neighborhood association. Below it the road was paved, flanked by trendy hostels and eateries. A group of three UPP officers stood guard as more tourists made their way up. It struck me: It was as if the men were there to guarantee the tourists’ right to transit safely, not for the sake of community. Even here, in this favela privileged by pilot programs, the residents were never at the center of decision-making, never the real focus of the changes that did happen. That was where the programs failed.

The fault lines running through the specific municipal, state and federal programs that targeted favela residents over the past decade are varied, but they have at least one commonality: They failed to take into account the beneficiaries. There was more money, but not more citizenship. Morar Carioca provided a handful of Babilônia’s families with the latest in environmentally sustainable construction, but failed to give Luiz a safe home, and to expand to other favelas. The UPPs remained a top-down process that alienated young favelados like Constantine, whose engagement should have been fundamental in any effective security program. Federal housing program Minha Casa, Minha Vida (MCMV) did not grow into a real alternative to favelas because, distant from jobs, schools and hospitals, its projects did not meet residents’ needs as favelas did.

Zacchi, of Casa Fluminense, concurred. Even during this decade of openness and possibility, the relationship between the government apparatus and the most disenfranchised residents did not fundamentally change, he said. It might have been in the rhetoric, but “it wasn’t in the DNA of how politics is done,” he explained.

“It’s not just about resources; it’s about having a dynamic with favela residents that is like the one with residents of Copacabana,” he said.

There were, however, elements of these programs that indicated a way forward. Community participation was a central tenet of Morar Carioca. The program was abandoned, but the concept became a part of the public debate regarding the future of cities like Rio. The same is true with the UPP program: Its financing is dwindling, but its proposal of changing the relationship between police and favela residents was groundbreaking.

There is a version of the MCMV program, the MCMV Entidades, that allows future residents to be involved from conception to construction, thus tailoring the units and the residential project to the needs of families and the community. These developments are few—7,800 units built, another 12,500 approved. But they are less expensive and more successful than the cookie-cutter endeavors designed and built by construction companies, said Melissa Fernandes Arrigotia, a London School of Economics sociologist who studied the implementation of MCMV in Brazil.

Over the past decade, the country has engaged in a broad discussion about governance, housing, transportation, security, health care and education. These programs and the associated concepts of integration, citizenship and equality were not the achievement of a party, or of specific leaders; they were fruits of the last 30 years of democracy, messy and imperfect as it might have been.

Together, they’re an indication that Brazilians long excluded from circles of power and money have heightened their expectations. The country still faces a wide gap between its aspirations and its ability to achieve them. Favelas in which citizens are still without adequate access to resources and rights will remain a part of Brazil, and a symbol of this failure, for many decades to come.

Brazilians have glimpsed the way forward. Our great challenge is to stay true to that path.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier web version of this article misstated the distance between Babilônia and Santa Cruz.

Barbassa is an award-winning independent journalist and the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as Rio de Janeiro correspondent for the Associated Press. She currently lives in Switzerland.

Video by Luisa Leme

Special thanks to Associação dos Moradores da Babilônia, Casa Fluminense, Frontline Defenders, and Coletivo Papo Reto



Reading Time: 7 minutes

Juliana Barbassa was the former managing editor for Americas Quarterly. An award-winning independent journalist, Barbassa is the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as Rio de Janeiro correspondent for the Associated Press.

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Tags: favelas, Fixing Brazil, Rio de Janeiro
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