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Busting 8 Myths About Rio's Favelas

As hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors descend on Rio de Janeiro in August to watch the Olympics, there is no doubt that many curious eyes will be gazing up at the well-known informal neighborhoods called favelas. There has been a lot of media mention of the favelas, from famous movies to a recent surge because of the Olympics, but there are a lot of misconceptions. Through this post, we will break down 8 commonly held myths or generalizations about favelas and why they aren't quite true.

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1. Myth - "Favelas are 'Slums'"

Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

If you type "favela" into Google Translate, the resulting word is "slum" or "shanty town". The word favela comes from a plant that grows in the Northeast of Brazil. When the first favela was founded in the late 1800's, it was named "Favela Hill" after the plant. Today, that favela still exists and is called Providência, in Rio's Port region. The only reason we use "slum" as a translation for "favela" is to find an easy way to relate it to something familiar in our own cities. Unfortunately, this translation brings connotations of poverty, precariousness and lack of safety. While some favelas have "slum-like" conditions, it is incorrect to generalize that favelas are slums because many of them have sturdy homes, commerce, and middle-class residents.

2. Myth - "All Favelas are the same"

Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

There are more than 1000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro alone that hold more than 20% of the city's population. Just to give a sense of scale, that is over a MILLION people. Favelas come in all shapes and sizes and have incredibly rich histories. Favelas like Rocinha, City of God, Complexo de Alemão (German Complex) or Maré have tens of thousands of people within them and can have smaller subsections that indicate neighborhoods within neighborhoods. Others are smaller and are small enough where everyone knows each other. In the touristy South Zone, almost all of the favelas are on very steep hills that rise over the city, but in the North Zone and West Zones of the city (which are much larger) the land is flatter, which means they are built differently and have different assets and challenges.

3. Myth - "All favelas are illegal"

David Morsi - Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

In fact, there are some favelas that have legal protections under Brazilian state and national laws. Additionally, during the 1980's Rio's governor Brizola gave some communities (Like Vila Autódromo (shown above) and Vila União de Curicica that were evicted for the Olympic games... awkward...) legal recognition to stay on the land by the state. Even beyond this, Brazil's constitution actually offers one of the most generous "adverse possession" protections in the world, which basically means that if you can prove you have lived on land for 5 years without someone trying to kick you off, you have a right to the land. Just based on this claim alone, many of the favelas would have legal status, but the bureaucratic, costly and lengthy process usually isn't worth the struggle for residents. Throughout the history of favelas, there have been policy initiatives to offer land titles to favela residents, though these were largely unsuccessful on large scales because of the inefficiency of the government to implement the programs.

4. Myth - "All favelas are dangerous"

David Morsi - Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

This is a complicated claim. Yes, it is important to recognize that there are issues within favelas like drug trafficking and police violence, but as little as 1% of favela residents are involved in drug trafficking. However, as we mentioned above, there are 1.2 MILLION PEOPLE living in the favelas. To say that the places where 1.2 MILLION PEOPLE live are dangerous would be a gross generalization that completely dismisses all of the qualities, innovations and positive qualities of these places. Further, believing this over-generalization allows policies to be made that further stigmatize the communities. It is also important to understand that this "violence" that occurs within favelas is not inherent, rather a result of the DECADES of neglect from the government that have left the poorer folks in Rio without basic services.

5. Myth - "All Favela tours are bad"

Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

This, too, is a complex answer. First of all, don't be an idiot and take a jeep tour through a favela. This is not a jungle, you are not going into the wild unknown, and by giving in to your fear, you are just perpetuating a very real problem of stigmatization of these neighborhoods. If you are going to take a tour, you must choose carefully. Take a tour led by a resident to understand the realities and history of these communities. It is possible to tour a favela and try and learn the deep, complex, rich, and wonderful histories that created them. Why did people settle here? Where did the people come from? Who were the first settlers? How did the favela grow? Who are the main leaders? What kinds of social projects exist in the community? What are they most proud of? What does _______ community mean to residents? Although these are the poorer neighborhoods, they are still neighborhoods. If you choose carefully and learn the local expertise, you actually will have a really unique opportunity to learn.

6. Myth - "Homes in Favelas are shoddily built"

David Robertson - Catalytic Communities / Via rioonwatch.org

This is a very common misconception about favelas and it emerged because of the direct translation of "slum" and "shantytown", which both have connotations of precariousness. However, homes and structures in favelas are largely built with concrete, bricks, reinforced steel, rock and sand. They take years to build and residents usually over-build with the hopes of further expansion. Informality means the homes are built piece-by-piece. Residents save money, understand their needs, and build according to those needs. What might start out as a small home with one bedroom, one bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room could eventually turn into a structure with four homes, each with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a large living room and a bathroom. Further, since residents usually prioritize the inside of the home over the outside, the outside might seem unfinished, but the inside will be immaculately clean and have all the finishing touches.

7. Myth - "People want to leave and get out of favelas"

Catalytic Communities

There are some people who want to leave favelas, but there are also a large number of people who want to stay in their communities. Residents in favelas talk about how there is a very close knit community where everyone knows each other and this has value. Further, there are often generations of families that live in favelas, which makes them more significant than simply a collection of structure and an actual piece of history and memory. This misconception is detrimental because it means policies are made which see the existing favelas as worthless. The thought process is, "oh, if they all want to leave, then why should we invest in upgrading?" However, this is not the case and global policies regarding informal settlements are beginning to shift away from informal settlement removal to informal settlement upgrading and integration into the formal city.

8. Myth - "Rio would be better without favelas"

Catalytic Communities / Via Flickr: catcomm

As has been mentioned twice... just for emphasis... over 1 million people live in Rio's favelas. They are an integral part of the city and have been for over a century. They also have many qualities that are actually considered good by urban planners, such as density, walkability, mixed-use function, affordability, and the fact that they are spread out through the city near other more wealthy neighborhoods. For instance, Santa Marta is near Botafogo, Vidigal is near Leblon, Rocinha is near São Conrado and Gávea... you get the point. By highlighting qualities of favelas, it is clear that viewing them with terror or disgust is not productive or correct. Further, Rio has a huge affordable housing deficit, and if the favelas are considered a "de facto" affordable housing stock, suddenly the deficit doesn't seem so extreme. Rather than building completely new affordable housing, why not protect and upgrade what exists? The key is to give options to people who want to leave their current situation and to those who would rather that their community be upgraded.

What is a favela?

View this video on YouTube

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Rio's favelas have a fascinating history and the Olympics provide a perfect opportunity to learn more. It is impossible to generalize about the favelas because of their immense diversity of history. Even if you don't visit a favela, you will see them. Take this opportunity to educate yourself about the realities of these neighborhoods, the struggles they face, and the culture they bring to Rio's urban fabric.

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