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Brazzil - Poverty - March 2004

Brazil: Come Tour a Favela!

In the last few years, money and investment has begun to
trickle into the favelas from Brazil. The European Union is one
international organisation that provides funds for community
and regeneration projects. But much needed Government
money, despite pre-election hopes, has been slow coming.

Shafik Meghji

The dominant image of favelas (shantytowns) is one of violence. Last month, they made front page news across Brazil after a shoot-out between rival drugs gangs in the middle-class suburb of Copacabana, in Rio de Janiero, claimed several lives. Days before, the feature film Cidade de Deus (City of God), which depicts gang rivalry in a Rio favela, received similar levels of publicity.

The critically acclaimed film unexpectedly failed to receive an Oscar despite being nominated in four categories. Cidade de Deus has for many in Brazil and abroad reinforced the demonization of favelas as places of poverty, drugs and gangs.

But in Rio several organisations are working to give a more balanced view of life in favelas. Several guides offer tours of favelas for Brazilians and tourists. One, Favela Tour, was set up over fifteen years ago and ploughs 40 percent of ticket revenue into community projects in various favelas across the city.

Guide Alfredo Sousa admits that violence is a serious problem in favelas. "You have the police shooting the drug dealers, the drug dealers shooting the police, the drug dealers shooting the other drug dealers," he said. "The police and the Government are in charge in the city, but the drug dealers run the favelas. (But) there is not much robbery in the favelas because the people know that that will attract the police. People from the favelas go into the city to rob instead. You are more likely to get robbed in the city than in the favela."

The tour also shows another side, painting a picture of economically deprived and politically neglected communities that are nevertheless attempting to improve the lives of their inhabitants. There are over 600 favelas in Rio, home to some 20 percent of the population.

They cling to the side of the hills overlooking the city—some occupying prime areas of real estate. Many border middle and upper-class neighbourhoods, as is the case with Vila Canoas, the first favela we visited, which lies alongside São Conrado, one of the wealthiest districts in Rio. On one side of the road is a jumble of crudely assembled bare brick buildings, on the other smart detached houses with lush gardens and high security fences.

Here Favela Tour provides financial support to a school and a handicraft centre. Initial concerns that the tour would be a voyeuristic "safari" proved unfounded. Much of the tour takes place on foot and interaction, but not intrusion, is encouraged and rewarding. The goal, explains Sousa, is greater understanding and communication.

Sousa says although he enjoyed Cidade de Deus, and that the film has aroused greater interest in favelas, it reinforced a stereotype. "I have a friend who lives in the real Cidade de Deus in Rio and he liked the film. But other people think that it shows them in a bad light," he said. "It is important to remember that the film represented a particular point in history that is not necessarily the case today. As you can see, favelas aren't all bang, bang, bang."

The next stop on the tour is Rochina, over 100 years old and the largest favela in Brazil—population estimates range from 100,000 to 140,000. It is made up of hundreds of brick buildings, piled high on top of one another, covering a hillside looking down on Rio's prosperous south zone. Electricity is illegally tapped off the nearby power lines.

There are two banks (neither of which, incidentally, has ever been robbed), shops, bars, restaurants, bustling markets, dentists, health clinics and even a McDonald's franchise. There are also material signs of wealth—innumerable satellite dishes dot the roofs and there are new model cars on the streets. There are political and community organisations that try to provide a range of services. From postal delivery to health advise to computer training. "A city within a city," said Sousa.

In the last few years, money and investment has begun to trickle into the favelas. The European Union is one international organisation that provides funds for community and regeneration projects. But much needed Government money, despite pre-election hopes, has been slow coming.

The final stop on the tour is at the top of Rocinha and offers panoramic views of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Lagoa. A group of local artists sit nearby and paint the scenes. Sousa explains the meaning of the word favela. It relates, he said, to one of the bloodiest battles in Brazilian history in 1897 after the overthrow of the monarchy. The battle took place on Morro da Favela (Favela Hill) overlooking the town of Canudos, in the state of Bahia, and resulted in thousands of deaths. On their return to Rio the victorious republican soldiers were awarded the land on which Rocinha is now built and named the new settlement after the battle.

Sousa insists that Favela Tour does not attempt to underplay the endemic social and economic problems in favelas, nor romanticise favela life. Instead the organisation aims to provide a deeper understanding of favelas and draw attention to issues that many Brazilians would rather ignore.

Shafik Meghji is a freelance journalist based in London, but is currently travelling and writing his way around South America. He has worked for the London Evening Standard and the Press Association and has written for a number of British newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian. He can be contacted at

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