Favela (Brazil)

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Location: Brazil
Brazil map.png
Author: Marta Laura Suska
Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Original text by Marta Laura Suska

Favela is the name given to informal settlements in Brazil, typically located in urban areas. The official definition of favela by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in collaboration with the UN is ‘subnormal agglomeration’ (IBGE 2011[1]). It describes a community of at least 51 units illegally occupying public or private land in a ‘disorderly and dense manner’. The settlement is characterised by lacking a property title and displays at least one of following: irregular infrastructure and streets; lack of basic services such as clean drinking water, sewage, electricity, refuse collection, and insecurity. The IBGE uses favela interchangeably with the English term ‘slum’. The latest census of 2010 reported that approximately 11.4 Million Brazilians, about 6 per cent of the Brazilian population, lived in favelas.

Favelas emerged due to many factors, but the most important reasons were slavery and urban migration. From the mid sixteenth century Brazil imported millions of slaves from Africa and when slavery was finally abolished in 1888, most freed slaves no longer had accommodation and enjoyed only limited rights. They built houses in less desired areas, such as on hilltops, near swamps and in the suburbs. More recently, the growth of favelas was fueled by massive domestic migration of people looking for work (especially from the northeast of Brazil), who were not able to afford housing, so they built their own. A feature of all favelas is that houses are in a continuous state of transformation and expansion. New rooms are being added or enlarged; roofs converted into second or third floors; and terraces built on top of homes (Riveira 2012[2]). This alteration and production of space is what James Holston described as an act of ‘insurgent citizenship’ (Holston 2009[3]).

Photograph showing the favela "Morro da Coroa" in Rio de Janeiro, 2009. Artist: Marta-Laura Suska

Favelas can be found in the center and peripheries of Brazilian cities, on hills and on flatlands. Some slums are fairly recent, others, like the Morro da Providência in Rio de Janeiro are over a hundred years old. Favelas vary greatly in size, population, political structure and layout. The largest favela with approximately 200,000 inhabitants (governmental and NGO data varies significantly) is arguably Roçinha in Rio. Over decades of improvisation many favelas developed into self-sufficient economies – with their own supermarkets, bars, beauty salons and rules. Because there was no formal government presence the residents developed their own justice system, infrastructure, water and electricity supply. Roçinha and many other favelas became ‘cities within the city’.

Preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics have seen city governments throughout Brazil investing billions of dollars in ‘slum-upgrading’ projects that seek to redesign and integrate favelas into the city. Favela residents, however, are often resistant to such attempts, fearing that the benefits are only temporary and that they will lose their independence once international attention has ceased. However rudimentary and limited, favela residents generally have access to education and healthcare, and are often recipients of social programs such as Bolsa Família, a conditional cash-transfer program which makes grants available to low-income households providing that they send their children to school and have regular medical check-ups.

Many residents use the terms favela and comunidade (community) interchangeably because comunidade is supposedly a less derogatory term. However, critics point out that the term comunidade makes the false assumption that favelas are homogenous communities where the residents have close and friendly relationships with each other. In reality, most favelas host thousands of people who often do not know each other, nor trust each other any more than people in other neighbourhoods. In Rio de Janeiro, favelas are also known as morro (hill), because favelas in the city center are located on hill tops.


The concept of favela cannot be fully understood without discussing the social inequality in Brazil. Brazilian philosopher Marilena Chauí wrote that Brazil´s is a ‘verticalised and hierarchised’ society ‘in which social relations are always realized either in the form of complicity (when the social subject recognizes each other as equals) or in the form of orders and obedience between a superior and an inferior’. Thus, the idea of ‘equality of rights and the juridical equality of citizens’ does not exist (Kingstone and Power 2000:221[4]). Anthropologist Roberto da Matta reaches a similar conclusion; he argues that the cordiality and conviviality that often impress tourists also produce personal exceptions to every rule, the so called jeitinho (Da Matta 1997[5]) (see this volume). Different rules are expected for different layers of society and laws are not enforced universally, but internally, among peers.

In Rio de Janeiro, youth from wealthy neighborhoods regularly enter favelas to attend the (in)famous Baile Funk – a specific music and party scene. In recent years, favela tourism has also become a popular business. However, in cities in the Northeast, upper class members or tourists would rarely be seen entering a favela. Here the communities are much more segregated from the rest of society, as well as being much poorer and the favelas are less visually appealing than in the south.

The image of favelas remains predominantly associated with Rio de Janeiro, but it is not a representative image for favelas in other cities in Brazil. The public perception of favelas is distorted by the imagery offered by the arts and media, who paint a homogenous picture of favelas and obscure the realities of the life within. Favelas need to be disaggregated into specifics of geography, demography, cultural characteristics and institutions. While Rio´s morros have become emblematic in terms of image, violence, music and arts, in other regions security, leisure and opportunities are experienced in a vastly different manner, thus the term favela may not be as uniformly Brazilian as it seems.

Favela and violence

A study jointly published by WHO, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, based on global data from 2012, the most recent year available, showed that Brazil had the highest number of homicides in the world. The nation's death toll was more than 64,000 in 2012 (UN Report 2014[6]). The characteristics of violence differ drastically from region to region, however, victims (and perpetrators) are the same: overwhelmingly young, dark-skinned men from favelas.

In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo drug gangs are highly organised and have significant influence over the police and local politics. Local drug lords will contribute to their favela´s infrastructure and help residents; they will also declare laws unilaterally and punish any wrongdoing. In other regions, however, drug gangs are not as well organised, with the result that they contribute less to the community overall.

In many cities, but especially in Rio and São Paulo, heavily armed drug traffickers rule regions inside the city and security crackdowns have culminated in police raids on the sprawling favelas. The resulting gun battles have killed scores of innocents. Anthropologist Ben Penglase observed how by accusing each other of being the source of arbitrary violence, the police and traffickers depend on each other to justify and to produce their own competing strategies for ‘order’ and ‘security’ (Penglase 2009[7]). Drug traffickers and the police contribute to the creation and the perpetration of a ‘state of emergency’ (Agamben 2005[8]) in which no ‘normal’ rules can apply.

Due to the public’s heightened fear of crime a profound urban segregation developed (Perlman 2010[9]). Those citizens who could afford it retreated from public space into enclaves with private security systems and bulletproof windows. The poor citizens´ only option for security, however, was to turn to the drug traffickers, who secured their territories against the state with weapons. The ensuing ‘spectacular violence’ when police invaded favelas in urban tanks to counter shirtless drug traffickers using warfare weaponry was seized upon by the media who adopted the motif for books and movie productions. As Erika Robb Larkins argues, the practice of favela tourism is also a commodification of the favela and becomes a form of violence itself. Favela violence is transformed into a commercially viable byproduct of a profit-driven war on drugs, which serves to keep the poor marginalised and creates the ‘spectacular favela’ (Robb Larkins 2015[10]).

Several public safety initiatives have emerged to address the alarming murder rates. The Pacification Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora UPP) in Rio de Janeiro, in particular, stands out for its approach to ‘pacify’ favelas. It is a military take-over of territories ruled by armed drug gangs and the installation of a permanent police presence, with the intent that the provision of social services and improvements to infrastructure will follow. Initially, the UPP achieved a vast decrease in violence but soon it faced vulnerabilities due to political volatility, financial cuts and historical distrust towards the police. Brazilian police still remain among the most lethal in the world, annually killing thousands of civilians with impunity. Shoot-to-kill policies and death squad activities can be directly linked to a lack of political will and implicit public support of such practices. As a result, certain divisions of the military police have continued to ‘clean up’ favelas by killing drug traffickers and their families without facing legal charges. Their actions are deemed ‘illegal but not illegitimate’ (Civico 2012[11]); human rights and public security have developed into seemingly conflicting priorities.


  1. IBGE 2011. Censo Demográfico 2010, primeiros resultados: aglomerados subnormais. IBGE: Rio de Janeiro.
  2. Riveira, G. 2012. A New Home in the City: From Favela Shacks to Public Housing, Dissertation University of Chicago.
  3. Holston, J. 2009. Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Kingstone, P.R., Power, T.J. 2000. Democratic Brazil: Actors, Institutions, and Processes. Pitt Latin American Series: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  5. Da Matta, R. 1997. Carnavais, Malandros E Heróis: Para Uma Sociologia Do Dilema Brasileiro. Brazil: ROCCO.
  6. UN Report. 2014. Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014: WHO, UNODC, UNDP.
  7. Penglase, B. 2009. 'States of Insecurity: Everyday Emergencies, Public Secrets, and Drug Trafficker Power in a Brazilian Favela', Political and Legal Anthropology Review 32(1): 47–63.
  8. Agamben, G. 2005. State of Exception: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Perlman, J. 2010. Favela. Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro. Oxford: University Press.
  10. Robb Larkins, E. 2015. The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil. California Series in Public Anthropology: University of California Press.
  11. Civico, A. 2012. ' We Are Illegal, but Not illegitimate": Modes of Policing in Medellin, Colombia', Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(1): 77–93.