Residents of Rio's Favelas Face Diverse Risks

Inside Andre’s shack: from left to right Andri (Andre’s brother), Andre, and Caetano. (Photo: Gabe Ponce de Leon)

Rio de Janeiro, known to Brazilians as the “Marvelous City,” is home to over 10 million people, of which nearly a third live in shantytowns or ghettos known as favelas. Many favela residents were originally squatters and the vast majority lack legal title to their homes. Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro´s richest and most developed favelas, is home to between 100,000-150,000 people. Like most favelas, it is controlled by those involved in organized drug trafficking. Since many favela migrants come from rural areas, the favela in many respects mirrors rural life.  It is not uncommon to run across chickens in the alleyways or pigpens along side homes.  There is no state presence in the favela except for frequent police incursions, which in theory are supposed to combat the drug gangs. 

Rocinha´s highly-prized location in the “Zona Sul,” or south zone (which also includes famous seafront neighbourhoods such as Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon), coupled with the violence caused by intra-gang warfare and police invasions, has created a very densely populated but undesirable living situation. Most inhabitants dream of saving enough money to move out of the favela, but very few ever do.

The advantage of living in Rocinha is its geographic location. It is very close to some of Rio´s richest neighbourhoods, and hence near potential sources of employment. However, most of the favela residents resort to work that is informal and poorly paid such as collecting and recycling trash, temporal labor on construction sites, janitorial work, and street peddling.

Rocinha´s population is by no means homogenous. The favela is home to various social groups, and certain areas of the favela are more expensive to live in than others.  The very bottom of the favela, across the highway from the wealthy neighborhood of Sao Conrado, is relatively prosperous and many homes have legal titles.  The neighborhoods further up the mountain are generally poorer and more prone to disaster because of the difficulty of building on a nearly vertical mountain slope. 

View of Rocinha from a rooftop on Travessa Roma. (Photo: Joseph Carter)

One of these neighborhoods is Roupa Suja, where I spent a considerable amount of time filming a documentary on the lives of trash collectors that reside in this area.  The top of Roupa Suja, located right below a vertical wall of rock, is considered a Zona de Risco—or risk area—by the Rio de Janeiro city government.  Technically, residents are prohibited from building and living in this area, but many are so poor that they have no alternative place to build. These residents lack access to running water and regular electricity. There is no sewage system at the top of the favela, augmenting the risk of disease.

The majority of the residents living in this area are relatively new to Rocinha. Most immigrated to Rio attempting to escape even greater poverty in the rural drought-stricken northeast; others immigrated from different favelas in Rio after urban renewal campaigns razed many of these.  Some also come from poorer favelas on the city’s periphery.

My recent film, “André’s Life,” ( portrays the lives of relatively recent migrants.  André, the main character of the film, is from the more distant favela of City of God. He migrated to Rocinha to be closer to informal work opportunities and to escape a favela war between opposing drug gangs vying for power.  André and his two brothers built a scrap wood shack at the top of Roupa Suja, which has been washed away by rains on at least one occasion.  “We were warned not to build this high, because if your house is not anchored into the rock, when the rains come they will wash it away,” André told me when we met in September, 2004. 

Several people die every year in mudslides caused by heavy rains in Rio’s favelas.  Deforestation at the edge of Rohcina, as it expands into the national forest of Tijuca, has worsened this risk. Rio’s municipal government—as well as residents themselves—have built aqueducts to channel the water away from homes, but these do not protect all areas of the favela. 

Andre, Andri and a neighbor in front of his home in Roupa Suja. (Photo: Joseph Carter)

The danger of falling rock is perhaps greater than that of rain.  Since the homes at the top of the favela are directly beneath a vertical overhang, rocks break off due to erosion and fall on the homes below. One of the homes near André’s house was hit by a large piece of falling rock, completely demolishing it. Fortunately no one was inside at the time. 

Perhaps the greatest danger to the homes at the top of the favela comes not from natural hazards but from stray bullets.  The homes at the top are uniquely exposed because they are not protected by any structures in front of them. Each of these homes is made of scrap wood, often found in the trash, and bullets pierce them with ease.  Mariana, an 11 year-old girl portrayed in the film, was hit by a stray police bullet while asleep in her bed. She lost most movement in her right hand because of the bullet wound. 

Vulnerable areas of the favela are inhabited by the poorest residents, the ones that do not have a choice about where they live. When interviewed, almost all residents expressed fear for their children’s lives due to the location of their homes. Faced each day with multiple types of risk—from natural hazards, violence, and disease—the residents of Roupa Suja’s Zona de Risco lead a precarious and difficult life, and as most residents acclaim, they stay because they have no where else to go.   

Joseph Carter shot and directed the recent film, André’s Life, while conducting research in the favela of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro during 2004.  Mr. Carter holds a Masters degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas. A former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, Mr. Carter has worked with international development company Chemonics International.