In the historically underserved favela communities of Brazil, most residents live below federal poverty levels with the family’s median income well below living wage. Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro’s largest, most densely populated urban slum. While accurate data does not exist, estimates place the community’s population at between 150-250,000 inhabitants, who live in approximately 21 neighborhoods, on a steep and rugged hillside, less than a square kilometer in size. Walls have been constructed to physically restrict Rocinha’s growth into the neighboring Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest), which has brought fierce opposition from residents.
The history of Rio’s favelas is one of resistance to racism, socio-economic, and cultural oppression. When favelas emerged during the later half of the 1800s, Rio de Janeiro was primarily concentrated in what is today the city center. It is a commonly held belief that the first favela inhabitants were descendents of African slaves. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888. By the late 19th century, millions of ex-slaves had been released from ‘formal slavery’ into an unwelcoming, openly racist society that provided black and brown Brazilians with very few opportunities, particularly in the areas of employment, education, healthcare, and housing. Education was, and still is, a pivotal issue.
Rocinha’s growth began accelerating in the 1920s, with its fastest growth occurring during the 1950s and 1960s. This was largely influenced by the destruction of several nearby favelas, the continuation of influx from rural to urban centers, and the real estate boom in the surrounding upper class neighborhoods. By the 1960s, Rocinha was considered Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. It is now generally considered to be the largest slum in all of Latin America. The majority of low-income, working class residents subsist in conditions of abject or near abject poverty, residing in small shanties, some several stories high.
Socially and spatially segmented parts of Rocinha are largely controlled by drug lords. Drug wars have drawn attention to Rocinha’s underlying social problems and the challenges that still lie ahead. The murder rate for young men is two per thousand per year. The density, topographical complexity, and social structures involving the drug trade mean police are reluctant to intervene. Rocinha is one of the principal points of drug trafficking in Rio, generating an estimated $3.3 million each year. Rio is a major transit point for Colombian cocaine going to Europe, and a big market itself for the drug.
Despite its violent past, Rocinha is now relatively peaceful. With its close proximity to wealthy beachside areas, it has gained some respectability. For a favela, Rocinha has a developed infrastructure. Most structures have access to basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. Hundreds of businesses including banks, pharmacies, bus companies, cable television and Internet companies, community organizations, and NGOs exist inside the favela.
Even with its severe social problems, structural improvements have begun to be made in Rocinha in recent years. The community possesses a basic structure of local government, and the community has developed some services for itself. There are four public schools in Rocinha. Three quarters of residents now have access to electricity, usually through communal payments involving several homes sharing a single meter. The majority of houses are now constructed from brick, parts of Rocinha are accessible by bus, and there are a handful of small health clinics that provide the services of at least one gynecologist and two pediatricians. Standpipes provide a basic water supply in all districts.
The permanence of Rocinha is now accepted by the Brazilian government and integrated formally into the city through the legalization of some land holdings. However many challenges remain to be overcome, including the widespread economic dependence upon the drug trade. Resources are scarce, and incomes are very low. A lack of sewers and thriving diseases such as dengue fever result in infant mortality figures up to 50% higher than elsewhere in Rio State. The area is also vulnerable to landslides and floods as the houses are often built on steep, deforested slopes that have been constructed with few formal building codes.