Favela Chic: Gentrifying the Slums of Brazil

In time for the World Cup and with an eye on the 2016 Summer Olympics, the poor have been priced out, bulldozed and pushed away from their homes, with no place to go.

View of the beach at Ipanema taken from the top of the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janieiro June 23, 2014   VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images

In Sao Paulo, many who lived in the city’s favelas say their homes were demolished or burned to the ground with little or no warning and no compensation from the government. In a series of videos posted to YouTube, former residents of the demolished favelas tell stories of surprise demolitions and unexplained fires that happened in the middle of the night.

“In Sao Paulo there are favelas which have been and are being removed from central or strategic areas so the city and corporations take their place,” says Erik Kaneda, who works with the favela volunteer group Jihad Brazil. “Some of them still resist, like Favela do Moinho and others. Some of them burned almost completely just before being removed. In Sao Paulo they are building stadiums, roads, shopping centers or high standard condos.”

Kaneda also pointed to Ponte Estaiada, which was once home to a favela known as Jardim Edite and now houses only a cable-stayed bridge and an upscale apartment complex.

The removals sparked specific interest from Amnesty International’s campaign End Forced Evictions, which found a number of government misappropriations with regard to relocations in Brazil including: lack of access to information, insufficient time of notice, insufficient financial compensation and resettlement in distant areas (sometimes up to 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, away from their original place of living).

“The resettlement in distant areas has several negative impacts for the families,” says Amnesty International spokeswoman Renata Neder. “First, because they lose the social relations they had previously. Second, due to the poor access to other services and urban equipments and facilities in the outskirts where they are resettled.”

And the favelas are more than just low-income housing for many Brazilians; they are an ingrained part of the country and have a history deeply tied to the country’s Afro-Brazilian culture.

Brazil’s first favela was founded near Rio’s commercial port after the 1897 Canudos War—the most deadly civil war in the country’s history. Soldiers leaving the army were promised housing by the government, but when the war ended they found those promises reneged upon. Now unemployed and without lodging, these men set up settlements with newly freed slaves and groups of people who had been evicted from other communities to create a community on a hill overlooking the city’s commercial center known as Morro de Provedencia.

Since then, favelas have often acted as the shelter of last resort for Brazilians unable to afford other housing options, writes Jason Cummings in his dissertation for Harvard Graduate School of Design, “Confronting the Favela Chic” (pdf).

“From the beginning, favelas have been not only housing for the poor, but also the poor’s preferred housing,” he says, “given the alternatives available and consistent actions of the state to not provide for the poor, but to hide them from sight.”

As the World Cup comes to a close, and with the 2016 Rio Olympics looming on the horizon, what will the gentrification in Rio and throughout Brazil mean for the 12 million people who inhabit the slums out of necessity? Priced out or forced out, this creates a continuing clash of class for which there are no easy solutions.