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Poor living conditions in favelas

What are favelas?

Global Footprints gives a comprehensive description of favelas. “Favelas are units of irregular self-constructed housing that are occupied illegally. They are usually on lands belonging to third parties, and most often located around the edge of the cities, often crowded onto hillsides. Residences are built without permission or a license and are often disorganised, without numbered streets, sanitation networks, electricity, a telephone service or plumbing and other basic necessities. In recent years, favelas have been afflicted by drug-related crime and gang warfare.” (Global Footprints)

The most famous, biggest and most prosperous favela would be Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro.


Where are favelas?

Favelas are mostly found within large cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where favelas originated from. 10% of the population in the North Region lives in favelas (Carta Capital, 2013). About a third of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas. They are usually located at the hillsides or suburbs because of no or low rent and the nearness to the city for work (Macalester College)

The favelas are on the hillside and below them is where the urban rich settles. The urban rich requires services and cheap labour provided by the favela residents and this helps to sustain the favelas’ residents livelihood (Macalester College)


Who are living in favelas?

In 2013, 12 million people (out of around 200 million) live in favelas (Carta Capital, 2013). People living in favelas are associated with extreme poverty, because people only live in favelas when they cannot afford proper housing in the city.

61%-67% of the people living in favelas are blacks (Carta Capital, 2013).

The average age of favela residents is around 30 years (Carta Capital, 2013).

Favela residents are generally satisfied. According to a study, “85% like the place where they live, 80% are proud of where they live and 70% would continue to live in their communities, even if their income doubled.” (Carta Capital, 2013).

Many people who live in favelas had migrated into the large cities from the rural areas, in search of better work but cannot afford proper housing, so they are forced to live in favelas.


How were favelas formed?

The expansion of favelas can be attributed to spikes in economic prosperity in the cities which served as a pull factor for Brazilians living in poor rural areas.




20,000 veteran soldiers were brought to Rio de Janeiro with no place to live, thus they settle in the Providência hill in Rio de Janeiro with their families.


Housing crisis forced the urban poor to build hundreds of favelas in the suburbs

1940s -1970s

Rapid industrialization attracted thousands of migrants to Rio de Janeiro, with no place to stay except for favelas


Urbanization resulted in rural Brazilians migrating into the cities, especially to Rio de Janeiro, the capital at that time. However, at that time, the capital of Brazil was just changed from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, thus there were less economic opportunities in Rio, resulting in many unable to find jobs and afford housing, thus leading to many migrants settling in favelas.


Favelas expanded beyond Rio de Janeiro into other cities



What are the problems faced in favelas?

Because of crowding, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition and pollution, disease is rampant in the favelas and infant mortality rates are high. Much violence also occur in favelas as many are controlled by drug-dealing and arms smuggling gangs, and gunfights often occur between gangs and between police and gangs, resulting in innocent deaths of favela residents. Residents can also die from natural disasters such as landslides and falling rocks, especially if they live near mountains.

Poor health

In Rio de Janeiro, favela residents live, on average, 13 years less

Related issue: Poor public health

Healthcare services are poor in favelas. In addition, poor sanitation as a result of a lack of sanitation system result in more widespread diseases.
than people born in the the wealthy section (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007). Child mortality rates are five times higher than in the southern tourist districts such as Copacabana and Ipanema (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Due to poor utility services, favela residents suffer from unhygienic conditions (caused by build-up of waste), resulting in spread of infectious diseases

For some favelas, there is little access to clean water, and drinking dirty water can cause the drinker to be ill

Poor quality of education

Residents of the Complexo do Alemao (a favela) study for an average of four years, compared with ten years for residents of southern Rio (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Related issue: Education

Education services are poor in favelas.

Primary schools are often forced to close due to shootouts (either between gangs or between gangs and police) (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Poor infrastructure

Local telephone and electricity companies frequently refuse to install phones or cables in the slums because they are considered areas of risk (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Related issue: poverty

Although favela residents are technically living above the set poverty line of US $1.25, they are still plagued with problems associated with poverty, such as a lack of access to or poor quality of facilities such as education, health, electricity, waste management etc. This is because people live in favelas because they are poor and cannot afford better housing in the legal city areas.
There is also a lack of many services, such as waste collection. 

Typically for favelas on the hillsides, the residents have to bring their waste down to street level, where the cities are supposed to collect them but they often do not, resulting in a build-up of rubbish that allows pests to grow and spread infectious diseases (Macalester College)


Related issue: Waste disposal and management:

There is a lack of such services in favelas, and even if there is, it is of poor quality. It is common to see litter and waste strewn in between houses in the favelas.

Most favelas have access to clean water but it might not be very 
convenient. For some favelas, the water main is right at the bottom of the hill, and it sometimes takes days for favela residents at the top to make the journey to get enough water for the household (Macalester College)

High crime rate

1980s was the start of drug and arms trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. The great expansion of the favelas, which became home to hundreds of thousands of migrants, naturally became the ideal hideout for drug gangs. These drug gangs controlled the favelas and acted like a mini-government (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Conflict between rival gangs and police is rife, while police is trying harder and harder to subdue these gangs. Between 1999 and 2003 the number of people killed during police operations in Rio 

Related issue: Crime and violence

Favelas are a big contributor to crime in the urban cities, as most crime and violence is related to gangs, which are based in favelas. As many children join gangs in favelas, they are also given weapons which they carry around, which also increases violence. The government is treating gang violence in favelas seriously especially because of the upcoming sports events and are stepping up efforts to tackle them.
more than tripled from 289 to 1,195 (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007). The majority were poor, black males from the favelas, aged between 15 and 24. Murder rates are higher than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants in the city of Rio de Janeiro and much higher rates in some Rio favelas (Arias & Rodrigues, 2006).

The absence of healthcare, schooling and extracurricular activities has contributed to the growth of the drug gangs. With few qualifications, and fewer still employment opportunities, young favela residents are often lured into the drug factions with the promise of regular pay. The average wage of favela residents is around R$400 (US$200) a month. Working for the gangs, young men can earn that amount in a week. (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007)



Impact of favelas on Brazil’s progress

Crime and violence

As mentioned in section 5.4, many favelas are controlled by gangs, and not only does this cause much violence within the favelas, it has also caused violence outside the favelas.

Gun battles between gangs sometimes move out of the gang-controlled areas (favelas) into non-gang controlled areas, thus killing innocent bystanders. (The Real Truth, 2014)

Youths in favelas that are gang members wield weapons such as machine guns, and walk around them blatantly in the streets, brazenly riding motorcycles and violating traffic rules, inspiring fear in city residents. (The Real Truth, 2014) Such favela teenagers also smoke crack and use drugs in the open. (The Real Truth, 2014)

Such common scenes from favela residents paint an ugly picture of Brazil cities. City residents cannot live in peace in security. Of course, it should be noted that not all crime is a result of favelas.

Doubts over whether Brazil is capable of hosting international events

Rio de Janeiro is set to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. There is a variety of factors that cause the international community to doubt Brazil’s ability, and one of them is the favelas.

Gang violence in favelas that also influence other city residents is a big concern. People are afraid that spectators will not be safe.

Cheap source of labour

Currently, many favela residents are hired by wealthier city residents for menial jobs such as maids, nannies, waiters, waitresses etc because they are cheap. In this way, favela residents help to improve the quality of life of wealthier Brazilians.

What are the measures to solve these problems?

Over the last century, governments have made numerous attempts to eradicate the favelas from Rio’s landscape, including removal programmes and the construction of housing projects on the city’s outskirts.

Numerous plans to improve living conditions in favelas

During the 1990s a pioneering housing scheme known as Favela Bairro (Slum Neighbourhood) was implemented, aiming to improve living conditions in the slums. The results, however, have been limited. (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

In 2007, another high-profile plan, valued at over a billion US dollars to invest in Rio’s slums was unveiled by the state and federal governments. The plans involve the construction of new houses, sewage systems and a network of cable cars and roads to improve transport. The plans also reportedly include offering financial assistance to “repatriate” migrants from other Brazilian states who wish to leave certain areas of the favelas (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Many argue that unless the poverty in northeastern Brazil is solved, little will improve in the urban favelas, since many favela residents are migrants from the rural areas. (IRIN, UN-HABITAT, 2007).

Improvement of favelas living conditions:

Area of improvement

Magnitude of improvement

Overall Income

2001 - 60% in lower class, 37% in middle class

2013 - 32% in lower class, 65% in middle class

Education levels

2001 - 51% were illiterate

2013 - 33% illiterate

Access to piped water

2002 - 60% had access

2013 - 90% have access

Collective garbage collection

2002 - 40% (indirect waste collection)

2013 - 80% (direct collection)

Source: (Carta Capital, 2013)

In response to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where favelas are most rampant, the government is stepping up efforts to tackle favelas.

Since favela areas have high crime rate, the government had been organising periodic police raids, but not to great effect as the gangs get tipped off and they return when the police are gone.

Due to the urgency of the two events, there has been more pressing plans to clear favelas and rebuild. In addition, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) was formed in 2008 to reclaim favelas controlled by drug factions.

However, the UPP program has only secured funding up until 2016, provoking suspicions that its only purpose is to temporarily stem violence until the Olympics and World Cup are over and the tourists return home (Baena, 2011).

In 2009, the Rio de Janeiro government started building walls around favelas to limit growth (Perlman, 2009), but some criticize that this is to hide unsightly favelas for the upcoming events.

In addition, the development of infrastructure to facilitate the upcoming events have also led to destruction of favela homes.

Favelas Pacifying Program (FPP)

As mentioned earlier, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) was established via the Favelas Pacifying Program (FPP), with the aim of reclaiming favelas controlled by drug factions. By October 2012, UPPs have been established in 28 favelas, with the stated goal of Rio's government to install 40 UPPs by 2014. UPP recruits are specially trained and are given US $300 bonus monthly. (Wikipedia).

The UPP are quite successful, and it has driven down murder rates in the favelas. This program has also resulted in some fatalities, including the deaths of 5 UPP police members from 2011-2012, and numerous deaths of favela residents by stray bullets between UPP and gangsters.

However, the police have a bad reputation, known for ruthless torture, corruption and tyranny. For example, several favela residents had gone missing after being taken for interrogation, and they were reportedly tortured and murdered by the police. (Glusing, 2013).

Favela tourism

In recent times, there has been greater occurrence of favela tourism, as tourists are interested in seeing the disadvantaged part of the urban cities (especially Rio de Janeiro). The Rio Top Tour Project, established in August 2010, promotes tourism throughout the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. (Wikipedia).

Around 40,000 tourists visit the favelas in Rio de Janeiro every year (Tourism concern, 2014)

However, it is still debated whether favela tourism is an ethical practice (Tourism concern, 2014)




Arias, E., & Rodrigues, C. (2006). The Myth of Personal Security: Criminal Gangs, Dispute Resolution, and Identity in Rio de Janeiro's Favelas. Latin American Politics & Society, 48(4), 53-81.

Baena, V. (2011). Favelas in the spotlight: Transforming the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Harvard International Review, 34-37.

Carta Capital. (20 February, 2013). Unidas, favelas e comunidades formariam o 5º maior estado do País. Retrieved from

Favelas commemorate 100 years. (n.d.). Retrieved from Brazzillog:

Global Footprints. (n.d.). Favelas in Brazil. Retrieved from

Glusing, J. (8 October, 2013). 'Worse Than Gangs': Rio Police Criticized for Favela Crackdowns. Retrieved from Spiegel Online International:

IRIN, UN-HABITAT. (September, 2007). rio: fighting for the favelas. Tomorrow’s Crises Today: The humanitarian impact of urbanization. Retrieved from

Macalester College. (n.d.). Favelas. Retrieved from Rio de Janerio, Many Cities In One:

Perlman, J. (2009). Favela : Four Decades Of Living On The Edge In Rio De Janeiro.

The Real Truth. (2014). Rio de Janeiro: Hope for This Violent City? The Real Truth. Retrieved from The Real Truth:

Tourism concern. (27 January, 2014). Slum/Favela/Poverty tourism. Retrieved from Tourism Concern:

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Favela. Retrieved from Wikipedia: