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Favelas in Rio de Janeiro – Discover How They Started

Favelas in Rio de Janeiro – Discover How They Started

The city of Rio de Janeiro is known worldwide for a large number of favelas. But what is the origin of the favelas? How did this type of habitation happen? We have a text that addresses the historical concept of this theme. Read our post on Favelas in Rio de Janeiro.


The theme of favelas in Rio de Janeiro has to do with the Canudos War (1896-1897), which was a battle between the Brazilian Army and members of a religious community in Canudos, in the interior of the state of Bahia.

After the victory in the war, the army soldiers returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1897. Unfortunately, these soldiers did not receive the promised salary and had to settle on hills around the city.

Read here about the History of Rio de Janeiro

Wooden houses were built on the hills, and there was a type of shrub identical to the shrubs where the soldiers were staying in Bahia, it was called “favela”, extremely drought resistant, of the Euphorbiaceae family.


This hill became known as Morro da Favela. The term favela became known in the 1920s, due to the characteristic of the existing habitations on the hills. 

The government, in a way, accepted these irregular constructions since there was no budget for the construction of better housing. Subsequently, the place came to be called Morro da Providência (it’s close to Cais do Valongo). This hill is considered by many researchers as “the oldest favela in the city of Rio de Janeiro”.


Another determining factor in the origin of the favelas was the reform carried out by the administration of Mayor Pereira Passos, after the Proclamation of the Republic (1889) and with the support of the president in the period.

The idea of this reform was to end the vestiges of the colonial period in the city. The housing that existed was called tenements, where several families resided, in poor hygiene conditions.

These buildings were completely destroyed, giving space to a cleaner and more organized city. The people who were left without their homes had to migrate to the hills in the central regions of the city, again Morro da Providência and Morro do Santo Antônio in 1893.

Living near the central region of the city, people were close to their workplace, as the transportation in the city did not reach the peripheral areas.


Did you know that until the end of the 18th century the hills were called African Neighborhoods? This is because with the Abolition of Slavery, unequal conditions still existed for ex-slaves and they started to inhabit the hills.


In this wave of modernization of the most frequented spaces in the city, many hills in the south of the city were inhabited by the disadvantaged population, close to the “elite of Rio”.

Some of the hills near the beaches started to be inhabited in 1907, as an example of Morro da Babilônia (between Praia do Leme and Praia Vermelha). In 1912 communities appeared in Copacabana and Botafogo.


French architect Alfred Agache, in 1927, presented to the public authorities an urbanization plan for the city of Rio de Janeiro. This project envisaged transferring the residents of these communities due to several aspects, mainly the social and aesthetic. Some parts of the project were considered and in that period several communities were removed.


In the 1930s, several social housing appeared in other areas of the city, which was a housing option for the underprivileged population. As they are located in an area farther from the city center, social movements of the population arose in search of improvement actions.


Until 1975, there were several attempts to remove communities and relocate this population to housing units. After the suspension of the community eradication plan, new policies about the communities were not created and since then, they have been outside the plans to improve public power. 

In this scenario, the issue of drug trafficking and violence has taken over the communities of Rio de Janeiro, making these places even more marginalized.


In 1990, it was when public power faced the consolidation of these communities. It was decided to study ways to urbanize and improve the “favelas”, instead of just to end with them.


For the Demographic Census only in 1991, the concept of “subnormal agglomerate” was used. This term is used to identify irregular settlements in the country. This includes invaded areas, valleys, needy communities, tenements, stilts, among others.

In the city of Rio de Janeiro, there are the  “slum complexes”. They are the agglomerate of several very close communities. Rio de Janeiro has 763 units of subnormal agglomerates.

Also in the state, these communities exist in the noble and central areas. This is not so often to happen elsewhere in the country. Thus, it’s possible to identify strong social inequality.

According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010, more than 1,300,000 people live in communities in the state of Rio. The capital of Rio de Janeiro is the place with the largest number of people living in communities in the country. The number of inhabitants in communities exceeds 10 million people across the country.


In 1993, the city of Rio de Janeiro created the Favela-Bairro plan. It consisted of private companies that worked on projects to integrate communities with the neighborhoods where they were inserted.

These are infrastructure improvements such as piped water, garbage collection, public lighting, etc. The project took place in about 150 communities. Also according to IBGE, actions are currently taking place in almost all communities.

They involve public authorities, private companies and NGOs in the quest to improve the lives of this part of the population. UN studies show that the number of subnormal agglomerations and people living in this type of area only increases and is expected to reach 1.4 billion people this year of 2020.

Now that you know the historical context of the communities, tell us what you think!


Get to know the city better and still get valuable tips for your stay in Rio de Janeiro. Join the Walking Tour Downtown and Lapa!

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