It’s easy for us gringos to glamorize the favelas, which are the slums of Brazil. They are portrayed in films and photos nestled on scenic hills with breathtaking views overlooking the beaches and abundant natural beauty that the country offers. Despite the fortunate favelas where this is true, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of favelas bear no resemblance to the photo above or the famous Rio de Janeiro locations portrayed in films. The photo below is a more accurate depiction of the current state of living environments that are made available to low-income Brazilians.
Like most of the slums around the world, the favelas are occupied by the individuals and families who are the unfortunate byproducts of their country’s failure to provide affordable housing options for its people. This major lack of proper infrastructure forces people to move to squatting areas. In this situation, it doesn’t matter what the education or income level of the residents are, if people are forced to build their own homes with no guidance or codes, it will create a living environment that is unfit and unnecessary by today’s standard of living. This practice essentially wipes away hundreds of years of living environment improvements that have been continuously updated throughout the years.
The birth of the favelas began when mass immigration from Europe created a housing shortage in the city centers. In order to combat this problem, the government enacted programs to push out the lower income residents to designated spaces at the city’s edges. Once there, the government took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to overseeing the development of these communities. Without any building code enforcement and without basic proper sanitary infrastructure provided by the government, it was inevitable that these communities would spiral out of control to form a sub-standard living environment. Fast forward 3-7 decades later, and these problems are still being unaddressed, as most favelas have no government representation and are provided with little to no municipal assistance. In some favelas in the large cities, it is not uncommon for the residents to be dependent on drug lords to provide the most basic services.
Due to the explanations given above and combined with overcrowding, environmental and sanitary issues are of extreme importance in the favelas. Individual housing units lack plumbing systems, water supply, and proper electricity connections. Waste collection is also insufficient or in some cases non-existent. Communal washing areas consist of tubs and buckets of cold water. Electricity is stolen from any possible source which leads to the extremely unsafe practice of linking hundreds of housing units to one power source in a very crude and haphazard manner. Even the basic system of mail delivery is virtually impossible. The majority of building materials used in favela living spaces is that of previously discarded items that were collected and used in makeshift construction, which can include metal sheathing used for roofing and walls.
You can be the one to develop a better housing strategy for those in need in Brazil — visit sheltersforall.org.
– Jeff Loftus, Structural Engineer, B.S. Lehigh University 2007, M.E. University of Southern California 2010