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A new census shows how a Brazilian favela works (economist.com)
84 points by edward 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

Well, in Rio, I believe life in favela truly is horrible for most of the time. I can think of a few reasons:

- Lack of decent public education

- Lack of decent healthcare

- Lack of basic infrastructure, in a lot of favelas, they don't even legally have electricity

- Jobs are scarce, favela's citizens usually endure long commutes under the very inefficient public transport system to work low-paying jobs

- Rio's favelas are usually located in hills, when it rains, landslides are very common, more often than not they are deadly

- Most favelas are dominated by heavily armed drug dealers (most of their weaponry are semi-auto rifles coming from the USA), law-abiding citizens often see themselves under gunfire between rival gangs or cops

- Citizens are often extorted by drug dealers, or even corrupt cops. They need to pay a "protection tax" in exchange for basic services

I could go on and on ...

Source: Born and raised in Rio

Curious that criminals would import semi auto rifles from the US when Brazil has a very large domestic gun maker (Taurus). The Taurus guns should be massively cheaper. Unless you're referring to the full auto weapons flooded into South America by the CIA in the 80's. Those I could believe are cheaper.

Taurus quality control illustrated (turn on the subtitles)


They are the packard bell of firearms.. I don't miss that desktop company.

They don't buy guns in a shop. That's the reason.

All the more reason Taurus would be cheaper. Guns are all over Brazil.

I went to Brazil about 15 years ago. My girlfriend signed us up for a favela tour in Rio. We had a private guide. It was going pretty well until the police started a raid. The fireworks went off to let people know the police were coming. I saw one cop who looked terrified and I saw another shooting indiscriminately up a hill with his rifle. At first, I wasn’t worried but everyone around us went behind a truck, so we joined them. After that, the guide was ready to continue but my girlfriend said we were done.

Our Brazilian friend back in the states said we should have never gone in the first place. The favelas are run by the gangs. She grew up in one of them so I assume she knows what she’s talking about.

Fortunately for me, it was my girlfriend’s idea.

Favelas are neighborhoods where lots and lots of families live their everyday life.

It has crime just like any other place (e.g. a Phd in UCLA mapped gangs in LA, santa monica and Beverly hills had the most count of gangs and members) but the police treat favelas as their war ground, causing an artificial firepower escalation. And the reason is twofold: by twisting public opinion that favelas only have criminals you can relinquish all forms of state spending (culture, etc) and you can maintain a tight grip on the local political representation during elections, and favelas have lots of votes.

In sum, it has nothing to do with the gangs per-se. It's more artificial public policy.

Dunno about US experience, but for someone coming from Europe like me favelas that I've visited in Rio surely left impression of very dangerous places - and I grew up in Serbia in 90s, been through wars and all that shit and anarchy, and had my share of street education. Now, it's quite possible that they have less crime than some other neighborhoods, but that's just because gangs keep a close grip on their territory. As long as you play by their rules you can live your life sort-of normally. Problem with living in such surrounding arrises when you're forced to go against them, as there's no law to protect you, so you're fully at their mercy. That's a HUGE difference from Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, and much more like living in Somalia.

While I know Santa Monica used to have a huge gang population about 10 years ago in the neighborhoods between Santa Monica College and Santa Monica High School and generally south of the 10 freeway, that area has since gentrified quite heavily and LAPD maps shows insignificant gang activity in those neighborhoods.

I would be very surprised to see that there ever was any significant street gang activity in Beverly Hills, since that municipality spends a significant amount of money on street patrols to keep criminal activity low. Moreover, Beverly Hills is a fairly racially homogenous city...

Can you share a link to that paper please? A DOI would do...

It's a first-world thing of treating poor people as a zoo that you can just go and watch how the "animals" live.

Do you remember those movies from the 80's where people would park a nice car in a dangerous neighborhood and when they returned the wheels would be gone?

Imagine someone PAYING for a trip to a neighborhood much more dangerous than those from the movies. Like paying for a visit to a nightmarish version of the bad places in Detroit or Baltimore.

It's just dumb, sorry.

I did one of these a few years ago when I first visited Rio. I'm a gringo with a Brazilian wife.

Looking back now, especially as I've been living in Brazil for the past year, I wonder wtf I was thinking. The AirBnb host suggested it and I went for it in a misguided attempt to 'see how the other side live'. In reality there are a million better ways to gain this perspective than going on a 1 hour trip through a favela.

Brazil could benefit a lot from more tourism than it currently does. Amazing food, people, beaches, dancing...employing the people living in these favelas with stable work. Instead of promoting the sorts of tours mentioned above that treats them like some kind of second class citizen.

> At first, I wasn’t worried

I would be scared to death. Was this not your first time seeing gunfire?

As @throwawayr1188, me too, I'm born and raised in Rio, and I'm very surprised to see such article on Hacker News.

No doubt, a favela can be a very dangerous place from an foreign, but I understand the fact that many people are curious to see how it really looks in its innards, despite this danger. My grandfather lived his entire life in a favela called Acari in the North of Rio, and I used to go there visit him. About 50 milles distant from Copacabana, Acari is a shit place with an IDH lower than some poor countries in Africa. But, as described in The Economist article, Acari too has a very active economy. You can find all sort of businesses in there. Of course, I'm not talking about millions of dollars businesses, but there's an interesting cash flow running inside of the favela. However it's not enough to make people rich. The life condition in favela are really horrible. Besides all that has been said here, I have to add on point that hasn't been mentioned: Favela are extremely noisy places... It's pretty common bars playing music incredible loud. Besides that, some favelas organise parties called 'baile funks'. These parties have their pros and cons:

PROS - people coming from outside (many spend money buying drinks, food, cigarettes, etc) - it promotes some fun for young people living in the favela

CONS - These partie are often organised by drug dealers... it attracts some drug adds to the location, and cocaine, crack, etc run freely - The music in the 'bailes' uses to be extremely loud. As it doesn't have acoustic protection the entire favela don't sleep during those parties which may go through an entire week-end. It very bad for those who have to wake up to go work.

My advice, do not visit favelas... The vast majority of its population, I'd say more than 99,9% of its habitants are honest people, but this 0,1% and their war with police and other drug dealers represent a real danger for your life.

Is it really that surprising that large favelas have things like supermarkets? Yes, there are drug lords and extreme gun violence and illegal electrical installations, but these slums have been around for decades and are home to hundreds of thousands of people. Many of these people are not interested in a life of crime, but simply don't have the means to live anywhere else, so what else would they do if not slowly build towards a semblance of civilization in the area where they are forced to live?

Yes, it is surprising to see over 3000 illegal businesses in a neighborhood, working under a violent regime.

Is there a point to your comment we’re missing? It’s a lot more interesting to discuss the findings, than your impression of people’s impressions on it.

For example, how much cash flows from these business to traffickers.

Plenty of legal businesses too, e.g. Bank of Brazil in Rocinha:


When I lived in an affluent part of Rio, I often got my haircut, bought fruit, veg and groceries in the local slum.

Many locals believed the slums were strictly no-go. While some certainly were, many were fine. Rather than build a mental barrier around these places, I find its better to interact.

Common sense, courtesy, some humility are all that are required - that goes for the high brow malls as well as the favelas.

I’d love to do this. I live in SP. How do I know which ones are safe even for someone with a noticeable gringo look and accent? Whose word to trust?

I tend to look at the risk as being relative.

For me, downtown Rio around 'Central do Brasil' bus and train station were far higher risk than many slums.

Various areas around Rio (and SP) have 'Cracklands' (Cracolândia) with many crack cocaine users who are frighteningly unstable. Reports describing hold-ups, with victims cooperating and getting shot - usually in a better parts of town put things in perspective for me.

Some slums are trying to open to tourism, as a starting point you could look up well-reviewed bars\restaurants in slums to get an introduction. As the article suggests, there are many legit businesses in slums, so going to the ones with a lot of business activity is usually a good bet. The economy of a slum can only develop if there is a reasonable level of security.

I can only trust my judgement. I have not encountered any problems so far. YMMV.

I think subconsciously many people think of slums as godless drug war zones with no sanitation, and that any soul dumb enough to ventures into one will never come back out alive. This census shows with some actual data that reality is a lot closer to what Bill Gates and poverty scholars have been saying about the poor: that they've been slowly crawling up in the quality of life scale, despite all the hardships.

I'm not actually all that interested in the exact cash flow figures. What I think is interesting is people's perceptions of some of the mechanisms in play. For example, take "protection tax". If you think about it, governments and the police operate under a very similar principle (you pay for police services through taxes and if you don't pay, you are punished, perhaps even via force if you resist). Also if you think about it, it's not in a drug gang's interest to extort businesses out of business, since then they would have nowhere to get food or clothes for their kids (yes drug gangs have kids). It's interesting how even in places where one would think anarchy would rule, systems still form that are similar to "normal" civilized systems, and it's interesting that there are local economies within slums and bias from outsiders similar to sentiment from some xenophones in US or Europe. It's almost like it's human nature that certain things develop the way they do.

> Yes, it is surprising to see over 3000 illegal businesses in a neighborhood, working under a violent regime.

Out of curiosity, why do you think there would not be illegal businesses in place where many people live and on one hand needs to buy things and on the other needs money?

On being surprising: thousands of illegal business would imply a massive network of parallel activities (banking, real estate, supply management, employment, and so on).

But I read it wrong, thanks @fnodsensei. It reads “licit”, which makes it not so surprising after all. Nothing to see here.

The gist of my comment was that the parent was characterizing everybody as naive (as in the follow-up comment below) while not commenting on the findings. New census, mapping data provided to Google with possibly far-reaching positive consequences, but somehow we need to comment on an imagined public reaction and high moral ground instead.

> somehow we need to comment on an imagined public reaction

I don't understand why you think the public reaction is any less important than confirming the fact that a place with the population size of a small country has ice cream shops.

I recall a project several years ago to build some low income housing at one of the edges of Heliopolis, and among the middle class there was a strong feeling of "this is just some corrupt politician pocketing money" or "they just want to hide the slums behind the buildings so they are not visible from the main street".

There's a lot of disdain among brazilian middle class against any government project aimed at helping the lower class. Discrimination is strong in Brazil: racism is rampant due to the slums-vs-rest dichotomy, kids trying to make money wiping windshields at traffic lights are often thought of as hoodlums working for a gangster that burns their income on drugs, etc. Many middle class people don't think about the fact that their housekeeper lives in a slum, and for years, most never knew about the various charitable projects happening in favelas, until Globo started doing investigative reporting about uplifting stories of the sort.

I think the perception of whether a slum has any hope of lifting itself out of poverty is an important factor in how much outsiders are willing to help in that very cause.

Is it that surprising that poor people still have to buy clothes and food and other products?

The article says "licit", i.e. legal businesses.

Why is that surprising?

Favelas are a mass transit problem. People live there, in bad conditions, because they are somewhat nearer to their jobs. Otherwise, they would spend half a day in their way to work.. Renting a 'house' in a favela is more expensive then renting a good house in small cities.

Rio has one of the best public transportation systems of Brazil. What is a shame really, because yes, it's not that good.

But the urban area goes for dozens of km on every way. Rio is confined between the sea and the hills, there aren't many places to expand into suburbia.

This census is fantastic. There is a ton of work to be done throughout the world in these informal communities/economies. Documentation, data collection, analysis...

Also, just an observation, I noticed a lot of these comments here are tangential to the article.


Would you please not post in the flamewar style to HN?

> why, they don't even get to have a 30 year MORTGAGE!

Interest rates are so God damn high in Brazil you can't really take a mortgage. People save up for their entire lives before buying a home, for the most part. Or you hope to inherit something from your parents, if you're upper middle class. Or alternatively move to a really shitty neighborhood / city so you can afford that (see e.g. Recreio dos Bandeirantes in Rio de Janeiro where all the affluent "Zona Sul" folks have to move to so they can afford a cheaply built apartment)

Yet people do take 30 years mortgages all the time. The interest alone can be as high as double of the local rent, but people do take them.

People also buy snake oil, but smart, informed people don't

Is that any different from the US, though?

Yes, obviously.


> The average rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage is currently 4.39%, with actual offered rates ranging from 3.50% to 7.84%.


Ctrl+F % if you don't speak Portuguese and you'll find numbers around the ~8-10% range currently, as well as a reference to rates being at 11.9% (11,9%) as recently as last year

This has so many myopic statements it’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to randomly choose... ocean bathing...

Recall that Brazil is where the United Nations had to tell swimmers to cover any scratches or open wounds in their body before getting in the water for the olympics, and to shower immediately after. And that was in the nicer area. The water quality in the favelas is even worse.

They were specifically talking about the Bahia de Guanabara not the beach water. Huge difference between those two. Beaches like Barra da Tijuica, Ipenama, Leblon, São Conrado and Prainha are fine to bath in.

In 1994, I visited Rio and somehow met a computer scientist who was responsible for the sole internet POP in all of Brazil. He even took me into the university lab to see the equipment. It turns out his wife worked as a civil engineer for the city of Rio at the time, and she worked on waste water. He told me it would take her an hour of studying the latest data about weather, currents, and water tests before she would take their kids to the one specific beach that was safest that day. At least back then, all the beaches were polluted, just some were better than others.


None of the red ones are proper for bathing.

Did you read the article?


I feel like this word has lost meaning and now is just a placeholder for " I don't like it".

The 2013 “Has Brazil Blown It?” From the Economist was one of the best pieces of foreign journalist describing what’s wrong with my country:


Anyone who has never been to Brazil has no right to speak about this topic. Edit: I see the down-votes, but will stand my ground on this topic.

Can you explain your position here a bit? It seems rather aggressive and somewhat demeaning, although I'm not sure if you intended to come off this way. Do you mean people who haven't been to Brazil literally have no right to discuss this, or do you mean to say they aren't in a position to truly understand the situation?

Interesting position.

Can someone who's never been to a black hole be allowed to speak about them?

Can someone who's never been to Washington DC speak about US history?

Can someone who's never had cancer speak about it?

Can someone who's never been homeless speak about issues and solutions?

Can someone who hasn't been killed in a favela speak about violent deaths in favelas?

Maybe the murderer could speak about violent deaths?

I'm waiting for when we acknowledge that only gun owners should be able to talk about gun control, personally.

(in case this isn't clear, this is a gibe at the typically left-leaning pattern that only natives of a country should be able to criticise it / only women should be able to talk about abortion rights / only trans people should be able to talk about trans issues / etc)

I've been to Brazil. Stayed in Rio for 5 days. Went to Sugarloaf Mountain and saw Cristo Redentor. Saw a regional "futbol" match, got drunk and danced the night away. Never stepped foot into a favela, closest I got was as I flew into and out of the airport there.

Why do I have a right to speak about Brazilian favelas and a (team of) reporter(s) whose done dozens (or hundreds) of hours of research on the topic does not?

Is everything with stripes a zebra?

The comment decries impugns those who have "never been to Brazil". It does not corroborate those who have.

Everyone understood that, the conversation is now about how inaccurate that is.

You don't have any right since you've never been to Brazil outside of tourist context. All the places you've listed are famous tourist attractions. Do you believe your opinion and views about Favelas actually have merit? If so, on what basis?

I lived in Brazil for a year and drove past Favelas sometimes but otherwise lived an upper middle class lifestyle.

Do I have a right to speak about Brazilian favelas unlike a (team of) reporter(s) whose done dozens (or hundreds) of hours of research on the topic?

The point was being made that your "been to Brazil" bar is far too low.

You're committing the same fallacy as the other responder. This bar is THE LEAST of the thresholds, not THE LAST of them. You're misconstruing the comments to which you're responding.

Please don't post flamebait here; also, please don't post unsubstantive comments; also, please don't break the site guidelines by going on about downvotes.


I used to live in Gávea at the base of Rocinha in Rio and although I used to spend most of my time in the city, I used used to go hang out with my buddy Marcos up in Laborieux, the morro de Rocinha, from time to time. Am I allowed an opinion?

I am detecting a big fragility.

Ooohhh, no one can talk about the bad parts of my country, ooooohh.

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