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All Brazilian cities have shanty towns surrounding them or favelas, as they are called locally.

There are approximately 1,000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, with about 20% of the city’s population living in them. Most of the current favelas expanded in the 1970s, when a construction boom meant lots of workers from poorer states in Brazil wanted to live in Rio de Janeiro, despite not being able to afford houses in the city centre or the bus fare to travel to cheaper houses in the suburbs.

1 rocinha favela closeup

The favelas are built on the sides of steep hills and are made up of narrow alleys with shacks on either side. Often a family of six will live in one or two rooms with one bed for the adults and the children sleeping on the floor. Life expectancy is low - just 48 years, compared with to the national average of 68 years. Illnesses such as bronchitis are common.

Although there is much creative talent in the favelas and many groups of people enjoy dancing to popular music like hip-hop and samba, the communities are perhaps more famous for their: violence, street wars and armed gangs, called milicias.

Favela cantagalo

The Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) was set up in 2008 by Rio’s mayor and governor to reclaim the favelas and enforce the law in them. The first favela to be pacified was Dona Marta and it is hoped that 40 UPP will be set up to take away the favelas from gang control.

Rio de Janeiro - Santa Marta - UPP - 01

Surveys of residents have shown that the UPP has successfully reduced the number of violent crimes and deaths in the favelas and that many people are now freer to discuss previously banned topics, without fear of being attacked. Tourists can also now visit the settlements safely, if accompanied by a guide.

Some people, however, argue that there has been an increase in the concentration of criminals in other parts of the city, in neighbourhoods which don’t have permanent pacification police forces patrolling the streets. There is also a worry amongst some residents that an undercurrent of violence will always be around which can never be removed.