About Rocinha

RocinhaRocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, is widely considered to be one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest, most densely populated and urbanized slums. The community has a population estimated at anywhere between 100 and 200 thousand inhabitants, who live crammed into a steep and rugged landscape of only (0.80) square miles. Within this highly dense community the majority of residents subsist in conditions of abject or near abject poverty, residing in small shanties stacked one on top of another, sometimes as many as tall as 7, 8, 9, and even 11 stories tall. Most houses in Rocinha have basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. There are roughly 21 neighborhoods within Rocinha yet the community only occupies an area of approximately 0.86 km².

Out of 126 official administrative regions within the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha ranked 120th or, 6th worst on the city’s Human Development Index (HDI) in 2000. That same year an official government census (IBGE 2000) estimated that there are a minimum of 6,000 residents of Rocinha who suffer from at least one health related disability. More recently, in 2008 a government census measuring the HDI of 510 of Rio de Janeiro´s approximately 800 slums found that Rocinha ranked 316th from the top, significantly below the average HDI of the 510 slums considered in the census. This is despite the fact that Rocinha is located between two of Brazil’s wealthiest neighborhoods, São Conrado and Gávea. The disparities in public health conditions and education for these adjacent communities are startling. With this data in mind community leaders, scholars, and activists argue that when considering the size of the community and its low HDI that the real number of Rocinha’s residents who suffer from at least one health related disability is probably significantly higher than what the government estimated in 2000. Not surprisingly the educational status of Rocinha’s residents is very low. Residents have an average of only 4.1 years of formal education, with less than 1% of Rocinha’s adult population having earned a degree above a high school diploma. Jobs that pay a livable wage in Brazil are all but strictly reserved for citizens with higher levels of formal education.

Current population estimates range from an official government figure of 56,000 to the inflated estimate of 1 million.11 While accurate data do not exist we estimate that there are approximately 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants, and consider the government’s official population estimate to be an under-representation of reality, a misrepresentation many locals, as well as scholars, consider deliberate.

A History of Rocinha

No one knows where and when the name Rocinha emerged, but the most likely theory is that in the 1920s there was a famous open air market in what is today the Santos Dumont Plaza in Gávea. The middle class and elite who bought their fresh produce there would ask the vendors where the produce came from and they would answer that they came from their ‘little farm’ or Rocinha (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011).


Slavery, Plantations, and Quilombos

In São Conrado, where most of Rocinha is located, the majority of slaves and former slaves, worked in the sugar cane fields and on coffee plantations in the areas around where Rocinha is located today (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011). The largest plantation at the time was the Fazenda Quebra-Cangalha which produced sugar cane and coffee. The fazenda Quebra-Cangalhas bordered several other plantations, like those owned by the Portuguese migrant José Magalhães Seixas and another estate called the Fazendinha de São José da Alagoinha da Gávea. Both of the landholders were actually part of the abolitionist movement and were located at the foot of the Morro Dois Irmãos where there was also a Quilombo called the Quilombo de Leblon (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011). Archeological findings have been found to prove the existence of these Quilombos in the areas of Dioneia and Laboriaux (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011).

Transportation and Rocinha’s early growth

In the middle of the 1800s railroad street cars were introduced in Gávea, São Marques de Vincente. These bondes, as they are called in Brazil, connected the area around Rocinha to the rest of the City. This form of transportation contributed to poor people, who with nowhere else to live, began making their way up the Estrada da Gávea to build small homes in the thick jungle where Rocinha is located today (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011). Already in the middle and late 1800s the importance of living close to where one works was noticeable, and this trend would only increase and cause Rocinha to grow and grow over the decades.


Niemeyer and early development projects

In 1916 construction of the Avenida Niemeyer was completed and the road reached what is now the neighborhood of São Conrado, the same year it was given its name. ( Rodriguez, Helio Suêvo. 2004. A Formação das Estradas de Ferros do Rio de Janeiro: O Resgate a Sua Memoria. Memória do Trem.) The infrastructure projects that Conrado Niemeyer began in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave rise to the neighborhood of São Conrado which in turn was pivotal to Rocinha’s development. As these surrounding neighborhoods of Sao Conrado and Gavea began to grow there was a demand for cheap labor to build houses, apartments, buildings, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, etc. The lack of affordable housing options or adequate housing policies for the laborers eventually let to the rapid growth of the favelas in Rio. Rocinha’s rapid growth is directly attributable to these factors. The building of Niemeyer Avenue led to the growth of Sao Conrado and eventually Barra da Tijuca.

Rocinha takes shape

Conrado Jacob Niemeyer also improved Estrada da Gávea which was given its name in 1917, after it was linked to part of St. Vincent of Marques street (Rua Marquês de São Vicente) in Gávea. Estrada da Gávea was always an important transportation route. Even during the colonial period it was a dirt road (barro batido) and in 1878 it was named the Caminho que ia para Praia da Gávea. In 1919 Niemeyer Avenue was widened by Mayor Paulo de Frontin. Estrada da Gávea with its beautiful and winding curves was known as the Devil’s Trampoline (Trampolin do Diabo) and between 1933 and 1952 it served as the track for car races that were part of the circuito da Gávea in races called Corridas da Baratinha. ( http://youtu.be/qtYOJoa0Xws ) ( http://youtu.be/psy7bc8xIEY )

Between 1925 and 1926 the real-estate company Companhia Imobiliária Castro Guidon began parceling off land in 270 square meter plots on the Quebra-Cangalha plantation (Leitão 78). In the 1920s, while the estate was being partitioned, the area had demarcations that still exist today (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011), but as the community grew this form changed significantly. In 1927 the land was already being parceled off in 270 square meters plots (Andrade 2002, p. 65; Leitão 2010, p. 78). According to a Jornal do Brasil article from 3/23/1973 The Castro Guidon company sold its land in the area where Rocinha is located today to a construction company who passed it on to a Mr.  Renato Caruso. During Carusos campaign for a city council position he gave away dozens of plots to people who promised to vote for him; he lost the election but the favela continued to grow from the plots he gave away ( Varal de Lembranças 1983).

In 1933 a census of buildings and edifices (O Censo Predial de 1933) in Rocinha counted 354 shanties on Estrada da Gávea and 13 shacks the trail winding up Laboriaux (the very top of Rocinha) – at the time known as the Caminho do Laboriaux (Andrade 2002, p. 66). In 1935 the city ordered electricity to be installed on the Estrada da Gávea and by 1937 more than 80 plots of land had been sold by the Castro Guidon Real-Estate Company (Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011). Previously there were no laws requiring the installation of infrastructure on the parceled land such as roads, lighting, running water. By 1937 the company stopped selling land because of new laws and requirements by city were becoming too demanding. Unable to follow through all the bureaucracies the company began facing serious financial problems which led to the owner committing suicide and the company soon after entering into bankruptcy (Andrade, 2002; Leitão 2010, p. 78).

The descendents of the Castro Guidon Real-Estate Company were not interested in trying to revive the bankrupt company so they let the company dissolved. This, along with the paving of the Estrada da Gávea and the small energy network installed along it,  and especially the growing rumors that the land where Rocinha is today was ‘owned by no one’ really intensified its haphazard inhabitation (Leitão 2010, p. 78) – in other words, by the late 1930s Rocinha was no longer being inhabited in the fairly structured pattern that the Castro Guidon Company had initiated and it increasingly began to take on the characteristics of an unplanned land invasion.

Rocinha’s Growth Period

Nossa Senhora de Boa Viagem

In 1938 the chapel and school Nossa Senhora de Boa Viagem was inaugurated. Since the late 1930s the church has played an important role in the community, and has acted together with community social movements and organizations for decades. There is still a placard at the church that’s details how the Castro Guidon company donated the land for the church. The same chapel would become a parish church in 1985 and the first priest to preside over it was the much loved Father Manoel de Oliveira Manangão.

Favelas as Electoral Strongholds and Political Power

The mid-forties marked the end of the right wing authoritarian regime, the Estado Novo or New State regime, that controlled Brazil from the 1937 coup-d’état until democracy was reintroduced (CITE, Leitão 2010, p.79). The reintroduction of democracy in 1945 brought with it elections and the favelas turned into important electoral strongholds, which stimulated intense clientelistic practices in these communities (Andrade 2002, p. 67; Leitão 2010, p. 79). This also marked a period in which the state and society began to look somewhat more humanely at this type of housing space (Andrade 2002, p. 67). Among certain circles it became increasingly apparent that favelas were a result of the severe lack of public policies for working class and poor Brazilians, especially in regards to affordable housing.

This was when mediations increased between political networks in the favelas. This gave rise to two important organizations for Rocinha and indeed many of Rio’s favelas. The Fundação Leão XIII (Baumann Burgos 1998; Gonçalves, Simões y Freire 2010) in 1946, and the São José Center for Social Action (1949) (Baumann Burgos 1998; Rocinha: Plano de Desenvolvimento Sustentável 2011). The Fundação Leão XIII was the first institution established to deal directly with the issue of Rio’s growing favelas (Jailson de Souza e Silva and Jorge Luiz Barbosa 2005). The foundation was created by Rio’s municipal government and the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro’s Catholic Church with the intention of addressing some of the material needs of Rio’s favelados.  (Baumann Burgos 1998; Jailson de Souza e Silva and Jorge Luiz Barbosa 2005).

Between 1947 and 1954 the Fundação Leão XIII initiated social work in 34 favelas, Rocinha being one of the first (Baumann Burgos 1998). While the history of Fundação Leão XIII, which was later made into a state institution, is controversial it did leave a mark in Rocinha. The foundation was closed years ago and the site of where it once was, adjacent to the church, is still called Fundação in Rocinha. It remains a major point of reference in the community.

Rise of the Residents associations

The first residents association in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas was the União do Trabalhadores Favelados (UTF) or the Union for Favela Workers, founded in 1954 in the Borel community. The UTF has a long and rich history and still exists today despite major setbacks  in the 1980s due to the negative influence of the drug trade until Borel received its UPP in 2010. Indeed, the UTF was founded mainly as a form of resistance against forced eviction and in Borel it work, the community resisted intense efforts of removal during the 50s and 60s (Valladares 1978).

During the 1950s the favelas increasingly became areas of intense political disputes. The Fundação Leão XIII was increasingly paternalistic and stimulated a proliferation of clientelistic practices. It was during this period that opportunistic politicians looking for votes began turning to the favelas (Jailson de Souza e Silva and Jorge Luiz Barbosa 2005). In 1961 the União Pró Melhoramentos dos Moradores da Rocinha (UPMMR) was founded as well as the Ação Social Padre Anchieta (ASPA) as another institution that represented residents (Andrade 2002, p. 69).

Removal attempts and forced evictions

During the 1960s and 1970s there were efforts to remove several sections of Rocinha and relocate residents to distant neighborhoods, such as Paciência, roughly 45 kilometers west of Rocinha (Varal de Lembranças 1983). The community was increasingly divided into sub-sections or sub-bairros. New Resident’s Associations were founded, most importantly the Associação de Moradores e Amigos do Bairro Barcelo (AMABB), which was founded by José Martins de Oliveira in the 1970s. José Martins (PROVIDE PHOTO) and other residents living in the lower sections of Rocinha, around Bairro Barcelo, Largo de Boiadeiro and Valão united to fight against these forced evictions. In 1977 (13/10/1977) José Martins in an interview with the newspaper Última Hora stated that “the government would spend a lot less money urbanizing the favela than removing the 150,000 residents (of Rocinha) to a distant periphery” (Varal de Lembranças 1982). That was 35 years ago, and José Martins, known as Seu Martins, is still highly active in fighting for the housing rights of Rocinha’s residents and against forced evictions. He was also a pivotal figure in founding the sub-section of Laboriaux in the early 1980s and the Resident’s Association there, the Associação de Moradores e Amigos da Vila Laboriaux (AMAVL), which for several years also included the relatively new sub-section of Rocinha known as Vila Cruzada (Varal de Lembranças 1983). Ironically, Laboriaux, which will be described in more detail below, has been facing threats of forced eviction since April 2010, and Seu Martins has been an active member of the movement against eviction since then.

Projecto Rocinha, the 1980’s

The 1980s were pivotal for Rocinha and for Rio de Janeiro in general. It was during the early 1980s that organized crime began its iron grip on most of Rio’s favela communities, including Rocinha (Marcelo Lopes de Souza, CITE MORE). This was a complicated decade in which violence significantly increased and many local organizations, including most favela residents associations became increasingly influenced by the local gangs. In Rocinha this was a palpable change (Seu Martins, CITE MORE). While corrupt politicians, local and non local had long complicated the resident associations, the drug trade really complicated the situation. In Rocinha the largest resident association became overwhelmingly subservient to the drug traffickers on one side and corrupt politicians and police on the other. They faced the increasing challenge of having to please the local drug gangs for fear of their lives as well as appease the likes of corrupt police officers and politicians. (Arias, Lopes de Souza, etc.). In addition, they are held accountable by the relatively few police and politicians who are not corrupt – all the while trying to complete their main objective, to fight for the welfare of the community. It is a stressful and risky job, and since the 1980s several of Rocinha’s resident association leaders have been arrested, threatened and injured (CITE).

During the administration of Júlio Coutinho, Rocinha was chosen to receive the pilot project Project Rocinha (Projeto Rocinha), the community’s first real slum upgrading program. It was initiated by the SMD, the municipal secretary for development (Andrade 2002, p. 73). Noted by Segala (1991) that then, like now; local leaders and politicians were considerably fragmented and significantly corrupt (Segala 1991 in Andrade 2002, p. 73). According to the City, in 1980, Rocinha already occupied a space of 453,440 square meters (p. 74).  By the late 1970s and early 1980s Rocinha was already a very dense urban slum, and had acquired the morphological features it has today, far different than what the community looked like in the 1960s (Andrade 2002, p. 75; Leitao 2010). The technicians responsible for Projeto Rocinha designed what was known as “A Concepção Básica para o Sistema de Drenagem e Coltea de Lixo” da Rocinha –The Basic Conception for the Drainage and Trash Collection System (Andrade, p. 75)

Rocinha continues to grow

Indeed the 1980s marked an era of drastic changes in Rocinha and other favelas in Rio de Janeiro (Andrade 2002, p. 75).  Favelas in general proliferated, as dozens of new favelas sprouted up. This was a time period in which, for the most part the discourse of forced evictions that had been so threatening during the 1960s and 1970s, began to diminish, if not almost disappear from political discourse (Andrade 2002, p. 75). In terms of infrastructure this meant two major changes. Without the constant threat of being forcefully evicted those that already existed expanded, and in the case of Rocinha, mainly upwards as horizontal expansion in zona sul was not an option. Secondly, as residents of favelas, as in Rocinha, felt less threatened by forced eviction they increasingly invested in their property, and during the late 1970s, and especially the 1980s, houses and businesses in Rio’s favelas shifted from being constructed of wood to being built with bricks and mortar (Andrade 2002, p. 75; Leitão 2010).

Organized Crime takes its grip on Rocinha

This was also a period in which violence and organized crime increased dramatically in Rio de Janeiro, especially in and around the favelas. Rocinha was no different. Already by the 1980s famous drug traffickers were part of Rocinha’s folklore and a new subculture associated with the drug trade was born. In the late 1980s and 1990s Rocinha became famous for its baile funks, some of the largest and rowdiest funk parties in the city that many middle class cariocas began to frequent as well. There are several factors that lead to the rapid expansion of Rio’s favela drug trade and criminal factions. One is the latent effects of the US war on drugs during the 1980s. The growing pressure on Colombian drug trafficking, in large part funded by the US, caused trafficker to search for new routes and markets, and more cocaine began being transported south of Colombia through Peru and Bolivia and into Brazil where most was eventually trafficked to Europe or the US. A large amount also remained in Rio and other cities, like São Paulo and Vitoria. The neglected favelas proved the perfect locations for Rio’s new flourishing drug trade. Many also blame two term governor of Rio de Janeiro, Leonel Brizola, who was a pioneering figure in the leftist PDT political party. Brizola implemented many policies and programs that were beneficial to Rio’s poor but he is often criticized for indirectly and unintentionally creating the conditions that allowed Rio’s drug traffickers to better organize and take total control of their communities. This is because Brizola was opposed to the kind of violent police incursions into favelas that were so common during the dictatorship. He took great strides to discourage violent police operations in the favelas and in many ways the presence of police in many favelas, like Rocinha, virtually disappeared during the late 1980s and early 1990s. While his intentions were certainly good, many claim that this allowed the gangs to flourish almost undisturbed. This is argument is debatable, but nonetheless a common discussion topic among residents and leaders in Rocinha who were active during this time period. Of course, if proper public services and more equal opportunities had been present in Rio’s favelas, then these ‘parallel powers’ would not likely have any significant space to fill.

For more info on Rocinha’s history with drug trafficking read this article: http://mundoreal.wpengine.com/a-historic-moment-in-rocinha%E2%80%99s-history-the-expulsion-of-the-drug-traffickers