A People Divided

Urban Inequality in the Neighborhoods of Brazil

By Nicola Haubold


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n Brazil, the divide between the rich and the poor is concrete. Walls separate neighborhoods of high rise-buildings and well-kept tennis courts from the alleyways of slums. These physical barriers serve as an explicit representation of the inequality that defines the country.


Alejandro Rivas, former General Manager of Mattel, worked and lived in Sao Paolo for seven years before returning to his birthplace of Colombia—a nation that is also known for its social disparities. In this time, he bore witness to the urban inequality that characterizes most cities in Brazil and recognized the social barriers the country imposes upon its people.


“Like in many cities around the world, the neighborhoods of Brazil have continued to divide throughout the years by social class and as a consequence of rural immigration into cities,” says Rivas. “There are gated neighborhoods for members of the so-called ‘high class’ with nice houses and elegant buildings, but there are also neighborhoods that were created following periods of invasion that are evidently poorly planned and only have basic public services. Brazil is notoriously famous for its favelas, or slums, that are often time found alongside some of the best neighborhoods in the city.”


There are now over 1,000 favelas in Brazil, with 6% of the total population claiming to live in one of them. The first favela appeared in the country in the late 19th century, following the resolution of the War of Canudos in Bahia. Brazilian soldiers marched to Rio de Janeiro in 1897 and to receive payment from the government, they settled in Morro da-Providencia to await their designated funds. Though the soldiers never received the money they were promised, they stayed on the hill of Providence and made of it a makeshift home. In the following years, victims of government urbanization programs joined the demobilized soldiers and transformed the favelas into communities of asylum.


The number of favelas in Brazil has continued to grow since the 1800s, and although they are at times close to the center of major cities, they have never received adequate government funding. This lack of support, and the ensuing social inequality, makes the favelas vulnerable to developments in the illicit drug trade and outbreaks of violence. Out of the 50 cities in 2016 with high per capita murder rates, 22 can be found in Brazil.


In response to this development, members of Brazil’s upper class have retreated into gated communities, referred to as “condominios fechados.” Protected by armed guards and security systems, these neighborhoods have become safe havens for the elite, all the while reinforcing the system of social segregation.


“The people who live in wealthier neighborhoods and gated communities fear the violence and insecurity generated by the favelas and they wanted separation,” claims Rivas. “They are scared of the robbery, the assassinations, and the instances of drug trafficking these communities are known to have.”


Despite the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, who manipulated the federal budget to hide the nation’s mounting fiscal problems, Brazil continues to be one of the countries with the greatest level of socio-economic inequality. In 2000, Brazil’s richest 10 percent of the population controlled more than 50 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 percent held less than 1 percent. With this degree of socio-economic inequality, definite barriers still exist.


“One thing I’ve seen in many places in Brazil is people’s continued sense of fear,” says Rachel Galvao, a senior on Yale’s campus whose family still lives in Brazil. “This is reflected in the urban landscape by the houses of the upper middle class and the wealthy having tall fences and often barbed or electric wire on top, security cameras, etc. I think that all these walls and barbed wire creates even more barriers between people of different socioeconomic status than the geographic barriers that are already in place.”


While Brazil showed signs of progress from 2003 to 2014, as 29 million people rose out of poverty, the country entered into a deep recession in 2015 because of a fall in commodity prices. Unemployment hit 11 percent in the first quarter and inflation rates went beyond the targeted ceiling. This economic downturn, paired with the country’s recent political turmoil, has set back the nation’s growth and dismissed any hope for equality in the near future.

“I think the breaking down of social barriers in Brazil will be a long and difficult process,” says Rivas. “The government doesn’t do enough to improve education or generate viable job opportunities, often leaving people to depend upon illegitimate activities as a source of income. As long as these walls of social inequality exist, there will inevitably be tension.”


Nicola Haubold ’19 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact her at nicola.haubold@yale.edu