The favelas of Salvador, Brazil

Salvador, about halfway down Brazil’s 4,600-mile Atlantic coastline, is the country’s fourth largest city. It has grown rapidly from a population of about one million in the 1970s to about three million today, close to that of the capital, Brasilia. Although some growth was natural, most was fueled by rural migration. Brazil’s greatest social and economic problem is the uneven distribution of land and wealth.

The ninth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

Economic growth and government programs have lifted almost 30 million people out of poverty since the turn of the century, reducing the poverty rate to less than 10 percent (about 16 million people). Yet the rich continue to benefit the most: between 2001 and 2015, the richest 10 percent accounted for 61 percent of economic growth. Brazil’s six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the population, around 100 million people. To illustrate the wealth gap, OXFAM projected that if those same six men pooled their wealth (which they would never do) and spent one million Brazilian reals (around $319,000) a day, it would take them 36 years to spend all their money.

Salvador, the view from the funicular railway

Salvador, the view from the funicular railway

The roots of the wealth gap lie in Brazil’s history as a Portuguese colony, a source of raw materials, minerals and cheap food. Landowners imported slaves to work the sugar cane and tobacco plantations; the center of power and wealth was the casa grande, the manor house where the landowner lived with his family, servants, concubines (and a resident priest, to insure divine approval). Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888; by that time, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa, 40 per cent of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. Most land is still owned by a small group of mostly absentee owners, who employ laborers or rent it to small farmers. Under Brazilian law, a person who has occupied land for 10 years has the right to stay on it, so landlords routinely evict tenant farmers before they can claim the right. Since the mid-1990s, a grassroots political movement calling for agrarian reform and redistribution of land has gained strength.

In October 2002, Brazilians elected a former trade union leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula), as the country’s first leftist president. Lula promised to narrow the wealth gap, improve social services, and begin land reform. However, he faced a daunting task, given Brazil’s huge foreign debt, economic problems and pledges to the International Monetary Fund to restrain government spending. The US White House branded Lula as a Marxist during the election campaign, warning of a Latin American “axis of evil” of Cuba’s Castro, Venezuela’s Chavez and Lula. With his election, the Bush people had to moderate their tone, but there’s no doubt that their public comments led to doubts in the international community and a dramatic drop in the value of the real. Lula faced opposition from a conservative legislature and the moneyed interests in Rio and Sao Paulo. 

Under election law, all those of voting age are required to vote; those who do not can be fined, so election turnout is usually close to 100 per cent. Because of poor education and low literacy levels in some areas, political appeals are often simple—wall paintings with the name of the candidate, the party color and a number. Lula was elected with widespread support from Brazil’s working poor. Many were first or second-generation rural migrants who had moved to cities such as Salvador to find work, building rough houses on public or unoccupied land. These are the favelas, the shanty towns that dot the hillsides of Brazilian and other Latin American cities. The favelas have grown up higgledy-piggledy, with densely-packed dwellings, unpaved streets and open sewers. Houses cling precariously to the hillsides; a heavy rain can wash away the shallow foundations, burying homes and their occupants under mudslides. 

I joined the SAS group that visited Calabar, one of the oldest favelas in Salvador. People started building there in the 1950s, and they’re still building. On almost every street, someone was adding a second story to a home or making another improvement. Despite the poverty, people were proud of their homes and community, and wanted to make it a better place to live. The favela has several small stores, a community center, a school (partly funded by Brazilian and international donors), and an active community association that lobbies city government for better services. Today, Calabar is surrounded by a high-rent district of upper middle-class apartment buildings; it’s close to the university and popular beaches, up the hill from the exclusive Spanish Sports Club and the Holiday Inn. Apartment dwellers and business owners complain that the favela lowers property prices, but residents have long resisted plans to move them to newer favelas on the outskirts of the city. Many make their living as street and beach vendors. It would cost them time and money to commute into the city. As with most property questions, it’s about location, location, location. The Calabar favela is in the right place.


Calabar offers an interesting example of community communication. The favela “radio station,” a small room with a mixer and CD player, is staffed by volunteers who “broadcast” through loudspeakers on the streets (and in some homes)—an eclectic mix of music, news and community announcements. It serves as a community bulletin board. “Rafael Carvalho is working on his house today. He needs to hire two people to mix cement and lay bricks.” “The Santos family is worried about their daughter. She didn’t come home from school today—call the station if you see her.” At all times of the day, people drop in to deliver messages, and often go on the air. With minimal resources, the station helps the 3,000 or so favela dwellers stay in touch with each other and with the world outside. An hour before we arrived, the DJ announced that a party of US students would be visiting, bringing a box of supplies for the school. “They come as friends--please don’t steal from them,” he urged. We had a hassle-free visit. In a city where street crime is common—at least two students were mugged near the ship dock—the favela, one of the poorest sections of Salvador, was the safest, thanks to community communication.

Community action in Calabar

Community action in Calabar

Next week: The old city of Salvador