On the hills and lowlands of Rio de Janeiro reside communities called favelas with rich histories dating back over 120 years. A favela is a community originally settled out of a need for shelter where no other options were available. After the uprising of Revolta de Canudos in the late 19th century, soldiers, primarily former slaves, migrated to Brazil’s capital city at the time, Rio de Janeiro, seeking land promised as payment for serving in battle. When no such land was made available to them, they settled on the hill they called Morro de Favela after the robust plants of the hills where they had occupied in Canudos, founding the first favela. Morro da Favela later became known as Morro da Providéncia, once the word ‘favela’ spread into popular usage to define all such communities. Slavery had just ended in Brazil a decade prior, and homes for former slaves were not a political concern, leading to migrants occupying and establishing many favelas. Addressing the historical stigmatization of favelas is necessary to better understand the vibrant and diverse cultures that have developed in Brazil.

During an era of industrialization, Rio de Janeiro showed rapid growth over the first half of the 20th century. Migrants came to the city seeking jobs, but no housing was to be found. So they settled where they could: primarily on idle public land, much of which was on hillsides near wealthier neighborhoods of the city’s South Zone developing at the time, and where settlers could access jobs. As other regions developed low-income workers followed those jobs, eventually into low-lying areas in the North and West Zones as well. Later, during the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s, some favelas were forcefully removed pushing their residents to the periphery of the city. It was common to believe that individuals were poor and marginal for good reason, which justified their treatment. Continued persecution of the “people of the hills” has only further entrenched the hegemony held against the African-Brazilian population.

Countless acts of stigmatization and discrimination unfolded over a century, such as the destruction of 62 favelas in the early 1970s that displaced over 100,000 people. In 2008, the government of Rio instigated a process of “pacification” in an attempt to reclaim favela territories occupied by gangs. Most recently, in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, government officials undertook efforts to remove communities such as Vila Autódromo, displacing over 80,000 people.

With the growing presence of international media, from freelancers to top international correspondents, who began moving into Rio in 2010 to cover Rio’s hosting of the Olympics, Theresa Williamson, executive director and creator of Catalytic Communities and her team recognized an opportunity to tackle the negative reputation of Rio’s favelas. Catalytic Communities (CatComm) is a network-based international NGO that supports and aims to destigmatize and empower Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities. “We apply an asset-based community development approach to build on the diverse and powerful strengths of favela communities in supporting their continued development through self-directed approaches, including community-led community planning, grassroots organizing and cultural production,” Williamson explains.

Since the government and private sector in effect didn’t address the issue of affordable housing for these 120 years, we now have about 1,000 favelas across Rio de Janeiro, with some 1.5 million people living in them (about 24% of the city’s population). They are first and foremost important as our primary affordable housing option. But they are also huge factories of innovation, entrepreneurship, culture [and] creativity. Every bit of culture you may associate with Rio was either invented or strengthened in the city’s favelas.”



Numerous artists, musicians and passinho dance crews have developed within such communities, bringing authentic expression and rich, distinctive and emerging voices outwards. Deriving from African style music and Miami bass, funk carioca, favela funk and baile funk (the parties and discotheques where such music is played) were popularized around Brazil and the world in the last few decades. Young musicians such as the female trio Diamonds fka Pearls Negras, spoken word artists like MC Martina and singer songwriters like Jéssica Souto and Eddu Grau all address social topics specific to their experience and neighbourhoods. MCs like MV Bill, Cidinho, MC Doca, Karol Conka, Kdu dos Anjos, and Brazil’s most famous rap group, Racionais MC’s lyrics are often a statement of identity and reference human dignity, activism, poverty, sexuality, crime, prejudice, violence, social injustice, and resourcefulness.

Williamson continues, “In the past decades it is the use of some favelas by criminal groups [which has] dominated the public image of them–producing an idea that favelas are inherently violent. Which is actually unfounded. Some 35% of favelas have drug trafficking in them, but this is because they have become easy targets due to government neglect and criminalization of the urban poor.”


Out of concern for their future development, Williamson states that “[Productive policies will not come to favelas] without first addressing the severe misunderstanding of these communities and their role in Rio and potential lessons for the world.” No true productive policy towards the development of favelas could be achieved until the perception of these communities had changed. Recognizing the need to get favela community perspectives out to the world, particularly in the fast-changing pre-Olympic period when favelas were being so heavily affected, Catalytic Communities created RioOnWatch: a “hyperlocal-to-global” favela news site that provides bilingual coverage of favela perspectives by favela reporters, international observers and researchers. Over time, the organization also formed close working relationships with over 600 international journalists who used the site as a tool to report in the lead up to the Olympics, sourcing stories and community contacts and commenting on urban planning, community organizing, and development processes.

With the Olympics behind them, Catalytic Communities looks to focus on three main ventures. Through continuing RioOnWatch, they will be focusing on favela opinions, organizing strategies, and sustainable solutions. Through the Sustainable Favela Network, they will build on favelas’ enormous untapped potential to leapfrog unsustainable practices building on their naturally sustainable qualities. Finally, a RioOnWatch Replication Manual will help guide organizers around the world in developing their own grassroots, hyperlocal-to-global communications strategies, supporting work on the ground through storytelling, narrative-shifting, and debate-setting.

RioOnWatchTv link to songs about favelas: 

For more information on CatComm, please visit http://catcomm.org

More great videos and pages to check out:


MV Bill: https://www.youtube.com/user/MVBillcdd


MC2B https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WccZ0n0USUU

Passinho Dancers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0qu6Z5beD8


Words: Jonathan H Alfaro & Magdalena Gorski

Edited by Theresa Williamson

Photos: Courtesy of Catalytic Communities/ RioOnWatch

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