By Anna Fitzpatrick, Contributing Reporter

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Perhaps because of the international success of the Brazilian film “City of God”, for many the word favela is synonymous Rio de Janeiro, more so than São Paulo. But Brazil’s largest city struggles with the same challenges, and the census at the turn of the century recorded that a third of the city’s population were living in the over 600 favelas within and around the city.

Paraisópolis, one of the largest favelas is located right next to the wealthy neighborhood of Morumbi, photo by Tuca Vieira/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

The most visible difference between favelas in São Paulo and Rio is the geography, and the lack of surrounding hillsides blanketed with the slum communities. The other major difference is that São Paulo’s rapid expansion is relatively recent, where as Rio experienced it’s first major growth of favelas in the 1940s.

While the UPP programs are getting a lot of media attention in Rio, São Paulo has Operação Saturação, which started in 2005 throughout the city. The policy involves a large number of police descending into an area and then monitoring the community for an extended period of time.

Operação Saturação has recently been struggling to restore order in Cracolândia, a notorious drug infested area of the São Paulo. Last week a new look at the infamous location brought renewed attention to the city’s challenges. Of course like Rio, many of the favelas have boomed into vibrant and diverse communities, weaving into the affluent residential and commercial fabric of São Paulo.

Brazilian 2000 Census figures of cities with the most favelas, image by Wikipedia Creative Commons License.

Despite being granted permanent status as a neighborhood in the 1990s, Heliópolis is still regarded by most as the largest favela in the city with a population of over 100,000 inhabitants (still somewhat smaller than Rochina, the largest favela in Rio).

The area, to the south-east of the city center, developed rapidly during the late 1960s and 1970s and for twenty years was considered by law to be an illegal settlement.

The size of the neighborhood is such that it is now considered to be town in its own right, with small commercial ventures cropping up throughout the area. Indeed, a recent report in The Economist has praised the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit found inside Heliópolis, emphasizing that these qualities need to be celebrated and capitalized on.

Vying with Heliópolis for the title of largest favela is Paraisópolis, one of the few centrally located favelas in the city, nestled in the wealthy suburb of Morumbi and is ringed with some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the city.

Claudemir Alexander Cabral in the library he founded in Paraisópolis, photo by Anna Fitzpatrick.

With its population pushing 100,000 people, creativity and innovative spirit are clearly evident in the narrow yet bustling streets, perhaps helped by the Operação Saturação presence in 2009 for 82 days.

Life in favelas such as Paraisópolis is improving as community members work to provide amenities, cultural and education.  A quick visit to the Biblioteca Becei de Paraisópolis showed some of the resources available with founder Claudemir Alexander Cabral proudly explained that currently 3,000 of the library’s 12,000 book collection were currently out on loan.

As Ariella Stern, a volunteer at one of the local schools put it, “it is more difficult to find opportunities (here), but it is possible”.


  1. Until recently I lived in Morumbi and was invited by the sub-prefects office to go on a tour of Parisopolis. The idea was to change my impression of the place.
    Despite being escorted by the mayors officials and in an official car almost 90% of the favela was out of bounds for us. Our guide was scared and embarrassed.
    It’s clearly run by the drug dealers and all others who do business there ( Casas Bahias, hospital Albert Einstein etc) must pay to the dealers to be allowed in.


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