RIO DE JANEIRO — RIO'S first favelas, or slums, appeared in 1897 after soldiers returned home from putting down an antigovernment rebellion in the remote northern Brazilian backlands.
Without money or a place to live, the former combatants went into the hills above the city and fashioned their homes from pieces of wood that reminded them of a backlands tree, called the white favela. They dubbed their new dwellings ``favelas.''
But it wasn't until the 1940s that today's shantytowns began to mushroom, after thousands of poor farmers fleeing the arid northeast arrived, looking for a better life. That migration continues to this day.
According to official records, Brazil's cities have 3,471 registered favelas; 66 percent of them are located in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. In Recife, a northern port city of 1.5 million inhabitants, nearly 49 percent of the population lives in slums. In Rio, there are 548 registered favelas with 1.8 million inhabitants, or nearly one-third of the city's population, according to the Rio de Janeiro Favela Federation.
Most shantytowns are located along Rio's rocky hilltops, with wooden shacks stacked atop each other, clinging precariously to the sides of the verdant hills. Several have million-dollar views of Rio's famed Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Atlantic islands, bays, and lagoons.
Rio's favelas have colorful names such as Goodbye Hill, Hill of the Oath, Wet Rat, City of God, Pleasure Hill, and Big Peacock. The largest slum in Latin America is said to be Little Farm, with about 250,000 residents.
THE favelas are slowly changing. Wooden shacks are giving way to brick homes. Some even have a thriving middle-class, whose houses are equipped with modern appliances, garages, swimming pools, and satellite TV antennas.
Yet any sense of middle-class normalcy belies the fact that most residents continue to be illegal squatters. Legitimate owners have long given up trying to recover their property. The city is even reluctant to dole out deeds for fear of encouraging more invasions.
Consequently, few of those who live there, called favelados, pay taxes or receive public services. According to the Rio city planning department, only 42 percent have running water; 59 percent have electricity; 50 percent have some kind of sewage hookup. Only 15 percent have regular garbage collection. Open sewers and trash-strewn streets are the norm.