The favela of Rocinha: decades of struggle have led to a rich political – and cultural – landscape

A museum in an informal settlement? Guest blogger Thaisa Comelli describes the groundbreaking work of the Sankofa Museum in Rocinha – one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest informal settlements – in one of three examples of the power of its community organisations.

Thaisa Comelli's picture
Insight by 
Thaisa Comelli
Postdoctoral research associate at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London
22 March 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Informal housing piled on a hill

Upper lands of Rocinha, Brazil (Photo: copyright Thaisa Comelli)

In examining the work of three community collectives in Rocinha we look at how the various paths taken in their fight for people’s rights and equality have shaped the favela. And we learn why the residents chose to have their own museum...

Rio’s unique urban development

Rio de Janeiro is one of Brazil’s picture postcard locations, partly because of a physical landscape with rounded hills, forests and beaches. The topography of the city – along with inequality – led to a unique pattern of urbanisation.

Upper-class neighbourhoods mostly developed over flat lands, while difficulties in accessing housing led poor and racialised populations to often settle on the hills. These are areas close to employment, but with little networked infrastructure or tenure security. Over time, these settlements became known as favelas, a name which now symbolises informality in the whole country.

Today Rio de Janeiro has more than 1,000 favelas. The most populous ones are named 'complexes' due to their diversity. Rocinha is one of them, where one can find overlapping layers of housing, ladders, alleys and shops. Residents commonly refer to this complexity through mentions of ‘sub-neighbourhoods’ – there are approximately 28 of these in Rocinha.

Rocinha itself is unique, not only because of its size and diversity, but also because of its political landscape – it now has hundreds of NGOs and grassroots groups. The more explicitly urban ones usually draw on the ‘historical struggles’, including their first successful interactions with the state for the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructures. An example is the installation of the first public water posts in the 1980s.

Despite these achievements, the favela still faces challenges with constant water shortages, flooding and landslides, which lead to contemporary forms of activism that mix old and new agendas.

Contemporary activism – three collectives

Over time, local activists have updated and diversified their claims and tactics. Three collectives in particular illustrate the rich political landscape of Rocinha.

The first is Rocinha Without Borders (RWB) – a space that promotes equitable conversations between residents, authorities or anyone who wishes to engage with Rocinha. Due to its constant presence, including monthly meetings with guest speakers, RWB has been successful in creating a strong network of progressive urban thinkers which starts from, yet transcends, the favela territory.

This has been instrumental in, for example, vetoing urban interventions such as a cable car – which according to many residents would lead to unnecessary evictions while diverting investment away from WASH priorities.

The second is Rocinha Resists – a potent illustration of youth activism in favelas. The group stands out for its focus on the politics of intersectional difference and its success in re-signifying what it means to be ‘favela-bred’. Members are well-educated young residents who identify with the favela without wanting to be contained by it.

A fluid transition between different agendas and a strategic use of social media (as members did during the COVID-19 crisis) is another aspect that illustrates the possibilities of a youth-led pursuit for visibility and recognition.

The third group is the Sankofa Museum (SM) – discussed in more detail in the next section due to its creative and culture-oriented way of pursuing the right to the city.

The Sankofa Museum and its counter-narratives

Sankofa is a word with roots in the Akan culture (of present-day Ghana) which roughly means ‘to retrieve’. Its symbol, and logo, is a bird with feet facing forward and head looking back, an idea which embodies the philosophy of the group: to look back (learn from the past) with the objective of moving forward (seeking change).

The Sankofa Museum was established in 2007, although the movement to recover and preserve the memory of the settlement is older. Since the 1970s, activists have been collecting photographs, documents and testimonies from longstanding residents and public (but hard to access) archives, not only to keep the history of Rocinha alive, but also to produce counter-narratives about favelas and informality in Brazil. This is now a key tactic for the Sankofa Museum.

The museum commonly hosts or participates in exhibitions and events aimed at telling a different story of Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil, through the eyes of Rocinhans. For example, activists have retrieved evidence showing that, rather than being spontaneously occupied or ‘invaded’ (hegemonic narrative) by poor, black residents, plots were actively subdivided and sold by Portuguese settlers and white upper-class landowners. Supported by the silence of the state, these groups would create the conditions for informality, and a few years later condemn its existence.

Sankofa also stands out for its interpretation of what a museum should look like and do. Instead of displaying its collections in a conventional room, the group argues that the favela itself should be a live museum to be explored.

The experience is therefore a curated transect walk, where visitors see different moments of Rocinha and Rio through selected houses, alleys and streets.

One of the first stops is the sub-neighbourhood Faz Depressa (‘do-it-quickly’ in Portuguese), which illustrates how the design of eviction policies contributed to shape the very design of houses. Another common stop is Rua 4 (fourth street), a former hotspot for tuberculosis, which was opened up and regenerated during the growth acceleration programme between 2008 and 2011.

Although the walking tour focuses on key moments of urbanisation, Sankofa Museum activists constantly emphasise the ancient history of that land, which originally belonged to indigenous Tamoio tribes. Changing the length of this favela’s storyline – and what period of history to tell the story from – is part of the ethos of disrupting conventional narratives about the city.

Most importantly, it shows both the injustices that shaped the settlement, and the creativity and power of favela residents. This production of counter-narratives about the making of the city and its informal settlements is conflictive, while also drawing on alternative learning practices to focus on community-led changes.

So what conclusions can be drawn?

Despite an urban landscape that fits the stereotypes of Rio’s favelas, Rocinha has a unique political landscape which draws on longstanding inequalities while also crafting novel claims and tactics. The three groups illustrate how rich and complex the face of urban activism in Rocinha is:

  • Rocinha Without Borders for its strategic creation of a trans-local progressive network
  • Rocinha Resists for its youth-led and intersectional activism, and
  • The Sankofa Museum for its creative production of counter-narratives.

The latter group in particular shows how cultural struggles are intertwined with the material dimensions of the right to the city. It also illuminates how community-led data collection and narratives can disrupt conventional understandings of informality, and its contribution to the city.Rocinha's struggle for rights is a long one, and still seems to confront countless obstacles. These groups nonetheless show how the pursuit for the right to the city is as adaptable, creative and strong as the adversities it encounters along the way.

I would like to thank the members of the three grassroots collectives mentioned in this blog for their collegiality and critical insights over these years of research and knowledge co-production.