Congestion can occur when data arrives on a big pipe (a fast LAN) and gets sent out a smaller pipe (a slower WAN). Congestion can also occur when multiple input streams arrive at a router whose output capacity is less than the sum of the inputs. Congestion avoidance is a way to deal with lost packets.
The assumption of the algorithm is that packet loss caused by damage is very small (much less than 1%), therefore the loss of a packet signals congestion somewhere in the network between the source and destination. There are two indications of packet loss: a timeout occurring and the receipt of duplicate ACKs.
Congestion avoidance and slow start are independent algorithms with different objectives. But when congestion occurs TCP must slow down its transmission rate of packets into the network, and then invoke slow start to get things going again. In practice they are implemented together.
RFC-2581 and RFC-2582