Rio’s Olympic “Progress” Means Forced Evictions for the City’s Poorest Residents
Cariocas, as residents of Rio de Janeiro call themselves, are a naturally jubilant lot. Rich or poor, they’ll jump on any excuse to party. You’d think that with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics coming their way, Cariocas would be positively dancing in the streets. But not everyone in Brazil’s second largest city is in a festive mood these days. That’s because just like in Beijing, thousands of the city’s poorest residents face forced evictions from their homes in Rio’s notorious favelas (shantytowns) in order to make way for the “progress” that is World Cup and Olympic construction.
There are countless roads and expressways, parking lots and housing, sporting venues and support networks to be built or spruced up in Rio, and all of this new or expanded infrastructure has to go somewhere. With one of the densest populations in the world, there’s really nowhere to build but where people already live. And with the favelas seen as the source of everything bad that happens in Rio– out-of-control violent crime, drug trafficking, an influx of poor people from all over Brazil competing for jobs and housing– many wealthier Cariocas are, frankly, quite happy to see the usually inert local authorities “cleaning up” the “ghettos.”
But millions of people live in Rio’s 1,000-plus favelas, and at least thousands of them will be affected by Olympic “progress.” Amnesty International warns human rights, supposedly a major concern of new President Dilma Rousseff (a former Marxist rebel who was imprisoned and tortured during the US-backed military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985), are taking a backseat to the breakneck development of a city and a country desperate to impress upon the world that they are “ready” to host such monumental events.
“There is a lot of pressure with the World Cup and Olympics to present the city of Rio in the best light, but it’s having a negative impact on poor communities,” Patrick Wilcken of Amnesty International told al-Jazeera. Wilcken says favela residents have property rights under Brazilian law since many of them have lived in their homes for years, even generations. “In Brazil, more than half the population lives in some sort of irregular settlement as a result of the chaotic way in which the country developed over the 20th century,” Wilcken said. “Some of these communities have been around 30, 40, 50 years so they do have housing rights under Brazilian law– the difference is that poor communities don’t have access to justice.”
Where demolitions do occur, the government has offered compensation or placement in new housing. But many Cariocas complain that their new homes are located far from their jobs and that the compensation offered is next to nothing. “These people have been given houses which are 50km (31 miles) away from their livelihood, or compensations which are really a pittance. The communities are not really involved,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Reuters. “Everybody fully understands that some degree of movement might be inevitable when you’re doing such a major project, but the issue is whether the fair process is being followed,” he added.
A visit to a favela practically in the shadows of Maracana Stadium, the world’s largest and the centerpiece of both the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016, shows how little the city’s poor are benefiting from the construction boom.
“For me and other poor people, I have not seen anything change of get better with the World Cup,” Rita Bonfim Silva, who lives in the Metro-Mangueira favela, told a reporter from al-Jazeera. “Nothing has helped us at all. We have not seen any improvement. No financial help. Not housing help. Not education. Not health. Nothing has gotten better for those who need it.”
Silva say’s she’s not going anywhere, despite the fact that the city is demolishing homes all around hers and authorities have cut off her water and electricity. The residents who have refused to leave their homes now live among rubble and ruin, with crack addicts moving into the collapsed homes. She told al-Jazeera that residents have been given little information from the city; word on the street is that the land on which they live will be turned into a parking garage for Maracana.
The city’s rich are mostly thrilled at the prospect of the favelas being “cleaned up.” Seen as the source of the crime wave that has at times paralyzed the city in recent years, the city’s poorest residents are often despised by the richer, whiter Brazilians who inhabit the city’s swank seaside districts like Ipanema, Leblon and Barra de Tijuca. Racism plays a role. So does a prevailing mentality among many of Rio’s elites that they truly are better than the poor. Then there’s the inferiority complex that still infects many Brazilians; like in Athens in 2004, this shows through in a manic effort to prove to the world that Brazil can indeed successfully host two world-stage events.
And there is the undeniable reality that efforts to “pacify” some favelas have resulted in a safer city. That’s all many Cariocas really need to hear before they’ll support more of the same, even if that means bulldozing the human rights of the city’s poorest residents along with their homes.
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