To make way for 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro removes favelas
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To make way for 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro removes favelas

Last month, Pedro Berto, a resident of Vila Autódromo, arrived home to find a large hole in the lateral wall. Yellow pipes dangled, peeking out from inside the remaining structure. A bulldozer, now standing nearby on a mountain of debris, had accidentally perforated the wall while demolishing a neighboring house.

“The truth is that the city of Rio de Janeiro is trying to terrorize us psychologically,” said Berto. “That terror isn’t new, it is ancient. It just so happens that now it has become more and more intense.”

As the lighting of the Olympic torch looms over Rio de Janeiro, the city races against the clock to clear the way for the 2016 Games.

Like in many previous Olympic host cities, this means removing several communities for the cause. According to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, in the last two decades, more than 2 million residents have been displaced for Olympic developments around the world. Vila Autódromo, a favela in Rio’s booming Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, in the future Olympic Village site, is the latest community adding to those statistics.

More than 300 families living in precarious conditions agreed to move to Parque Carioca, a housing project that is part of the government’s Minha Casa Minha Vida initiative. Others were paid to leave.

Only 20 percent of the community’s nearly 600 families remain, according to Altair Guimarães, president of the community residents’ association. Only 15 of those families continue to battle the city for their right to stay, while the rest are negotiating with the city for fair compensation, he said.

Remaining residents of Vila Autódromo see bulldozers pass in front of their homes daily.

Remaining residents of Vila Autódromo see bulldozers pass in front of their homes daily. Photo: Elma Gonzalez

Gracie Kelle, 21, lived in Vila Autódromo for 20 years and recently moved to Parque Carioca. Although she declined to comment on her negotiations with the city, she said she feels satisfied with her housing now.

“It’s a calm place, and there are no mosquitoes,” she said. “It’s cool.”

Vila Autódromo’s location is especially valuable because it runs adjacent to Olympic Park, where athletes will stay during the mega-event, and sits on the edge of the Jacarepagua Lagoon, which many speculate is potential prime real estate. The park is slated to become a hotel and luxury housing complex after 2016.

A never-ending fight

The community began as a fishermen’s village and was dubbed Vila Autódromo in 1967, due to its proximity to a racetrack. For more than 20 years, residents have faced the threat of eviction. In 1990, the state government conceded the use of land by residents, and in 1998, it granted 99-year land titles. However, in 1993, the city had begun to request the removal of homes in the area based on legislation to protect the environment. The community fought, and stayed.

Resident Pedro Berto's house was accidentally damaged as his neighbors house was demolished last month.

Resident Pedro Berto’s house was accidentally damaged as his neighbors house was demolished last month. Photo: Elma Gonzalez

When plans for the Olympic Village were made public, Vila Autódromo was considered in all phases of the project, which looked forward all the way to 2030. When intentions to remove the community were announced, Vila Autódromo had all the ingredients for effective resistance, said Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, an advocacy NGO based in Rio.

They had diverse, outspoken leaders who organized to form a united front. The community had access to legal support and land titles to back its case. Vila Autódromo activists also used a widespread network of organizations, including universities and NGOs supporting resistance. Although Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes declared in 2013 that no residents would be forced out, there were too many big players needing the space, Williamson said.

“The reason they weren’t successful ultimately is simply and only because the interests were too great,” she said via email. “We’re not talking about the City alone wanting to evict them, but the biggest developers in Brazil wanting them out. The Olympic site project depended on that.”

The unity was shattered, some residents said, when the city began negotiating individually with residents to create “confusion and speculation” over the offers — with some reported to have been higher than US$321,419 (R$1 million).

In 2013, the community worked with professionals from two national universities (UFF and UFRJ) to design a re-urbanization plan that would have cost the city R$14 million; the plan, dubbed Vila Autódromo People’s Plan, won the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award.

Meanwhile, the city has spent about R$120 million on the Parque Carioca housing project and about R$95 million on compensations.

A community’s future

The large, cacophonous construction site, the debris left by demolished houses, the loss of friends and family and the constant pressure from the city have placed immense psychological weight on remaining residents, Berto said. The city has yet to repair the damage to Berto’s house, which also serves as a community religious center for Candomblé.

Residents ask for "Removal with ethics" on the surviving wall of a demolished house.

Residents ask for “Removal with ethics” on the surviving wall of a demolished house. Photo: Elma Gonzalez

Guimarães isn’t hopeful for the future of Vila Autódromo. Although the nearly market-price compensation some residents have received has been perceived by many as a partial success story, he believes the only victory would have been for the community to remain.

“I don’t consider this a success. I consider this country to be a coward … an unjust country, a hypocritical country because truthfully there is no success in relocation,” he said. “[But] Our fight forced [the city] to not do what they did to the others [communities that were relocated.]”

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