Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – It is Olympic year in Rio de Janeiro. In only over five months’ time, Barra da Tijuca, in the west of the city, will be home to the Olympic Park, the Athletes’ Village and the world’s media.
The area is already buzzing: Roadworks sit beside luxury apartment blocks, shopping complexes and new transport systems. On the wall of one of the buildings under construction at the Olympic Park, a large banner displays a flashy vision of what the neighbourhood will look like when it is finished. “The Olympics bring more than just the Olympics,” boasts the banner.
For the residents of a nearby favela, these words contain an ominous truth.
Vila Autodromo, a community that occupies an ever-shrinking plot of land between the vast Olympic Park and the waters of Jacarepagua Lake, has seen its population reduced from more than 550 families to just 47 in less than two years.
But, despite the mounting pressure, those who remain say they are determined to stay.
|Raquel stands by the door to her house in Vila Autodromo [Barbara de Alencar/Al Jazeera]|
Raquel, 39, has lived in Vila Autodromo for 10 years in a house her husband built himself on land donated by a neighbour.
“This house, my house, is the last one on the frontier with the construction. Before there used to be more houses beyond this one, but now this is the last one. So we are very vulnerable here,” she says. “But … I’m not going anywhere.”
Fighting for dignity
Sandra, 47, has raised four daughters in the community and is similarly resolute.
“My name is Sandra Maria de Sousa, but many people call me ‘Maria de Louca [crazy]’ because it is just a poor house – a favela house with many structural problems – that I live in, that I am here fighting for. But it is more than that because it is my dignity.”
Informally settled as a fishing community in the late 1960s, Vila Autodromo’s residents were granted in the 1990s the right to use of the land for 99 years by the state government, which owns it.
In 2005, it was decreed an Area of Special Social Interest, designated for popular use.
Despite these legal rights and the fact that the internationally approved design for the Olympic Park keeps the community where it is, the pressure on Vila Autodromo is growing.
There are now far more partially destroyed houses than whole ones, and the community is covered in rubble and the unsalvageable contents of demolished homes – crushed televisions, clothes, and toys.
“It is unacceptable for them,” says Raquel, “that we favelados live anywhere near where the Olympic Games will take place.”
Sandra agrees and sees this as part of a broader pattern of social segregation.
“They want to move people to the north and east zones because the world doesn’t want to see poverty.
“They want to keep tourists in the south zone – Copacabana, Ipanema – and now here, in this new commercial, luxury, west zone. It is a type of social cleansing.”
The ‘Exclusion Games’
On December 8, the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics released a report detailing alleged human rights abuses directly and indirectly related to the Olympics, using evidence compiled by activists, academics and NGOs.
One issue the report calls particular attention to is housing, claiming that “at least 4,120 families have been removed and 2,486 remain under removal by reasons directly or indirectly related to the Olympic Project”.
The report also seems to support Sandra’s observations about a pattern of removals.
“Contrary to the discourse of City Hall, which tries to deny and conceal the cause of forced removals that are taking place … the removals connected to the Olympics go on affecting thousands of families, through coercion or institutional violence, gravely violating human rights, especially housing rights,” says the report.
“It is a policy of relocation of the city’s poorest in the service of real estate interests and business opportunities.”
‘A place like this’
With its long history of community organising, Vila Autodromo has been a peaceful favela.
“A place like this,” says Sandra, “a place without violence – that is not co-opted by narcotraffic or militias – for poor people, within a city as big and divided as Rio de Janeiro … it is a very rare thing.”
From 1987, Vila Autodromo has organised itself collectively as the Association of Residents and Fishermen of Vila Autodromo. This representative community body meets regularly, has its own constitution and has mobilised over the years to implement significant infrastructure improvements, including introducing electric lights, septic tanks and water pipes.
Natalia, 29, has lived in Vila Autodromo almost all her life.
“I moved here when I was a child – six or seven years old. My family and I used to live in a different community, a huge favela called Rocinha. It was an enormous, very crowded place with a lot of violence. We moved here because it was a safer place,” she says.
But it is not only how safe it is that makes Vila Autodromo special.
From Natalia’s roof, the reflected lights of the city twinkle across the lake and the hills of Tijuca forest rise against the sunset. Even with all the rubble, the site is dominated by plants and trees.
“Although Vila Autodromo doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure,” Natalia continues, “it is a healthy place to live. Here, people had the opportunity to keep animals, to eat fruit.”
“For me, this was a very special thing – to have this direct contact with nature, to be able to ride my bike safely, to swim in the lake … And this life with nature is also something they are trying to prevent poor people having access to.”
A history of resistance
“This isn’t the first time the community has been threatened,” says Sandra. “They have been threatening us for 25 years … They give us one reason or another why we have to leave.
“One of the times they tried to remove us, long before the Olympics, we were given the justification that we are a visual aggression. We are ugly. Poverty is an ‘aesthetic damage’ to the area.”
On January 19, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, promised that at least part of Vila Autodromo will stay if the community wants it to. He said those residents who had already left had done so “voluntarily”.
Paes has been unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson from his office said: “The families who had to leave Vila Autodromo were either in the route of public lanes or in an environmentally protected area by the lagoon. To offer as alternative housing, City Hall built the Carioca Park one kilometre away, a condominium with green areas, a swimming pool, gourmet lounge, daycare and commercial space … The negotiation process conducted by City Hall and residents has always been transparent.”
On March 19, 2015, Paes backtracked on a previous promise not to forcibly evict Vila Autodromo and signed an eviction decree which specified 58 buildings to be urgently removed “for public interest”.
In June, riot police were sent to forcibly evict the inhabitants of two of these houses. Residents formed human chains, 50 or so people strong, to protect the houses. The police responded with violence, using batons, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Maria da Penha Macena (known as Dona Penha), who is Natalia’s mother and a well-respected activist and spokeswoman in the community, was seriously injured when police hit her in the face with a baton.
“It is really difficult to talk about it because I can’t stop crying,” says Natalia. “It was a day that marked me very much, you know? I never thought I would live through a day like that … a day that I saw my mother hurt in that way.”
The police violence against the community that day was condemned by human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Raquel was also a victim of the aggression.
“They threw me into a ditch,” she says, “the police threw me. But I went back to help Dona Penha who had been hit in the face. I was holding her hand the whole time. It was a war. For me, it was truly a war.”
But, Raquel says, the residents were not intimidated.
“The people here got stronger after that day,” she remembers. “They [City Hall] wanted people to be scared, to collect their belongings and negotiate. But we didn’t; we felt united and determined to keep fighting.”
Natalia and her mother also remain determined, despite the fact that their house – which is also used as a gathering place for the community – was one of the two the authorities attempted to forcibly evict that day.
“It [the eviction notice] came from nowhere,” says Natalia. “The mayor said it was ‘in the public interest’, but which ‘public’ [and] what ‘interest’ are never specified.”
The real winners
Natalia’s scepticism as to where the public interest lies cuts to the heart of the problem. The logic of hosting mega-events such as the Olympics hinges on what a public good it will be – an opportunity to invest in public sporting facilities, upgrade public transport systems, build affordable homes.
Yet, according to the Olympic’s Popular Committee’s recent report, the reality is very different. In Rio de Janeiro, it says: “the Olympics represents the transfer of public resources to the private sector, subordinating public interests to market logic.”
While City Hall boasts that its Private Public Partnership (PPP) model of funding means public spending is lower than private, the Popular Committee believes the most recent official figure, which claims the private sector is paying 57 percent of the Olympics and Olympics Legacy budget, is misleading. Their investigation cites various drains on public money – including tax exemptions for companies involved in partnerships, as well as compensations for evictions – that the City Hall figure does not include. The report estimates that “the private sector is actually paying less than 38 percent of relevant costs”.
The Popular Plan
Sandra, however, is eager to stress that the Olympics themselves did not make the destruction of her community inevitable.
“Our quarrel is not with the Olympics, our quarrel is this: The mayor sold something he had no right to sell. The Brazilian government always ends up serving the ruling class … It is high time for public policies to treat the people who truly build the country with respect. We are poor because we live in a capitalist society, but we must still be consulted [and] must be treated with respect.”
And Vila Autodromo has a more dignified alternative to offer.
The People’s Plan of Vila Autodromo is an urbanisation proposal put together by the Association of Residents of Vila Autodromo, with technical support from two public universities. Developed through a participatory process of workshops, general assemblies and residents meetings, the plan includes detailed, fully costed upgrades for the areas of housing, sanitation infrastructure and environment, public services and cultural and community development – all compatible with Olympic construction.
“This time it is not the rulers, the businessmen, the private-public partnerships or the technocrats of City Hall who establish the fate of this community,” the plan states. “Now it is the people, who live the reality and day-to-day difficulties, who say what is needed and how it should be done.”
The People’s Plan is costed at roughly 35 percent of what City Hall has already paid to remove Vila Autodromo residents, given the legal claims they have. Moreover, it meets the aims of City Hall’s flagship Olympic legacy policy Morar Carioca, which promised to integrate Rio’s favelas into the city by upgrading infrastructure through participatory community planning. The People’s Plan was presented to Paes at a hearing back in August 2012.
Those involved insist that there is still time for City Hall to change course. Regina Bienenstein, project coordinator for the Fluminense Federal University, explains: “The People’s Plan is being constantly updated in order to adapt to the current situation. We are currently in the fifth version, which includes 50 single family lots of 250 square-metres each, a new daycare centre, new headquarters of the Association of Residents, a football pitch, a place for waste recycling, a garden, recreation area and a leisure and cultural centre.”
In December 2013, the People’s Plan won the Deutsch Bank and the London School of Economics’ Urban Age Award.
It was a symbolic victory not only for Vila Autodromo, explains Sandra, but for all communities fighting a similar battle. Sandra’s daughter Flora Terra, who is 14 and has lived in the community all her life, is eager to elaborate on this point: “Because this removal process is not only happening with the excuse of the Olympics and it is not only happening here in Vila Autodromo. I think it’s also important that we stand for these people, for the communities who do not have the legal titles to their land and are therefore much easier to remove quietly, invisibly.”
Natalia agrees: “I have already seen how similar our story is to what is happening to other communities,” she says. “Even in other states, other countries, too. There are too many stories of people going through the same pain we are going through here … Our resistance moves them to continue their own resistance.”
Sandra says that, for her, consciousness is the most important part of this resistance.
“I am discovering many things that previously I didn’t understand … I have learned about how many social and economic problems in our country fit together, how they are relevant to what is happening here.”
Resistance, for Raquel, means simply continuing to stay. “The people here will resist until the end. Even without water, without light.”
On one recent morning, police blocked residents as a fence was erected across the community’s main road, splitting the site in two and cutting Raquel’s house off from the rest of the community.
Then, on February 11, the three houses occupying the land behind the Residents’ Association were demolished.
A spokesperson from City Hall said that these actions were lawful: “The construction on one of these properties was legally demolished, with authorisation from the justice.”
On February 24, the building of the Residents’ Association was demolished.
The community issued a statement in response. “The Association is not a building: the Association is us! The seat may fall, but Vila Autodromo will remain,” it said.
Residents have marked their determination to keep resisting on the remaining walls of the community, with words that attempt to reclaim the physical and psychological ground taken from them. “Community besieged,” they say.