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The Rio Olympics Is Being Used as 'an Excuse' to Evict Poor People From Valuable Land

The city council argues that mass evictions are not only essential for the hosting of the games because they will also improve transportation networks, but many charge the real driving force is property development.
Foto di Leo Correa/AP

His baseball cap pulled low over his eyes against the glaring afternoon sun, Jose Jorge Santos de Oliveira stood by the side of the Avenida das Americas highway in the west of Rio de Janeiro and pointed out the remains of his former bairro — now overgrown by thick tropical scrub.

"They didn't need to do this. This area has nothing to do with the Olympics," he said of the destruction of the Vila Recreio II favela where he had lived for 16 years. "Not a single athlete will come through here. It's just an excuse."


Last week Rio de Janeiro's Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics released a 190 page dossier that said that a total of 22,059 families, or 77,206 people, were removed from their homes between 2009 and 2015, based on data from Rio de Janeiro city council.

Related: The Olympics Are Screwing Rio de Janeiro's Poorest Citizens Out of Housing

The city council, headed by mayor Eduardo Paes, argues that the evictions are essential not only for the hosting of the games, but also for the future of the city, providing a modern public transport system and road network that will benefit everyone. But many charge that the real driving force behind the evictions is property development.

"This is the most expensive square meter of land in Rio," Santos de Oliveria said of his old neighborhood. "It's in the city, but it's also in the middle of nature. And the beaches are clean."

Photo by James Armour Young of Jose Jorge Santos de Oliveira

Theresa Williamson, the founder of the Catalytic Communities think tank and advocacy group believes the local authorities found the perfect excuse in the Olympics to ride roughshod over normal planning guidelines.

"The Games created a green light for development without consultation. If they were going to carry out these developments they should have gone through a process to decide the routing of the roads, the location of infrastructure, the resettlement procedures," she said. "All this provided a pretext where fast decisions could be made without consultation, and they took opportunities to move people wherever they could."


The wave of evictions theoretically linked to the Olympics also goes against previous Rio government policies. The official mission statement of the city's Favela Bairro program, which began in the 1990s, was "to integrate existing favelas into the fabric of the city through infrastructure upgrading and service increases."

In 2010 that scheme was succeeded by the Morar Carioca program, which was slated as a centerpiece of the social legacy of the Olympics with its pledge to integrate every favela into the formal city by 2020.

"Back in 2010 I could feel the positive vibe among the communities. People felt that things were going to get better, they were hopeful, the economy was growing," said Williamson. "And optimism can reduce social problems. When someone feels hopeful and positive they're far less likely to be involved in crime."

Related: Brazil Says It Can Deal with Any Security Threat to the Olympics — Including Terrorism

All this has been quietly forgotten, according to Lucas Faulhaber, co-author of a book about the Olympic evictions. He points to the Vila Autódromo neighborhood as the "perfect example" of the way the Games allowed the council to push people out after years of trying.

"The government is simply using the excuse [of the Olympics] to cover its real interest, which is property development," he said. "In Vila Autódromo they've tried many arguments to get rid of those people over the years, saying that it's an area of risk, or using environmental reasons."


'Even though there's no water most of the time, the pipes have burst, they've cut down the trees, and my house shakes because of the construction work, I'm staying.'

Today Vila Autódromo — that lies about hundred yards from the Parque Olimpico, the hub venue for the event — is largely made up of rubble from dozens of demolished buildings that covers the dirt paths that pass for streets.

But a handful of residents remain determined to stay.

"I'm not leaving," said 66-year-old trash recycler Denise Costa do Santos, proudly displaying the bunches of fresh jasmine she had just picked from the banks of the nearby Lagoa de Jacarepaguá, a vast lagoon. "Even though there's no water most of the time, the pipes have burst, they've cut down the trees, and my house shakes because of the construction work, I'm staying. I'm going to ask God for help."

Costa do Santos talked about how much she loves watching the New Year's Eve fireworks reflected in the lake but a note of realism crept into her defiance when she added, "This might be the last year I'll get to see them."

When Rio city council began removing people from the area to make way for an access road to the Parque Olimpico in February 2014 there were 583 families, or around 2,450 people, living in Vila Autódromo, according to the local residents' committee. Today less than 50 families remain.

"I lost the only work I had when they tore down the neighborhood," said 58-year-old João Felix Do Santos, who described how he made his living sweeping roads, cutting the grass, and painting the curbstones.


Do Santos was one of many former residents who were relocated to a nearby apartment complex but he never settled in and returned to Vila Autódromo. "I didn't feel at home there," he said. "But I don't know how long we'll last here."

Related: 'The City of Asphalt and the Favelas on the Hills': At 450 Years Old, Rio Is Divided Into Two Worlds

Community representative Maria da Penha Macena said those who remain, or have returned, are doing their best to keep the neighborhood going. She showed off the small community church, gleaming and incongruously new amid the blasted houses and the ruins. "We've refurbished it," she said, pride, energy and indignation crackling from her small, wiry frame.

Macena made the headlines in June when the police attempted to forcibly remove a neighbor's family from their home. Residents tried to stop them, the dispute turned violent, and the image of her beaten and bloodied face was beamed across Brazil.

"I don't want to leave," she said. "This is where my life is, my story, my memories."

Photo by James Armour Young of Denise Costa do Santos and Maria da Penha Macena

While Rio city council is required by law to provide compensation or alternative housing to evicted residents, in many cases the new homes offered are unsuitable or far from people's original communities, or the financial compensation is woefully inadequate.

Jose Jorge Santos de Oliveira said that the council originally offered him just 8,600 Brazilian reals, about $2,300, for demolishing his home in Vila Recreio II. After he stood up to the council he said they offered him three apartments in a central part of the city but he turned these down because he wanted a better deal for the entire community.


'It's supposed to be resettlement but it's not. It's removal. And removal is what you do with trash.'

It is also less about the money, he stressed, than what he calls a "sense of belonging" born of sharing churches, schools, clinics and public spaces with neighbors that helps keep out the so-called militias.

The militias are criminal gangs of active or retired police officers, prison guards or soldiers, who extort money from residents and local business owners in return for security, or charge a tax on essential services such as gas or water deliveries. Sometimes they also operate as death squads or vigilante guns for hire — official Rio police figures reported that 45% of the murders in the city in 2010 were committed by militias.

"When you cut people's roots, you create weak societies, with no sense of community," Santos de Oliveira said. "It's supposed to be resettlement but it's not. It's removal. And removal is what you do with trash, not people."

Related: The Cops Trying to 'Pacify' Rio's Favelas Are Psychologically Scarred

Follow James Armour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness