RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Ana Cristina da Silva feels lucky to live in what she believes is one of the few communities in Rio de Janeiro largely free from the notorious violence that permeates the city’s deceptively beautiful landscape.
But the tranquility that residents enjoy in Vila Autódromo, a favela (squatter settlement) in the west zone of Rio, is now threatened because the community sits too close to a venue for the 2016 Olympic Games Just 16 years ago, the state government promised to protect Vila Autódromo’s right to exist for 40 years.
“We don’t want to be removed. Why? Because here we have peace,” said da Silva. “I lost a cousin a short time ago to the famous urban violence of Rio de Janeiro. It isn’t worth it to move to a pretty house somewhere else without having peace. I don’t want to leave for work in the morning and worry about whether my son, at home alone, will be hit by a stray bullet.”
She said that Vila Autódromo, where a strong sense of community has kept out the violence of the drug traffic affecting many of Rio’s favelas, should be praised, not demolished.
But on a small triangle of land nestled between Jacarepaguá Lake and an old Formula 1 racetrack, Vila Autódromo will be demolished to make way for new Olympic facilities and a security perimeter. The city says there just isn’t room for the families and will forcibly evict the nearly 2,000 people who call Vila Autódromo home.
The prospect of eviction is nothing new for Altair Guimarães, President of the Vila Autódromo Resident’s Association. First uprooted from Rio’s beachfront south zone during the slum removal efforts of the military dictatorship, Guimarães was resettled only to be removed again to make room for a new highway. Guimarães came to Vila Autódromo, where he faces eviction for a third time. Today he is the community’s leading voice in the fight against removal and what he describes as the hypocrisy of the government.
“In 1994, Governor Leonel Brizola gave the community title with the right to use the land for 40 years,” explained Guimarães. “But [Mayor] Eduardo Paes, who at the time was deputy mayor, and today has the power of the pen, says that we can’t stay because the organizers of the 2016 Games don’t accept the community here when this project (the Olympics) can bring great results to the city. I don’t understand how evicting part of its people can bring great results to Rio de Janeiro.”
The city assures residents that they will benefit from a new social housing program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (“My House, My Life”), which offers subsidized housing units of around 150 square feet to the city's low-income population.
But for Guimarães, this is an illusory benefit for displaced residents. In his experience, removal means being transferred far from jobs and schools and losing a close-knit sense of community. He said that the housing units they would receive are actually smaller than many of their current houses in Vila Autódromo.
While eviction in low-income, informal areas has become a not-uncommon consequence of mega-event planning worldwide, housing rights violations have reached significant proportions during recent Olympics. According to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, 1.25 million people were forcibly evicted in Beijing leading up to the 2008 Games.
By comparison, the displacement of 2,000 people from Vila Autódromo might seem an insignificant number. But other removals in the name of the Olympics and urban revitalization are occurring throughout Rio as well. The Secretary of Housing recently announced the planned demolition of homes in Mangueira and Morro da Providência, two favelas in the vicinity of important Olympic sites. These favelas must make way for urbanization projects and cable car lines that will connect tourist attractions with the famous Maracanã soccer stadium and transport hubs. Between the two communities, an expected 1,800 families will be resettled, bringing estimates of the total number of displaced individuals close to 10,000.
Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of Catalytic Communities, a Rio-based NGO working as an incubator for community solutions born within favelas, argues that this is an opportunity for Rio to create a best practice in Olympic planning. "If you just had some creative planning, there's no reason that Vila Autódromo can't be integrated into the fabric of the Olympics," Williamson said. She suggested solutions might include urbanizing the community, employing residents in the Olympic venues, and ensuring that infrastructure projects be given a social use to directly benefit the community after the Games.
But for Williamson, the issue goes beyond Vila Autódromo to what she calls insufficient and segregationist housing policies: "How does the city want these communities to be developed? If they are going to urbanize, upgrade, or resettle favelas in areas free from environmental risk in the future, they need a model. Why not make Vila Autódromo that model? Why just box them into public housing when the city could engage in a process with the community and do something really bold?"
Despite the sense of safety that residents enjoy, a lack of paved roads and many urban services leave Vila Autódromo a far cry from an oasis. But residents are resolute in their fight to remain. “It doesn’t matter if you have a two- or three-story house, or if you have a shack on the edge of the lake like I have,” says da Silva. “It’s mine, and this is where I want to stay.”