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Brazil's 2016 Olympics could uproot residents of Rio slum

It didn’t take Inalva Mendes Brito long to react when she got the word at a meeting in a cramped government office in Rio de Janeiro that the home and neighborhood she’s occupied for 30 years would have to come down to make room for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“No to Injustice, Yes to Vila Autodromo,” declared a sign she unfurled with her husband.

Brito, a 65-year-old schoolteacher, is among thousands of residents of Vila Autodromo and other neighborhoods who are being asked to sacrifice their homes to accommodate Olympic facilities and infrastructure for the 2016 Games.

Widely regarded in Rio and throughout Brazil as an opportunity for this booming country to assert itself on the world stage, the Olympics will carry a cost that will be measured not only in money but also in the uprooting of decades-old communities – of homes lost and family and friends scattered.

“The land doesn’t belong to just a few people,” Brito said. “Land belongs to everyone, especially those of us who are working and built on this area and who stayed in the city and took care of this land. And now we are going to pay the cost of the Olympic Games? The cost of this should not be our houses.”

That cost might be particularly hard on Vila Autodromo, known in Rio as a favela, or shantytown. Favelas are infamous in Rio and beyond for their poverty, drug gangs, violence and slums. But not all favelas fit the stereotype.

Occupying a choice site on a lagoon, Vila Autodromo is home to about 4,000 people – many of them employed, many small-business people, many who live in modest homes with small gardens that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Rio’s middle-class neighborhoods. What makes it a favela is the fact that it isn’t served by public utilities and was founded by squatters.

On a recent visit, little girls played on chalk-drawn hopscotch courts while teenage boys congregated on porches. Televisions and computer monitors, albeit clunky and outdated, were seen in many homes, and refrigerators were stocked with homegrown produce and self-caught fish.

“Life here is very calm,” said Wanessa Christine Quintiano, who’s 17. “It’s a very nice place to live. There are no fights.”

For almost two decades now, the fate of the residents of Vila Autodromo has been uncertain. In 1992, they were told they needed to move because their homes were an environmental risk. The city then expressed interest in taking over the area for the Pan American Games in 2007, hoping to show the world what it could do if given the opportunity to host the Olympics.

By mobilizing and enlisting the support of campaigning groups, the residents of Vila Autodromo were able to foil these attempts to evict them. When Brazil was awarded the 2016 Olympic Games, many residents were conflicted.

“I was happy in a way because I knew with the World Cup also coming in, it would give me a lot more work because I am in construction,” said Antonio Carlos, 37, who makes doors, windows, shower stalls and mirrors at his workshop in Vila Autodromo. “But I also think they are going to do everything they can to take us out of here.”

Brito maintains that the city keeps changing its story as to why they need to move now. Originally, they were told that their land had been designated as an Olympic news media center. Then they were told it was to be part of the security perimeter. Most recently, they were told that their neighborhood is blocking the path of a new highway meant to accommodate visitors.

Residents have since been given the option of accepting compensation from the city in exchange for their land – although residents say the amount of money is too little to buy other property nearby – or being relocated to other housing projects. The area surrounding Vila Autodromo is considered prime real estate in Brazil, where housing demand far outstrips supply.

“Most of the relocations in the city aim at removing families who live in risk areas” and are “required to improve city infrastructure,” according to the 2016 Olympic Games website. “Where necessary, in order to avoid any losses to dwellers, the relocation is carried out by common agreement with the families.”

Not everyone is reassured.

“All my friends live here and they grew up with me,” Quintiano said. “There’s cousins in all of these houses, and all of my family lives here. I grew up with all of my friends here.”

City officials have said that residents will be relocated to a better place, but a visit to a plot where the city originally planned to relocate them, a few miles away, suggests why many were dead set against the move. A stream of open sewage full of discarded newspapers and debris lines the road that separates the new neighborhood from the adjacent one. The mayor shelved that option after reports that the official requirements for launching the project hadn’t been fulfilled and the area was deemed at risk for mudslides.

All this uncertainty has the community on edge.

“We live here, we work here and we depend on the people around here to be able to work,” Carlos said. “We are neighbors, and we are desperate. We are very hopeless. Every night we go to sleep thinking about removals. We wake up thinking about removals.”


(Photos and audio by Chloe Elmer, Penn State University)

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