Rio favela residents wrestle with city as Olympic Park was built around them
Nathalia Silva lived with her family in the same home for more than 20 years before she was evicted by authorities and her two-story brick house was bulldozed in front of her eyes.
She stood a couple hundred feet away last June, recording on her cellphone as Rio’s baton-wielding and shield-clad police officers removed more than 200 residents from the Vila Autodromo (Racetrack Village) favela slum in the city’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, where the Olympic Games are taking place this month.
Silva’s mother, Maria da Penha, and other residents are seen in the video with their faces covered in blood after being tackled by police. The residents had linked their arms in front of a neighbor’s house to try and stop any further evacuations.
“It’s the most difficult thing we’ve ever been through,” Silva said in her native Portuguese. “A fight like we never imagined.”
By law, Vila Autodromo families — who like many favela residents own their home but not the land on which it’s built — were required to move, Silva said. According to Rio’s Lei Complentar 74, (Complementary Law 74), passed in 2005, the State of Rio de Janeiro could legally evict residents in Rio’s Barra neighborhood by offering to pay them for the value of their houses. Residents from the 1,000-person Vila Autodromo favela were offered anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million Brazilian Reais, or $62,000 to $620,000, to leave in 2014, Silva said.
But some, like Silva, 29, and neighbor Dalto de Oliveira, 50, weren’t comfortable leaving the places they celebrated their First Holy Communions, welcomed visitors during Rio’s annual Carnival celebration and held countless family gatherings. They hoped to negotiate a way to stay in the neighborhood they called home.
Above all, they didn’t want to be poster children for what Vila Autodromo residents call city-wide gentrification in advance of Rio’s “mega-events” — the Olympics and, before that, the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“They see us as pollution in important tourist zones and want to get rid of us.” de Oliveira said. “We’re treated like pests more than human beings.”
The city of Rio de Janeiro has evicted nearly 1,000 residents from 20 favelas in Barra de Tijuca since 2014, according to data from the nonprofit Terre des Hommes, a Sweden-based think tank that focuses on children from low-income families. The data suggested that as many as 12,000 people citywide have been displaced as a result of construction related to the World Cup and the Olympics.
The nearly 20-acre area that since 1967 had made up the Vila Autodromo slum is now covered with Olympic venues, stadiums, hotels and corporate buildings. The one part that remains, a half-acre plot next to the Olympic Park, hosts 20 of about 700 Vila Autodromo families that used to live in the neighborhood. The rest have sought housing in other areas around the city.
Remaining residents such as Silva, da Penha and de Oliveira have been downgraded from their old two-story homes with as many as four bedrooms to local government-designed, white-painted, one-story homes with only two bedrooms.
“It’s not the same,” Silva said. “The houses are smaller and the quality is much worse.”
VIVA VILA AUTODROMO
Any victory Vila Autodromo’s residents might have achieved after a two-year fight to remain on the same land is bittersweet, they said.
“Obviously we didn’t want to lose our homes,” da Penha said. “But at least we get to stay in the same neighborhood.”
Wearing a T-shirt with “Long Live Vila Autodromo” written in Portuguese, Silva and da Penha said they’re proud to have preserved their neighborhood’s name and kept some of its residents together. The city also named the road that enters the Olympic Park after the favela.
But they don’t believe the favela’s fight with the city is over.
With private corporations set to take over the Olympic Park after the Games, Vila Autodromo residents say their recent displacements might just be the first moves in the city’s ongoing attempt to push them out of the area.
“We’d like to say we’ll be able to stay here, but it’s an ongoing struggle,” Silva said. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen down the road.”
Rio de Janeiro city spokeswoman Daniele dos Santos didn’t comment on a potential move for Vila Autodromo residents after the Games, but said the city is focused on providing “affordable and safe” places for those living in the Barra favela.
“We understand Vila Autodromo residents’ concerns and will continue to do everything possible to ensure the best quality of life for them while also respecting their legal rights,” dos Santos said.
SENDING A MESSAGE
Outside the new Vila Autodromo favela, a two-story brick and cinder-block home from the old neighborhood stands next to a main road where Olympic athletes and fans pass by throughout the day in air-conditioned buses and cars.
No interviewed residents in the new favela knew why the old structure was still standing. But de Oliveira has taken advantage of the chance to spread his message to thousands of people passing by each day.
Spray-painted messages calling for “constituted rights” and a stop to “social cleansing,” on the old favela home has de Oliveira hoping both the city and visitors will better understand his community’s struggle.
“We can’t allow them to treat us like second-class citizens,” he said, “no matter what mega-event they want to host.”