In the Name of the Future, Rio is Destroying its Past
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By THERESA WILLIAMSON and MAURÍCIO HORA
Published: August 12, 2012, Rio de Janeiro
THE London Olympics concluded Sunday, but the battle over the next games has just begun in Rio, where protests against illegal evictions of some of the city’s poorest residents are spreading. Indeed, the Rio Olympics are poised to increase inequality in a city already famous for it.
Last month, Unesco awarded World Heritage Site status to a substantial portion of the city, an area that includes some of its hillside favelas, where more than 1.4 million of the city’s 6 million residents live. No favela can claim greater historical importance than Rio’s first — Morro da Providência — yet Olympic construction projects are threatening its future.
Providência was formed in 1897 when veterans of the bloody Canudos war in Brazil’s northeast were promised land in Rio de Janeiro, which was then the federal capital. Upon arriving, they found no such land available. After squatting in front of the Ministry of War, the soldiers were moved to a nearby hill belonging to a colonel, though they were given no title to the land. Originally named “Morro da Favela” after the spiny favela plant typical of the Canudos hills where soldiers had spent many nights, Providência grew during the early 20th century as freed slaves joined the soldiers. New European migrants came as well, as it was the only affordable way to live near work in the city’s center and port.
Overlooking the site where hundreds of thousands of African slaves first entered Brazil, Providência is part of one of the most important cultural sites in Afro-Brazilian history, where the first commercial sambas were composed, traditions like capoeira and candomblé flourished and Rio’s Quilombo Pedra do Sal was founded. Today 60 percent of its residents are Afro-Brazilian.
Over a century after its creation, Providência still bears the cultural and physical imprint of its initial residents. But now it is threatened with destruction in the name of Olympic improvements: almost a third of the community is to be razed, a move that will inevitably destabilize what’s left of it.
By mid-2013 Providência will have received 131 million reais ($65 million) in investments under a private-sector-led plan to redevelop Rio’s port area, including a cable car, funicular tram and wider roads. Previous municipal interventions to upgrade the community recognized its historical importance, but today’s projects have no such intent.
Although the city claims that investments will benefit residents, 30 percent of the community’s population has already been marked for removal and the only “public meetings” held were to warn residents of their fate. Homes are spray-painted during the day with the initials for the municipal housing secretary and an identifying number. Residents return from work to learn that their homes
will be demolished, with no warning of what’s to come, or when.
A quick walk through the community reveals the appalling state of uncertainty residents are living in: at the very top of the hill, some 70 percent of homes are marked for eviction — an area supposedly set to benefit from the transportation investments being made. But the luxury cable car will transport 1,000 to 3,000 people per hour during the Olympics. It’s not residents who will benefit, but investors.
Residents of Providência are fearful. Only 36 percent of them hold documentation of their land rights, compared with 70 percent to 95 percent in other favelas. More than in other poor neighborhoods, residents are particularly unaware of their rights and terrified of losing their homes. Combine this with the city’s “divide and conquer” approach — in which residents are confronted individually to sign up for relocation, and no community-wide negotiations are permitted — and resistance is effectively squelched.
Pressure from human rights groups and the international news media has helped. But brutal evictions continue as well as new, subtler forms of removal. As part of the city’s port revitalization plan, authorities declared the “relocations” to be in the interest of residents because they live in “risky areas” where landslides might occur and because “de-densification” is required to improve quality of life.
But there is little evidence of landslide risk or dangerous overcrowding; 98 percent of Providência’s homes are made of sturdy brick and concrete and 90 percent have more than three rooms. Moreover, an important report by local engineers showed that the risk factors announced by the city were inadequately studied and inaccurate.
If Rio succeeds in disfiguring and dismantling its most historic favela, the path will be open to further destruction throughout the city’s hundreds of others. The economic, social and psychological impacts of evictions are dire: families moved into isolated units where they lose access to the enormous economic and social benefits of community cooperation, proximity to work and existing social networks — not to mention generations’ worth of investments made in their homes.
Rio is becoming a playground for the rich, and inequality breeds instability. It would be much more cost-effective to invest in urban improvements that communities help shape through a participatory democratic process. This would ultimately strengthen Rio’s economy and improve its infrastructure while also reducing inequality and empowering the city’s still marginalized Afro-Brazilian population.
Theresa Williamson, the publisher of RioOnWatch, founded Catalytic Communities, an advocacy group for favelas. Maurício Hora, a photographer, runs the Favelarte program in the Providência favela.