Rio de Janeiro on building spree for Olympics, World Cup – but at what cost?

Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty in the past decade. But Rio's transformation in the lead-up to the Olympics and World Cup may be hurting those left behind.

By , Staff writer

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    The Maracana soccer stadium is under renovation in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, on September 17, in Rio de Janeiro.
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The renovation of the Maracana soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro, which will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games just two years later, is a dizzying scene: some 2,500 construction workers weld, shovel, drill, and man cranes under the sweltering sun.

But the stadium is not the only furious upgrade underway in this city nestled between the mountains and the sea. Rio is undergoing a major facelift with new and improved highways, bus lanes, port infrastructure, and more. Much farther out, in poor, hillside communities called favelas, where more than 1.4 million of Rio’s 6 million residents live, there are new cinemas, sewage projects, community centers, cable cars, and roads.

Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty in the past decade. But inequality remains deeply entrenched, and nowhere is that more clear than in Rio de Janeiro, where opulent seaside communities sit in the shadow of precarious mountainside favelas that started as informal settlements during the 20th century. Now with mega-events on the horizon the government is promising to bring favelas into the urban fabric, at a time when slum populations are growing across the globe. Rio’s recently reelected mayor, Eduardo Paes, said he aims to have all the city’s communities completely “urbanized,” or connected to city services, by 2020.

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But many question whether Rio’s transformation is actually pushing out the poor, both immediately and in the long-term. Housing advocates protest the evictions of residents to make way for flashy infrastructure projects, saying they are intended to better the city’s image as it plays host, not residents’ quality of life. And they worry that favela residents could eventually get priced out of their own neighborhoods – ultimately accelerating inequality and perhaps even altering the urban landscape.

“There is no question of if we have to upgrade [favelas] or not; it is the right of those communities to be upgraded,” says Raquel Rolnik, the special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations who is based in Sao Paulo. “And infrastructure, especially the [rapid-transit], will be used by many people, including poor people.”

“But, at the same time, unfortunately, Brazil is also going backwards,” Ms. Rolnik says.

Building up, 'losing potential?'

The first favela, Providencia, was populated in 1897. But similar squatter communities spread across the city in the 1960s and ‘70s as migrants from Brazil’s interior relocated to urban centers. Simultaneously threatened with clearance while often ignored by city authorities over the past century, many favelas became centers of entrepreneurship, with residents finding their own ways to get electricity or sewage. But in the absence of state control, many were overtaken by drug traffickers and became epicenters of violence as drug gangs and militias battled for control. Favelas have been both stigmatized as no-go zones of violence and celebrated in popular culture like in the movie “City of God.”

Today the informal communities have taken center stage during Rio’s preparations to host upcoming mega-events, as police forces, called Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), have been sent into two dozen favelas to root out drug traffickers and militias, bringing down crime rates. At the same time, under both city and federal initiatives, new cable cars are connecting isolated communities to the main transport system and public housing is being built. Jorge Bittar, Rio's municipal housing secretary, says that 20,000 families have been relocated, the far majority because they are susceptible to natural disasters like landslides. By 2016, 100,000 new housing units in total will be constructed in Rio, Mr. Bittar says.

Many residents say that attention on their communities is overdue. In the vast network of favelas called Complexo Alemao, in the troubled northern part of the city, dozens of children line up outside the doors of a state-of-the-art community center, opened in January, which houses 24 computers, two tables of e-readers, and a popular Xbox. Next door stands a new, government-funded 3D movie theater. Up the hill, a massive cable car traverses the neighborhood.

David Amen, a resident, says he was first suspicious of the additions. “We were wondering why there was so much change,” he says. Yet today he works as the press coordinator at the community center and says the development has been a boost for his community. “Even if this is just for mega events, who cares? As long as they do something real.”

But change has not been welcome everywhere. Closer to the center of Rio, in Providencia, Mauricio Hora, a community leader, says he worries the government is “cleaning up” his favela to turn it into a middle class enclave, as housing prices have soared and even favelas are under threat of gentrification.

Providencia sits adjacent to Rio’s dilapidated port, undergoing its own massive redevelopment project. Outside the subway station that leads into the community, a new cable car is under construction, and farther up the hill a road and covered soccer field are being built. When it is all finished, a third of the community is going to be relocated in order to accommodate the new structures, says Theresa Williamson, the founder of Catalytic Communities, which advocates for favela residents. The lack of transparency as to where they may be moved is part of the problem, activists say.

Ms. Williamson says that while some upgrading has been good and necessary, she worries the city is at the same time hammering out the spirit of the favelas, exacerbating divides between rich and poor. “What really worries me is the lost potential. So much of our popular culture comes from these communities,” she says, like graffiti art or samba music. “And ultimately, the underlying social problems in Rio, the built-in inequality, is not being addressed.”

Greater scrutiny

Rio is not alone in trying to find new ways to upgrade its slums, nor is this the first time it’s been tried here. Many of the initiatives underway take a page from successful models touted in other cities, such as Medellin, where gondolas and libraries designed by prize-winning architects are cited as among the reasons for the city’s drop in crime.

But Rio’s current transformation is under greater scrutiny because of the Olympics, which always generate protest over whether the games are benefiting big business over the needs of local residents.

In many ways, the games are helping Brazil garner investment that it needs for infrastructure projects. Mr. Bittar says the Olympics will ultimately make Rio a better place, “because it will [be] a more just city,” he says in an Email. “Also [with] the urbanization of our favelas, the city will be more equal, more enjoyable, and bring more dignity to residents, especially the poorest ones.”

Bruno Reis, the managing director of the risk forecasting company Exclusive Analysis in São Paulo, says the impact is still a question mark: Will the games contribute to the city’s development, like the Barcelona games, or do very little in the long-term, like in Athens?

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“The real problem for Rio is infrastructure. You arrive at ports, it is terrible. The roads are bad. Rio de Janeiro is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, and they barely have hotels, and they are very expensive,” Mr. Reis says. “Rio will be much better because of all the federal and private investment,” Reis says.

“But I don’t see any real revolution in the favelas. It is still very far away from a resolution.”

'My dream is to stay here'

In fact many could be left worse off. Ms. Rolnik from the UN says that thousands face eviction in Rio but exact numbers are hard to quantify because of a lack of transparency. That makes it challenging to know if residents are being adequately resettled close to proper services, and if they’re receiving fair compensation. And she says there is “expulsion by demand,” because of rising prices across the city, from the chicest neighborhoods to the poorest favelas. She says prices are up by 165 percent in three years citywide.

At the top of Providencia, where a little chapel stands, about 70 percent of houses have been painted with the letters SMH, or slated for demolition, says Williamson, the favela resident advocate. Some residents welcome better housing, especially those with physical disabilities, who may have trouble getting to and from the formal city via steep staircases or informally built narrow passages. Others say they refuse to go.

Mr. Hora says that he believes the city does not want the favela to be visible from the city, and by tearing down homes at the mountaintop; city planners aim to leave only the chapel in view, beckoning tourists. “They are making this a place for visitors,” he says. “It is not for the residents.”

“My dream is to stay here,” says Doralice dos Santos, whose home was marked for demolition because it was deemed unstable. Many homes in favelas are built piecemeal, one room at a time, and sometimes with recycled materials. “But what can I do? I am just following orders.”

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