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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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