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Rio's Olympic land grab

From environmental hazards to highway expansion: Residents of Rio's Vila Autódromo slum have heard a slew of reasons why they must move off their land, as Olympic developers move in.

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / March 8, 2012



Rio de Janeiro

• The views expressed are the author's own.

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When Municipal Housing Secretary Jorge Bittar first arrived in the favela, or slum, of Vila Autódromo in Brazil last October, he told residents their homes were slated for eviction. He offered them houses in five-story apartment buildings with barbecue pits and leisure areas to be built a few miles away – not a hazardous terrain already condemned at risk for mudslides by Rio's geography department.

The shabby working class neighborhood, which sits on the edge of a lagoon and a worn out racetrack, far from Rio de Janeiro’s posh beachside neighborhoods was needed for the Olympic Park, Mr. Bittar said, which popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised the international community he would construct (link in Portuguese). 

Since the announcement that Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Olympics, the community has heard a series of reasons why they would be evicted and their legal rights to the land voided. First, it was that their neighborhood would be the Olympic Park's media center, then, they were told, their land was to be part of a projected "security perimeter" for the games. Next, the reasoning they needed to leave became that they were living in an environmental protection area, and finally that the neighborhood was in a high risk zone for extreme weather. No matter that the community, like many in Latin American cities, was founded nearly half a century ago by squatters.

By Monday when the city government held the public bid for Rio's estimated $812 million Olympic park, the judge – who had initially barred the bid until the community and Rio officials found a mutually agreeable solution – had reversed her ban. She accepted the city's newest petition, complete with it's newest reason for displacing residents. The community's removal was not necessary for the Olympic park any longer, but instead was needed for a related highway project. The new highway would have its "projected paths passing through parts" of Vila Autódromo.

“The use of [existing highways] would avert the construction of new hotels and the growth of the tourism industry, which would be one more missed opportunity for the city,” the municipality wrote to the judge, highlighting the need for new highways.

But skeptical residents and observers doubt the highways will materialize on Vila Autódromo’s lagoon-bordering land. “We know perfectly well it is because they want the Olympic Park and other enterprises,” said Eliomar Coelho, a city councilmen leading the opposition to the community’s removal.

“They alleged that our removal from here is because we cause environmental damage,” says Inalva Mendes Brito, a public school teacher and Vila Autódromo resident resisting eviction. “And so, you’re going to put in a highway?” asks Ms. Brito, after waiting through the hours-long public bidding ceremony in order to raise her protest banner in the small city office.

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