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.

• The views expressed are the author's own.

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.

Even though the winning design plan for the Olympic park promotes mixed economic use of the area, and would keep the community where it is, the Rio city government has led the call for eviction.

“What they [the Rio city government] want to do is create an environment for the upper middle class,” says Mr. Coelho.

The government wants to assure public-private partnership (PPP) investors that the area will be a wealthy neighborhood once the Olympic games are complete, Coelho says, reserved for shopping malls and condos.

The government created a PPP to develop the Olympic park in order to minimize how much the government has to invest in the Olympic infrastructure. It also allows private developers to build commercial and residential units after the games.

Rio officials argue they can offer residents a better relocation option (remember those barbecue pits and leisure areas?) than their current neighborhood. But a recent local media report showed that the land promised for the new housing project was going to be purchased from two of Mayor Eduardo Paes’ campaign donors, for an elevated price and without public bidding.

The city quickly suspended the purchase after this news broke, but the government is still pushing to relocate residents to this new land. 

In another dramatic turn, Councilman Coelho’s office filed a petition arguing that the new resettlement plot is an area of environmental hazard itself already condemned by the government's geography service as a risk area for mudslides (link in Portuguese). 

The city government came to Vila Autódromo with a table of prices they would offer to homeowners, and characterized the buyout as a "friendly" one in which both sides were willing and could negotiate the price. In an "unfriendly" buyout, the city government would be legally obliged to have an independent consultant determine the house's price, which critics say would be higher than the ones currently offered by the government.

The president of Carvalho Hosken Construction, one of three companies that were chosen for the PPP, said after the Monday bid that Vila Autódromo’s home titles may not be respected.

“Everything was done in an environmental protection area,” says Carlos Fernando de Carvalho, discrediting the validity of the home titles granted by the state government about two decades ago and echoing the city government's arguments that the titles were awarded by a "squatter-friendly" administration. In its petition to overturn the judge's barring of the bid, the city government alleged the state government had granted those titles in a "pro-invader" political climate that gave squatters a sense of impunity and false entitlement to the land.

“It was all done in an unregulated way," said Mr. de Carvalho.

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