Before returning to the favela (local neighbourhood) Vila Autodromo for the first time since 2012, I had already been told that the community would not look the same. As a friend said to me, “It will resemble a perfect smile with several teeth knocked out.”
Vila Autodromo is just yards away from the site of the 2016 Rio Olympic village. Olympic planners, as well as building interests, have long targeted this close-knit community for demolition.
Located on a beautiful lake, where glittering new high-rise condominiums have sprouted, the city’s business and political leaders see prime real estate, with pesky favelados in the way of their development dreams.
Despite a fierce resistance to their removal, I had heard before arriving that 150 of the 500 families living in Vila Autodromo had left. I expected many of their homes, places I had visited, to now be piles of rubble. What I did not expect was the absence of trees.
Majestic trees punctuated the Vila Autodromo I remember. They were the shade and the breeze for residents. It was where you listened to music, argued, laughed and watched your children safely run the streets.
Yet in an effort to coax residents to accept a cash payout and leave, the city has uprooted and torn out many of the trees. The city has also, according to residents, slowed garbage pickup and kept streetlights sporadically turned off at night.
They cannot legally evict people from their homes if they want to remain. But they can make life uninhabitable for those who stay.
“It’s a psychological attack … to weaken community and weaken our resolve,” said Jane Nascimiento from the Vila Autodromo Neighbourhood Association, the group that has led the favela’s resistance.
The Vila, once filled with hope the city would back down from its bid to remove residents, is now grim. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes ― and the real estate interests that back him ― has engaged in a remorseless battle of attrition.
“It was a beautiful community,” Jane says, “but it’s becoming uglier as they remove the trees.” She adds: “We directors of Neighborhood Association have fought our own depression, but we can’t show it for fear of spreading depression to those who remain.”
The city has turned neighbours of this tight-knit community against one another, as they have in neighbourhoods across Rio where people resist the city’s development efforts.
First, they offered larger payouts for those who would willingly leave ― but only if they could convince two other families to pack up as well. This pyramid scheme pits those leaving against the holdouts.
A resident named Francisco said: “I’ve lost friends because I wouldn’t leave. Many of them left the community, but I lost their friendship because I was keeping them from getting the extra money.”
The city also said ― falsely ― that an injunction against demolitions won by the Neighbourhood Association prevented them from providing payouts to those who wanted to depart.
All of a sudden, the Neighbourhood Association, which has provided leadership and strength through several difficult years, became an enemy for a minority of residents. A rock was even thrown through their window.
I spoke to another resident, Osimar, who was offered public housing and a great deal of money to vacate. One small problem: he doesn’t want to leave.
He said: “The government has money earmarked for favela communities but instead of using them to pave roads, or provide schools and health clinics, it goes to demolition and construction crews.
“On the other side of the lagoon, in Santa Monica, a condo sells for BRL6 million [almost $3 million]. This is why they want us gone.”
There is something very precious in the favelas that is becoming endangered by the worship of “speculation and real estate”, not to mention the mega-events that fuel real estate speculation.
One should never minimise the very real poverty, lack of services and other challenges faced by the favelas. But those concerns should not blind us to the community, care, and vibrant culture that emerge from the narrow streets and makeshift cafes.
Hundreds in Vila Autodromo want to stay. They are fighting not only for their community but also for favela culture, and against the gleaming, charmless high-rise gentrification springing up all around them.
Another case is Favela do Metro, which was once a community of 700 families living a five-minute walk from Rio’s legendary Maracana Stadium. Now it’s a couple of storefronts and a heap of rubble.
All 700 families are gone, uprooted by a World Cup agenda that looked at their homes and envisioned parking lots for the Maracana. Even that was too much for city planners, as the parking lot has yet to be built. Perhaps it will be ready for cars by the start of Rio’s 2016 Olympics.
When I asked a former favela resident, hanging around a food stand, to explain the delays, he said: “If they can’t finish the World Cup stadiums, do you really think they care about this place?”
Instead, all around are empty lots ― case studies in demolition, with the jagged remnants of what were once people’s homes there for all to see.
There are dolls with missing heads and limbs, couches without cushions and razor-sharp exposed springs, and a sink leaning precariously on a mountain of wood shavings. The owners’ memories have become someone else’s garbage.
On one wall is spray-painted, “What happened to the families? No one lives here any more.”
Theresa Williamson of the NGO Catalytic Communities told me the story of what happened to the favela’s former residents. The first 100 families were evicted by the city in November 2010, just after the 2016 Olympics were awarded to Rio.
Without any time to consider their options or organise a collective response, they were shuttled out at gunpoint and resettled in Rio’s far west zone, two hours away from their former homes. It was a violent eviction, and the first to gain any kind of international media visibility.
The remaining 600 families then started organising. They sued the city. They protested. They forced the city government to grant them public housing within a few minutes of Favelo do Metro so the disruption to their lives would be as minimal as possible.
As Williamson said: “This is an example of what happens when you resist eviction ― the more you resist, the better the outcome.”
Still, this was a painful process that took three years to play out, and those three years were ugly. With hundreds of residents still living in Favelo do Metro, the city began to unceremoniously knock down homes and leave behind low hills of trash.
Rats infested the area. Drug traffickers found new homes in the empty lots. The city claimed it needed to develop the area for the games. Instead, it brought blight.
Two middle-aged men, former residents of Favelo do Metro, sat around a plastic table between the sidewalk and a demolished home. Asked why the city would hastily evict the community, only to leave wreckage behind, they said: “They didn’t give us a reason why we had to leave. They just came, pushed us out and knocked the buildings down.”
I was also able to speak with Eomar Freitas, another former resident of Favela do Metro. His was the last home standing. He still has a storefront where he sells drinks and food.
“I’ve lost over 90% of my business, but I refuse to leave,” he said. “If I live elsewhere, the mayor wins.”
The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, is seen by Freitas as a big culprit when it comes to the false promises of new homes that accompanied the destruction of Favela do Metro.
“The mayor’s mouth is like a baby’s ass,” Eomar said. “Nothing but shit.”
Eomar said the new housing the residents won is serviceable, but smaller and of a lower quality than their former homes. For example, hanging photos on the wall is impossible, because the walls are so brittle that they won’t hold a nail.
The 'other Rio'
In the lot next to Eomar’s storefront are several hundred workers clearing out the rubble to pave it with asphalt for a parking lot. All of the workers live in favelas of their own.
One of the people with me, a favela organiser, is recognised by one of the workers from a demonstration at another favela he was destroying. She asked him, as a favelado, how it made him feel to tear down these homes.
“It makes me feel strange and disturbed in my heart,” was his answer, using a word in Brazilian-Portuguese that doesn’t have an exact English parallel.
This is the “other Rio”, a place of real estate speculation and mega events for foreign consumption. It’s a place that loves football, but hates how it’s being used and has no patience for treating this moment as World Cup business as usual.
Eomar said to me: “Look around my store. You’ll see posters of [Argentina’s] Lionel Messi and [Portugal’s] Cristian Ronaldo. No Brazil players.
“In yesterday’s game of Brazil vs Croatia? I was rooting for Croatia.”