Rio Is Preparing for the Olympics with Forced Evictions and Rivers of Sewage

In preparation for the Summer Olympics, Rio De Janeiro has attempted to "clean up" its unplanned, poor communities known as favelas. The results have not been pretty.

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May 10 2016, 3:00pm

All images by Mich Cardin

The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are approaching and with their arrival the city is undergoing massive changes. Major infrastructure projects aimed at easing Rio's badly congested streets have descended on Rio's boulevards and bridges along with an effort to clean up crime-ridden neighborhoods. A less welcomed change are beautification efforts inside Rio's world famous—and sometimes notorious—favelas.

Favelas are rambling, ramshackle, unplanned housing developments for Rio's working poor. Each favela has its own social ecosystem: Some favelas, like Rocinha, are filled with families and service workers who toil at the high end hotels along Ipanema beach. Other favelas have major drugs trafficking crime and are ruled by gangs. Efforts to clean up the favelas have ranged from creating more infrastructure to wholesale evictions of residents to bulldozing of family homes.

Gloria is a 25-year resident of Villa União Curicica, one of the more than 1000 favelas in Rio. Her account is consistent with residents' claims of officials carrying out threatening actions against them since evictions began in 2014 (in other communities, they started as early as 2010). She walks across rickety boards that bridge her house to the sidewalk; below flows a garbage-filled stream.

She explains in Portuguese that the bridge was once made of concrete and big enough to fit a car. But the city needed to take it down to "clean the water" as part of pre-games preparations, and this was what they left in its place. Her child recently fell through the boards, and the stream remains dirty. She points to the grassy lot next door where her neighbors once lived—their houses were bulldozed to make room for a super highway catering to Olympic attendees.

Brazil's mission to "formalize all of the city's favelas by 2020" is falling flat for residents like Gloria. Almost halfway through 2016, Gloria's community and many others are still facing torn-up streets, mountains of garbage, and health and safety concerns due to the intrusive construction. And then there is the issue of residents forced out of homes they've spent decades building with minimal means.

In Vila União Curicica, the concrete highway (known as the BRT) that was created to ease traffic has resulted in 350 evictions. The evicted receive little to no compensation, are forced into cramped, poorly designed public housing, and end up with a stack of bills for the housing they can't afford.

Family-run businesses have been lost. Promises of compensation and community improvements go unfulfilled. Questions on safety issues remain, and four years after the start of the BRT's construction, residents feel in limbo about their fate, many still receiving threats to leave.

I visited Villa União Curicica to meet some of its resilient women and men and witness the "Olympic legacy" on their community.

Gloria stands outside her house next to the empty lot where her neighbors once lived before being evicted. The BRT looms in the background. Sewage from a nearby hospital spills into the stream in her front yard, and her mother can no longer live with the family since the replacement bridge is unsafe.

Rosa and her husband Daniel stand in the space connected to their home that once housed their tailoring business. Authorities marked the outside as an area that was to be vacated and destroyed, so the couple had to relocate the business for fear of losing it. According to David Robertson of Catalytic Communities, favela citizens are unfairly stereotyped as being lazy and a detriment to society. Rosa and Daniel employed 20 community members and are well-respected in the neighborhood

Children play on a small playground in Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House, My Life), one of the public housing projects where residents of Villa União Curicica were relocated. Their parents gather around the water tower in the background. It's a tightly gated residence with prison-like buildings and little to no communal space.

Josephina, a 25-year resident of the community, feels ashamed of the wobbly bridge the city put up in front of her house. Like many, she received promises of upgrades from officials (like a garage), which were never fulfilled.

The close proximity of the BRT to favela homes has caused crime, health, and safety issues and concerns, most of which have not been addressed or remedied.

Boys playing under the BRT, which cuts directly through the Villa União Curicica community will connect various Olympic venues and will make it faster for attendees and athletes to travel back and forth. Some residents call it the "Berlin Wall."

Tania, who lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with her parents and two daughters, talks to neighbors about mice problems through a makeshift window in a public housing unit. She was also told public housing would be free—until she received a 75,000 (Brazilian Reals) bill in the mail. "Many here choose between eating or paying the bills," she said.

Tania's elderly mother has relocated to public housing with her. While many consider the favelas to be slums, families spend years building up their homes into decent-sized, functional, and comfortable spaces.