The Olympic Cleansing Of Rio’s Favelas: Pacified Or Gentrified?

The Olympic Cleansing Of Rio’s Favelas: Pacified Or Gentrified?

By James L. Knobloch August 9, 2016
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Sergio Moraes

The Rio Summer Olympics are officially underway—and already, the usual storylines of triumph and heartbreak are emerging. With the Rio games, though—perhaps more than any game in recent memory—the stories of the athletes must compete with the controversy swirling around the host nation.

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You’ve likely heard most of them already: Zika virus, polluted waters, incomplete venues, and financial woes. But perhaps the most troublesome stories are those surrounding the loss of historic (if impoverished) neighborhoods to make way for the construction of shiny new Olympic venues. Similar to a “ghetto” or “barrio”, these favelas—shantytowns or “settlements of jerry-built shacks lying on the outskirts of a Brazilian city”—found themselves on the chopping block of progress. One such favela, Vila Autodromo, is all but gone; some 20 cinderblock dwellings are all that remains of “a once vibrant working-class community that was home to around 700 families.” In its place stands a bustling multi-lane highway and the new Olympic Park.

To be fair, the Olympics might have greatly exacerbated the issue, but they certainly didn’t create it. Gentrification is something New Yorkers are quite familiar with—from Harlem to Brooklyn, the neighbors (and the rent) have changed significantly. For Vila Autodromo, it first began in 1993.

The 1960’s saw Vila Autodromo existing more or less unbothered as a vibrant fishing village, nestled on the edge of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon. Then, slowly but surely, residents found themselves walled-in by more and more new construction—luxury condos for the upper- and middle-class.

But in 1993, the city began to put the squeeze on Vila Autodromo’s inhabitants to relocate, requesting that they leave their homes and resettle elsewhere. In a Trump-esque move, the city cited environmental protection legislation as the reason, despite the fact that the state had granted the residents use of the land only three years prior.

Photo courtesy of YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP

Then Rio’s Olympic bid came to fruition in 2009.

“[The city of Rio] slowly, persistently intimidated, pressured, and made offers to residents (a combination of those three in all cases)” said Theresa Williamson, “until one after the other families left.” Williamson is the editor of Rio on Watch, a community reporting nonprofit that aims to “bring visibility to favela community voices in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics.”

“This community has been threatened with removal for 26 years, and with the arrival of the Olympics, this threat materialized,” said 51-year-old Maria da Penha, one of the handful of Vila Autodromo’s residents that fought to stay.

And though De Penha, through the activism and legal action, was able to stay, there was little else she could do but watch as the city destroyed Vila Autodromo. As the Olympic pageantry took place just next door, she and her husband moved into the small new dwelling provided for them by the city of Rio, where she and her neighbors’ homes once stood.

“It was a terrible moment. It was very painful. You see all your history on the ground,” Da Penha said. “Your right cannot be sold, and cannot be bought. Why did I want to stay? Because the government didn’t want to respect my right. And my right was to stay on this land.”

For these Olympics, the trials and tribulations of the athletes are only part of the story.


James L. Knobloch

ABOUT THE AUTHOR James L. Knobloch

ABOUT THE AUTHOR James L. Knobloch

A creative professional with a sharp tongue and a big smile, taking on city living one slightly-veiled sarcastic comment at a time. Born and raised just outside of New Orleans, James is a living testament to his own mantra, “Southern hospitality is a privilege, not a right,” giving his work a unique, dry humor meets charm perspective.

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