NYTimes Reports on Forced Evictions in Rio, But Serious Questions Remain

Posted on March 5, 2012 by Priscila Néri

In December, we brought you a Video the Government of Rio de Janeiro Didn’t Want You To See and showed you how our partner activists in Rio were confronting Olympics organizers on the forced evictions of poor communities in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Today, what the Rio government didn’t (and still doesn’t) want you to see became a frontpage story (and video) on the The New York Times.  Noting the roughly 170,000 people at risk of forced evictions throughout Brazil due to upcoming major sporting events, the Times highlighted the resistance by affected communities and their use of “handheld video cameras and social media to get their messages across” in an environment where “favela residents often do not learn their homes could be razed until they are literally marked for removal.”

This article is an important spotlight for the communities fighting evictions on the ground, many of whom have taken significant personal risk to speak up and demand accountability from local authorities.

It’s probably also a major PR problem for Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes.  Just last week, he was being honored on the glamorous #TED2012 stage in California as a visionary leader offering his very own commandments for healthy cities.  Not surprisingly, the stories of the families facing forced evictions didn’t make it into his presentation.  Now, the world’s most influential newspaper is exposing the violations happening on Paes’ watch.

On the homefront, Paes has designated Rio’s Housing Secretary, Jorge Bittar, as the key spokesperson for this uncomfortable issue. Bittar’s strategy for dealing with the issue of forced evictions has been two-fold:

1) Repeat, repeat, repeat: Forced and unlawful evictions are not happening in Rio.  

This line of defense completely ignores the many reports and videos made not only by our partners in Brazil, but by human rights groupsUN experts, and international media on communities affected by forced evictions in Rio.

It ignores the stories of Michel, Antonieta (at 1:20min of this video) and Eomar and the thousands of other families who’ve had their rights (to housing, information, participation, consultation, security, due process) trampled as the local government rushes to complete the promised construction projects in time for the games.

I have personally visited many of these communities with our partners in Brazil and heard many stories firsthand – they are not isolated incidents, but rather emblematic of a systematic approach to clearing land in which the local authorities demolish first, and then think about what to do with the families who’ve lost their homes later.

2) Stick to the mantra: “…No one is resettled if not for a very important reason.” (Also known as: everything is being done within the confines of the law; note the use of the word “resettled” instead of “evicted” to minimize the sensation of human rights violations.)

This is a curious assertion considering that, in so many cases, no one really knows what these “important reasons” are because the local government fails to provide proper information to residents about what’s happening.  Often, lawyers have to go to court just to demand blueprints or any kind of documentation of the kind of development being planned for a specific piece of land.  Although the human rights framework stipulates that development projects should presented at the start of any conversation about needing to resettle a community, it just doesn’t happen.

Take the Vila Autódromo community, for example, one of the communities featured in the NY Times video.  With every new interview, Bittar offers a new line about why this 60+yr-old community needs to be removed.  Last year, in a meeting with residents, Bittar said they needed to leave “because of a (previously made) commitment between Brazil’s federal government and the International Olympic Committee.”  Then, in today’s NY Times article, he says Vila Autódromo must go because there is “absolutely no infrastructure and the roads are made of dirt.”

Because the roads are made of dirt?!  I know what you’re asking yourself: instead of paying millions to relocate an entire community of 1,000 residents, wouldn’t it be cheaper, more effective, and more fair to just pave the roads?  Not if you plan on giving that land more profitable uses (like luxury real estate condos or hotels) in the near future…

This pattern of conflicting explanations and lack of information is not new.  The New York Times‘ piece sheds light on many critical perspectives that make this point quite eloquently.  But there is still much left unanswered.

What still needs to be asked of the government of Rio

If I were a reporter in Brazil today, here are the follow-up questions I wish I could ask Bittar and Mayor Paes:

1) Do you continue to denydespite existing reports, court documents, videos - that human rights violations were committed by Rio city workers in the forced evictions of communities like Restinga, Vila Recreio 2, Favela do Metrô, Vila HarmoniaLargo do Campinho, and others?  What is being done to remedy the situation of these families?

2) If all is being done within in the confines of the law, as you say, why can’t you substantiate your claims and release a complete list of threatened communities, as well as names, compensation values, and resettlement locations of all of the families that have already been evicted since 2009?

3) The pattern of evictions in Rio has been to “demolish first, figure out resettlement later”.  Until then, the R$400 “aluguel social” subsidy isn’t enough for families to maintain their standard of living.  The UN’s Raquel Rolnik has advocated for resettlement based on a “key for a key” model, in which no family would be evicted before having participated and agreed to a resettlement; every exchange would involve trading an old key for a new one.  Can you cite a single example where the affected community had their resettlement completely finalized before their homes were destroyed?

4) In Favela do Metrô, families have been living amidst hazardous rubble for more than one year in what looks like a war zone – how can you justify partially demolishing communities when there are still families living there?  What will the city do to immediately remedy the situation in Metrô and can you commit to stopping the practice of partial demolitions until all residents have been properly resettled from a given community?

Stay tuned…

I look forward to hearing answers to these questions and am excited about the spark of local media this NY Times piece will surely bring about in the Brazilian press.

To learn more about forced evictions in Brazil, browse though these posts on our blog and support the national coalition of activist groups in Brazil that are coming together to defend human rights in the lead up to the Olympics and World Cup.

Importantly, help us keep the pressure on the International Olympic Committee to take a firmer pro-human rights stand and stay tuned for more as the campaign marches onward!

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