How a Small Brazilian Community Fought Big Powers and Won
Posted on August 15, 2013 by Priscila Néri
Photo courtesy of Rio On Watch
The celebrations started flooding my Facebook timeline just after noon last Friday. ‘Viva! Viva a Vila! A Vila FICA!!!’ A 20-year fight that so many said was unwinnable. A community that never gave up fighting its own forced eviction. Even with all the odds stacked against them, they were finally hearing that they will stay in their homes, a promise of their rights (finally) honored. A momentous day.
Vila Autódromo, home to 450 families, is a beautiful waterside community in Rio de Janeiro that has faced numerous threats of forced eviction from local authorities throughout the years. Though the official excuses have always changed –environmental reasons, security reasons, development reasons– the real motivation behind forcibly evicting the community was always clear. Simply put, the community lies on valuable land coveted by many powerful people with other plans for what should be done there.
With each new threat of forced eviction, Vila Autódromo fought back, always focusing on strengthening its resistance by first strengthening the community itself. I remember being so touched by meeting some of the local leaders and hearing their stories and determination.
Even still, the most recent threat seemed too daunting for hope. Vila Autódromo learned through media reports that the government was planning its eviction to make way for the Olympic Park, center stage of the 2016 Olympics. With the Brazilian government championing the Games, major global profits at stake and mounting national excitement, the community was more vulnerable than ever. Even some of its most avid supporters would sometimes admit, usually in a hushed whisper, that this time it would be very hard for the Vila to resist. I never dared repeat those words.
But the community marched on– organizing protests, filing legal petitions, taking its fight to other cities, making videos, talking to the media, and engaging a wide range of supporters and allies in its struggle, from social movements to universities to NGOs and activists. WITNESS helped a bit too, inviting Vila Autódromo leaders to video advocacy trainings, helping them document irregularities of the eviction process, pressuring the International Olympic Committee and the UN Human Rights Council, and working with local advocacy networks like Comitê Popular Rio da Copa e Olimpíadas and Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia. We also featured Vila Autódromo as an example to inspire resistance in communities around the world.
Here’s an example of how video was used to strengthen the community’s case – shot from the point-of-view of a resident, the video shows government workers knocking on residents’ doors to collect personal information. When a resident asks if this information will be used to evict the community, the government representative walks away without answering, a clear violation of the community’s rights to information, consultation, and participation in the decision-making process.
In one of the most innovative tactics Vila Autódromo deployed, highlighted in our People Before Profit video, the community partnered with local universities to develop a counter-development-plan to the government’s plan of eviction. In Vila Autódromo’s plan, devised over several months of collaboration with expert urban planners and architects, the community proved it was actually cheaper and more sustainable to keep everyone in their homes and upgrade the community’s infrastructure rather than foot the bill for adequate resettlement. This ‘People’s Development Plan’ for Vila Autódromo became the centerpiece of their resistance and tackled each of the government’s arguments with technically precise counter-arguments and factual evidence.
This past Friday, after a relentless campaign to save Vila Autódromo and increasing protests on the streets of Rio, the mayor saw himself obliged to listen to groups he has historically shunned, and an invitation to meet was extended to our partners. During the meeting, Mayor Paes was handed our partners’ reports and a list of demands, among them the protection of Vila Autódromo and other communities at-risk of eviction. And for the first time, a significant concession: the mayor agreed to take eviction off the table for Vila Autódromo and set up a special commission to discuss the community’s counter-proposal. The shadow of forced eviction has been lifted, which is a major victory for the community and everyone who stood by it over the past several years. Vila Autódromo stays!!!
Much work lies ahead in the new round of negotiations between Vila Autódromo and the municipal government. But today, this is a story with a happy ending. And since we don’t get to tell many of these around here, please share it widely. As many in Rio like to say, borrowing Brecht, nothing should seem impossible to change. Thank you to Vila Autódromo for reminding us of that – though the families from Vila Autódromo may not be rich (in the financial sense of the word), after last week no one can deny their power (in the most beautiful, people sense of the word). Vila Autódromo lives on, Viva a Vila!!!