Posted from Brazil, where WITNESS attended the Seminar

Megaevents: Urban Impacts and Human Rights Violations” as a part of our global campaign on Forced Evictions in the name of Development.

For the past 20 years, the roughly 450 families that live in Vila Autódromo, a low-income community in western Rio de Janeiro, have been fighting off eviction.

First, in the early 90s, they were told they had to leave because they posed “environmental and aesthetic harm” to the city of Rio and because they had built their homes on environmentally protected lands.  This was right around the time that high luxury buildings started emerging in the surrounding Barra da Tijuca neighborhood.

Next, after a period of heavy rain and flooding, they were told they had to leave because they had built their homes on environmentally hazardous lands.

Maria da Penha and her children on the remnants of their home – Rio/2007 {Marcelo Salles/Fazendo Media}

Then, they were told they had to leave to make way for the infrastructure the city was building to host the Pan-American Games in 2007.

Each time, Vila Autódromo fought back – with legal recourses, community mobilization, protests. So far, these families have been able to stay in their homes.

Other communities – including families from urban slums in Rio like Canal do Anil and Canal do Cortado – were not as fortunate, facing armed riot police and bulldozers in violent forceful evictions carried out in 2007 in complete disregard of local and domestic legislation including the Brazilian Constitution and The City Statute of Brazil.

And just last year, Vila Autódromo learned that it is, once again, on a list of communities set for removal.  This time, to make room for stadiums and other sports facilities that Rio plans to build in order to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

So Vila Autódromo is fighting once more.  This video by our friends at CatComm tells the story:

Unfortunately, the story of Vila Autódromo is not unique.

Earlier this month in São Paulo, more than 100 people from across Brazil came together in a 2-day seminar and strategy session focused on the urban impacts and human rights violations that are already happening – and are likely to increase – as a result of the megaevents Brazil is hosting in the coming years (which include not only the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but the Military World Games in 2011, the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012, and the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013). Organized by the students from the Right to the City research group of the University of São Paulo Law School and by the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, the seminar ended with a rallying call for nation-wide mobilization to ensure that all rights are protected in preparing for these megaevents (see videos and pictures from the seminar here).

The forced removal of poor communities and urban slums to make way for more lucrative types of real estate and development on coveted city lands is not a new phenomenon in Brazil, nor is it exclusive to sports megaevents.  However, megaevents in general – and sports megaevents in particular – present a uniquely complex and challenging set of conditions.  Here are some of them:

Challenge #1: Love for football vs the rights of the poor

“How you can one be against the World Cup in Brazil, the country of football?” The question was posed to me by a taxi driver in Rio.  As you may have heard, football is really popular in Brazil. As a Brazilian, I too carry that pesky gene that makes my heart race and palms sweat whenever the national team enters the field for a World Cup game.

The fact that the World Cup is being hosted in Brazil again after 60 years is an enormous source of excitement, enthusiasm, patriotism.  On the day the announcement was made, thousands of people gathered in public places like Copacabana beach to watch the broadcast live on enormous screens – the party afterwards lasted for hours.  President Lula and football legend Pelé cried. The euphoria is exacerbated by local authorities and by predominant media outlets like TV Globo, which constantly reiterate the pride and honor of hosting such an event – Rio is finally, as Professor Sassia Sasken would note, a global city!  At first glance, there really is very little room to bring up anything other than that, or at least that’s how it seems.

Challenge #2: ‘States of exception’ to protect the ‘rights’ of games

FIFA and the IOC often require host countries to enact special legislation for the event that can override existing laws and protections by, for example:

  • exempting these international entities from legal liability resulting from the games
  • establishing specific regulations to ensure that only products and services of the event’s corporate sponsors are available throughout the event’s spaces
  • creating so-called “exclusion zones” around the sports facilities in which the city’s residents cannot circulate
  • banning public protests or demonstrations in and around the event

Journalists covering the event are also required to “refrain from damaging the image” [of FIFA and the Olympics].  This exceptional legal framework often allows governments and private entities to get away with abuses of power that would normally be punishable by the host country’s existing laws and policies.

Like forced evictions. More than 1.25 million people were uprooted from their homes in Beijing to make way for the 2008 Olympic Games – roughly 10% of the city’s total population!  The same happened in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  And even more recently, in India, the Commonwealth Games displaced roughly 250,000 people from their homes, according to the Housing and Land Rights Network. Most affected are poor communities, women, ethnic minorities, and other groups with a history of systematic exclusion and discrimination.

Challenge #3: Megaevents and public resources: socializing costs, privatizing benefits

It is the rule, not the exception, that megaevents cost a lot of money.  Often, they’re financed with public money (despite government promises to the contrary) and, too often, they go over budget.  For the 2007 Pan-American Games, for example, the total budget estimate the city of Rio was projecting in the selection stage was R$ 390 million (USD $203 million).  The event ended up costing R$ 3.58 billion (USD $2.08 billion), a 1000% increase that was financed primarily with government resources.

For the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, despite new promises that new construction and infrastructure for the games would be paid for by the private sector, the Brazilian Socio-Economic Development Bank (BNDES) has already set aside up to R$ 15 billion in credit lines to finance stadiums and other infrastructure for the megaevents (ironically, nearly half of BNDES’ money comes from the FAT, a  compulsory tax on workers’ salaries that is supposed to fund worker assistance programs like unemployment insurance).

In a country where inequality is paramount and the social needs are significant, spending billions on stadiums instead of hospitals or schools is, at minimum, questionable.  A Datafolha poll showed that 57% of Brazilians are against the use of public money for the construction of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.  What ends up happening, as one researcher put it, is the “socializing of the costs [of hosting a megaevent] with the privatizing of the benefits.”

Challenge #4: “But megaevents create jobs and stimulate the economy!”

You will hear this a lot when governments are selling the idea of hosting a megaevent.  However, different studies have shown that, time after time, poor communities rarely benefit – the jobs created are often poor quality, temporary, dangerous.  Communities forcibly evicted usually end up living in worse conditions – farther from the city centers that are home to greater employment options, schools, hospitals.  Meanwhile, the greatest benefactors are the private investors that hold broadcasting rights to the events, other corporate sponsors, construction companies, and real estate developers – sectors whose interests overlap sometimes too comfortably with those of politicians and other publicly elected officials.

Challenge #5: The Right to the City vs. megaevents

The Right to the City calls for:

  • fair and democratic distribution of the city’s spaces and services
  • sustainable management of the city’s natural resources
  • participatory construction of urban processes like planning, budgeting, etc.
  • enjoyment of everyone’s human rights towards collective well-being and social justice

By privileging select economic interests over the rights of low-income communities, megaevents threaten the Right to the City by making urban spaces less accessible to the poor and more exclusive and luxurious to the rich.  Neighborhoods become more expensive, real estate speculation profits, and the poorer segments are pushed farther and farther to the outskirts of the urban perimeters.

Brazilian civil society unites to take on the challenge

One thing is certain: The World Cup and Olympics are happening in Brazil, there is no turning back.  The challenge now is ensuring the full protection of rights in the lead up to the events, as well as during and after.  The challenge is also ensuring that resources spent on these events leave real and tangible positive legacies for the population as a whole, and that the “sharing of the benefits” actually happens for the collective majority and not for a select minority.

No one know yet how many families are at risk of eviction due to the World Cup and Olympics, but social movements, civil society networks and NGOs in Brazil are uniting to monitor these megaevents and call for Zero Evictions in the 12 cities that have already been selected to host games and other related activities – the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, is also adding her voice to the call (for more on the Special Rapporteur’s perspective on this, read this report on megaevents and the right to adequate housing).

How WITNESS fits in

As part of our global campaign on Forced Evictions in the Name of Development, WITNESS is working with the Habitat International Coalition in Latin America and national networks in Brazil to map strategic opportunities for using video for advocacy at the local, national and regional levels in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.  We’ll be posting new updates, videos, and interviews here in the coming months so stay tuned  for more on this campaign.  In the meantime, if you know of examples in which video and other new media tools were used to protect rights during megaevents, let us know in the comments field below!


{For their contributions to this post, a huge thanks to Inalva Mendes Brito from Vila Autódromo, Regina Ferreira and Benedito Barbosa from Fórum Nacional da Reforma Urbana, Lorena Zárate from the Habitat International Coalition, Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik and her amazing team, Orlando Alves dos Santos Junior from Plataforma Dhesca, Erick Omena, Christopher Gaffney, Guilherme Marques (Soninho), Julia Moretti, and all the participants of the “Megaevents: Urban Impacts and Human Rights Violations” Seminar that took place in São Paulo, Brazil, on November 8-9 2010}

11 thoughts on “Brazil: Megaevents and Forced Evictions

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