Embattled residents of Vila Autódromo resist development
RIO DE JANEIRO -- It didn’t take Inalva Mendes Brito long to react when she got the word at a meeting in a cramped government office here that the home and neighborhood she has occupied for the past 30 years would have to come down to make room for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“No to Injustice, Yes to Vila Autódromo,” declared a sign she unraveled with her husband as soon as a crowd had gathered.
Brito, a 65-year-old schoolteacher, and her husband, Elias Serafim, are among the thousands residents of Vila Autódromo and other neighborhoods like it throughout this sprawling city who are being asked to sacrifice their homes to accommodate Olympic facilities and related infrastructure for the 2016 summer games.
Widely regarded in Rio and throughout Brazil as an opportunity for this booming country to assert itself on the world stage, the Olympics will carry a cost that will be measured not only in money but also the uprooting of decades old communities, of homes lost and family and friends scattered.
“The land doesn't belong to just a few people," says Brito. "Land belongs to everyone, especially those of us who are working and built on this area and who stayed in the city and took care of this land. And now we are going to pay the cost of the Olympic games? The cost of this should not be our houses."
That cost might be particularly hard on Brito’s community, Vila Autódromo, known in Rio as a favela, or shantytown, that occupies a choice site on a lagoon. Favelas are infamous in Rio and beyond for their poverty, drug gangs, violence and slums. But not all favelas fit the stereotype.
Vila Autódromo is home to 4,000 people, many employed, many small business people, many who live in modest homes with small gardens that would not be out of place in one of Rio’s middle class neighborhoods.
What makes Vila Autódromo a favela is the fact that it is not served by public utilities and that is was founded by squatters.
On a recent visit, little girls played on chalk drawn hopscotch courts while teenage boys congregated on porches. Televisions and computer monitors, albeit clunky and outdated, were seen in many homes, and refrigerators were stocked with homegrown produce and self-caught fish.
"Life here is very calm," says Wanessa Christine Quintiano, 17. "It's a very nice place to live. There are no fights."
Even so, life in Vila Autódromo has its special challenges, like the constant fear of being uprooted, particularly evident these days.
"We understand that with these issues, we may not ever see each other again," says Quintiano, as she cradles her 20-month-old cousin Ana Clara in her arms. "You don't know where you're going to go. You don't know if your school is going to be the same. We are used to being here. Here I know exactly where I am. If I go left, I know who is there. If I go right, I know who is there."
For almost two decades now, the plight of the residents of Vila Autódromo has been uncertain.
Back in 1992, they were told they needed to move because their homes were an environmental risk. Then, more recently, the city expressed interest in taking over the area for the Pan American Games in 2007, hoping to show the world what it could do given the opportunity to host the Olympics.
Somehow, by mobilizing and enlisting the support of civil society organizations, the residents of Vila Autódromo were able to foil these attempts to evict them from their homes.
When Brazil was awarded the 2016 Games, many favela residents were conflicted.
"I was happy in a way because I knew with the World Cup also coming in, it would give me a lot more work because I am in construction," says Antonio Carlos, 37, who makes doors, windows, shower stalls and mirrors at his workshop in Vila Autódromo. "But I also think they are going to do everything they can to take us out of here."
Brito maintains that the city keeps changing its story as to why they now need to move. Originally, they were told their land had been designated as a press center for the Olympics. Then they were told it was to be part of the security perimeter for the Games. Most recently, they were told that their neighborhood is blocking the path of a new highway meant to accommodate visitors to the Olympic games.
The residents of Vila Autódromo have since been given the option to accept compensation payment from the city in exchange for their land or be relocated to other housing projects.
"The money the city government is offering us is so little and not enough to buy anything around here because it is very little compared to the property value," says Carlos. "The big construction companies know that. They have personal interests and want to take us away because they realize this has become a valuable area. That's how it works."
The area surrounding Vila Autódromo is already considered prime real estate in Brazil, where housing demand far outstrips supply. A drive through the area, which at times resembles a miniature Miami, reveals an aquatic facility under construction and Olympic banners designating areas for future development.
AECOM, the British architecture and design firm that came up with the master plan for the Olympic Park, plans a massive redevelopment of the area so that it can host 15 Olympic sporting events and house 20,000 journalists. After the games, the facilities will be used to train promising young athletes.
Representatives of the 2016 Games say that relocation for many of these residents is a good thing. "Most of the relocations in the city aim at removing families who live in risk areas and at the time of the works required to improve city infrastructure," according to the 2016 Olympic Games website. "Where necessary, in order to avoid any losses to dwellers, the relocation is carried out by common agreement with the families. All the relocations will be coordinated by Rio City Hall Municipal Secretariat of Housing. Not a single family will leave their home without an agreement signed with City Hall."
Not everyone is reassured.
"All my friends live here and they grew up with me," Quintiano says pointing at the neighboring buildings. "There's cousins in all of these houses and all of my family lives here. I grew up with all of my friends here."
City officials have insisted that residents will be relocated to a better place, but a visit to a plot a few miles away where the city originally planned to relocate them suggests why they were dead set against the move.
A stream of open sewage full of discarded newspapers and debris lines the road separating the new neighborhood from the adjacent one, whose residents don't seem very welcoming either,
"We don't want that," says Izaias Rosa, a painter from the adjacent neighborhood, referring to the possibility that residents of Vila Autódromo will move in. "They are a favela and this area is not a favela. This is a place where people sleep with their doors open, and if they send the favela here, that is dangerous."
The mayor shelved this particular relocation option, following reports that the tender requirement for launching the project had not been fulfilled. It was also deemed an area at risk for mudslides.
But it is not only the garbage and stench that concerned residents of Vila Autódromo: They also weren't thrilled with the idea of having to pay for water and other utilities.
"I am thinking about where I'm going to go next," says Therezinha Barbosa, 75, whose three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren visit her often in Vila Autódromo. "There is no money to pay for the house if we go elsewhere. At my age, I'm not going to earn more or make new neighbors and new friends. Where am I going to go?"
All this uncertainty has the residents of Vila Autódromo very much on edge.
"We live here, we work here, and we depend on the people around here to be able to work," says Carlos. "We are neighbors and we are desperate. We are very hopeless. Every night we go to sleep thinking about removals. We wake up thinking about removals."
Still, like many Brazilians, he is also reaping the benefits of having his country host such a huge event. An estimated 120,000 jobs are expected to be created each year up until 2016 because of the Games, and Rio 2016 officials say the games are expected to contribute $51.1 billion to the national economy.
For Brito, who has lived in Vila Autódromo for 30 years, the fight continues.
"We will keep demanding our rights," she say, proudly displaying her collections of Portuguese VHS versions of resistance movies, among them "Braveheart," "Amistad" and "Schindler's List." "We are organizing each day more to show that we are against the consensus of the city government."
Despite everything, she and her husband remain upbeat that they will stay in their home with their two dogs for a long time.
"There have already been a lot of attempts and we are still here today and still resisting," Serafim says. "The struggle will go on until the very last minute, but I'm still hopeful we are going to stay here. "