Olympics, World Cup preparation bring evictions
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Like most Brazilians, Evandro dos Santos' devotion to soccer borders on the religious. Even when he wasn't watching a game, he loved hearing the roar of the crowd in nearby Maracana stadium — this nation's temple to the sport.
But Santos says he'll never set foot in the place again.
Rio de Janeiro is giving the stadium's neighborhood a $63.2 million facelift as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Maracana will be the jewel crowning both events, with the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the final World Cup match held within its storied blue and gray walls.
The shantytown where Santos has lived with his family for 19 years, known as Favela do Metro, does not fit in that picture. It's being bulldozed; hundreds of families have been bought out as part of a "revitalization" process for the big events and the hordes of foreigners they will draw.
"They're destroying our neighborhood for a game," Santos said, standing in the convenience store and bar he runs in the front of his family's house.
All across Rio, people are being pushed out of their homes in dozens of communities like Metro to make way for new roads, Olympic venues and other projects.
Jorge Bittar, head of Rio's housing authority, said Friday that about 15,000 families have been resettled in Rio the past three years. He said the majority of those were families displaced by landslides or floods as well as families moved out of areas at risk.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that in 2010 alone, the municipal housing authority made 6,927 payments for resettlement costs, rent supplements or buy-outs to people in 88 communities across Rio.
Nationwide, about 170,000 people are facing threats to their housing, or already have been removed, in the 12 cities that will host World Cup matches, according to the Coalition of Popular Committees for the World Cup and the Olympics, an advocacy group for residents of the affected shantytowns.
The evictions in Rio de Janeiro are similar to those in other cities that hosted the Games and World Cup, although in a smaller scale.
Before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, rights groups said 720,000 people were forcibly displaced. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, some activists said more than 1 million people were forced from their homes to make way for the new venues built, and some protesters were jailed.
In Rio, the city housing authority and the international and local Olympic organizing committees say all is being done according to the law. Bittar said no one is being forced to move and the families largely are being offered better housing than they have now.
Residents, advocates and legal authorities disagree. They say rights are being abused in the process, and warn that could be the legacy of the Olympics and World Cup.
Bittar said each family is being informed the value of their property, and then offered a choice from several options: a home in a federal housing project in the place of their choosing, a stipend of up to $230 a month to rent a home they find themselves, compensation for their house, or assistance in purchasing another house.
The International Olympic Committee and Rio 2016, the local organizing committee, said in a statement that they're following the resettlement issue closely. "No families are leaving their homes without an agreement signed with the city or compensation and a move-out deadline established according to the law," their statement said.
Residents of Metro and lawyers tell a different story.
Standing in the bar he runs in the shantytown, Santos gestured at the layer of bricks, twisted metal and broken plaster that surrounds his home. Across the street, next door, even on the floor above, homes have been demolished. Children play in the debris, which has been piling up since demolitions started in early 2009. Other homes are tagged in blue with the letters SMH — the initials of the municipal housing authority. That means they're next.
The residents of Metro don't know for sure what's in store for the slum. The housing authority's press statement said only the "area around the stadium will be totally revitalized."
On Friday, Bittar showed an AP reporter an architectural rendering that he said was the plan for redeveloping the area. A line of ramshackle auto mechanic shops on Metro's outer edge has become a tidy set of shops with space where cars can be serviced without blocking traffic. Abandoned warehouses have been converted to workshops. All the homes are gone, their residents moved to nearby housing projects that Bittar says should be ready in the next month or two.
"We are giving these people dignified living conditions," he said, adding that he went to the shantytown himself to talk with its people.
Santos and others remember things differently. The city's initial approach was truculent, they say. City workers told them they had no rights to the land, and "didn't even own the walls of their homes," Santos said.
Metro, established in the 1970s by railroad workers building an adjacent rail line, is one of thousands of communities across Latin America created as workers from the countryside moved to cities and threw up precarious shantytowns on vacant land. Brazilian law gives property rights to residents who peacefully occupy land.
With preparations starting for the Olympics and World Cup, Metro's residents initially were offered government-built housing in a working-class suburb 45 miles away, with poor access to transportation and jobs. About 100 families accepted, under duress. Another 100 or so took the offer that followed: resettlement in a closer housing project.
About 270 families are resisting the move, said the Metro residents association president, Francicleide Souza.
"We are living in fear and uncertainty," Souza said. "We don't know what will happen to our families tomorrow."
Compensation paid per home for Rio's removals in 2010 averaged $16,000. The amount varies according to the size and quality of a structure.
The money offered is not nearly enough to find another home in Rio, said Eliomar Coelho, a city councilman heading an investigation into removals. Market studies say Rio's real estate is now among the most expensive in the Americas.
"If you're going to take someone out of their home, you have to provide them with an alternative that is equal or better," Coelho said.
Alexandre Mendes, until recently head of the housing rights unit of the Rio state public defenders office, contends the relocation process is riddled with illegalities.
"Many of these removals did not respect principles and rights considered basic in local and international law," he said.
There are dozens of pending cases charging irregularities during the past three years, Mendes said. He said abuses include pulling families from homes at night while a bulldozer stood by to start demolition, forcing families to move to distant housing projects, and paying those who chose financial compensation little for their homes.
In the case of the Restinga slum, which made way for the new Transoeste highway across Rio's west side, Mendes was awakened by residents' calls in the middle of the night. It was just before Christmas 2010, he said. He got there at 2:30 a.m. and saw heavy machinery tearing down houses. If people refused to leave, walls were knocked down with them still inside, he said.
"The brutality of that moment, I can describe because I was there and I saw it," he said.
Metro's people have heard about such things, and their anxieties are making them cling to what they have.
Santos is pinning his hopes on a rumor that of the community's 126 businesses, 40 will remain. Maybe he'll be one of the 40.
"I have built something here — a house, a business," Santos said. "That's what I want. Not a gift, not charity. I want to keep on working and earning my money and feeding my family."