Is the mass relocation of Brazilian families out of slums in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo aimed at improving their lives and protecting them from danger or meant to pretty the country’s face before it hosts the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later?
That’s a question increasingly facing Brazilian officials, who have acknowledged, according to the Associated Press, that the government has relocated more than 15,000 families from favelas across the country. By the time the Olympics arrive, that number could rise to more than 100,000, and while a small number — fewer than 300 — will be relocated to make way for Rio’s Olympic Village, the government maintains that the vast majority are being moved out of dangerous and disaster-prone areas. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International, however, dispute those claims, saying that Brazil is moving families to places where they are worse off and doing so without proper compensation, the AP reports:
City officials have in the past acknowledged that some 15,000 families were resettled, but insist the moves were done to remove people from areas prone to deadly mudslides and had nothing do with the World Cup or Olympics. The office of Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes confirmed that in a statement, saying it “is not and will not carry out any resettlements” connected to the World Cup.
Amnesty International Brazil paints a different picture, saying 19,200 families in and round Rio have been pushed out of their homes since 2009. An advocacy group for affected slum residents called the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics estimates that 100,000 have or will be moved.
Brazil has enacted major public policy initiatives to help its poorest residents in recent years, and improving life in the favelas is a worthy goal too. But it seems obvious that pre-World Cup and Olympic efforts to relocate Brazilians and clean up the slums aren’t aimed at helping the poor but instead at putting on the right show for the world. Many of the evictions are creating room for infrastructure projects meant to serve the World Cup and Olympics — one Rio favela, as Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has reported, will soon be demolished to make room for a parking lot at the Maracanã, the iconic Rio soccer stadium that will host the World Cup final. Brazilian officials have admitted that others will make space for new redevelopment zones that include shopping malls and cinemas.
In some instances, relocated Brazilians have been offered homes in newly-constructed complexes, but even then many of them are in parts of the city far away from where they work or have lived for most of their lives. The other option, according to accounts, is to accept a lump sum payment that likely won’t cover the cost of renting new homes in Rio’s increasingly expensive housing market. The negative effects of relocation are only worsened by the fact that many of the infrastructure projects meant to improve life in the favelas and serve poor Brazilians have been delayed or canceled as the country rushes to complete stadiums instead.
And then there’s pacification, the ambitious government plan aimed at reclaiming control of the slums from drug gangs and other organized groups. While the government touts that some of pacification’s effects have been positive — it says the program has reduced crime and improved living conditions in some favelas — it has undoubtedly come with major costs and concerns, not least of which is the massive police presence that has accompanied it. Amnesty International has highlighted the downsides of pacification, saying that the police have treated favela-dwellers writ large as suspects, “engag[ing] in arbitrary frisks without cause” and raiding homes without warrants. In some instances, the organization wrote, the pacification program has worsened crime rather than improved it. Widespread police brutality and overreach was one of the major complaints raised last summer in the massive protests that swept the country, during which the case of Amarildo de Souza, who disappeared from a Rio favela and whose death was later blamed on police, rose to prominence.
Meanwhile, as the World Cup approaches and poor families are forced to leave, many favelas are now opening up to tourists who either can’t afford expensive Rio hotels or are searching for the “authentic culture” of “the real Rio de Janeiro.” The controversies around relocation and pacification, however, should force questions to organizers and government officials alike about whether that authentic Brazil should be one in which the poorest residents will continue to feel the negative effects brought on by these sporting events long after those tourists are gone.