Before returning to the favela Vila Autódromo for the first time since 2012, I had already been told that the community would not look the same. As a friend said to me, “It will resemble a perfect smile with several teeth knocked out.” Vila Autódromo is situated just yards away from the site of the 2016 Rio Olympic village, and Olympic planners as well as construction interests have long targeted this close-knit community for demolition. Located on an achingly beautiful lake, where glittering new high-rise condominiums have sprouted “seemingly overnight”, the city’s business and political leaders see prime real estate, with pesky favelados in the way of their development dreams.
Despite a fierce resistance to their removal that has stymied the efforts of Olympic planners, I had heard before arriving that 150 of the 500 families living in Vila Autódromo had left. I expected many of their homes, places I had visited, to now be piles of rubble. What I did not expect was the absence of trees.
Majestic trees punctuated the Vila Autódromo I remember. They were the shade and the breeze for residents. It was where you listened to music, argued, laughed and watched your children safely run the streets. Yet in an effort to coax residents to accept a cash payout and leave, the city has uprooted and torn out many of the trees. The city has also, according to residents, slowed garbage pickup and kept streetlights sporadically turned off at night. They cannot legally just evict people from their homes if they want to remain. But they can make life uninhabitable for those who stay.
“It’s a psychological attack…a perverse strategy to weaken community and weaken our resolve,” said Jane Nascimiento from the Vila Autódromo Neighborhood Association, the group that has led the favela’s resistance.
The situation in Vila, once imbued by a great deal of hope that the city would back down from its constant pressure to remove residents, has become grim. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes—and the real estate interests that back him—has engaged in a remorseless battle of attrition. “It was a beautiful community,” Jane says, “but it’s becoming uglier as they remove the trees.” She continues, “We leaders—directors of Neighborhood Association—have fought our own depression, but we can’t show it for fear of spreading depression to those who remain.”
Unable by law to move the people out by force, the city has turned neighbors of this tight-knit community against one another, as they have been doing in neighborhoods across Rio where people resist the city’s development efforts. First they offered larger payouts for those who would willingly leave—but only if they could convince two other families to pack up and go as well. This pyramid scheme of people’s lives embittered those leaving against the holdouts. As a resident named Francisco said, “I’ve lost friends because I wouldn’t leave. Many of them left the community, but I lost their friendship before they left because I was keeping them from getting the extra money. [These tactics make us feel] either angry or ashamed.”
The city also said—falsely—that an injunction against demolitions won by the Neighborhood Association prevented them from providing payouts to those who wanted to depart. All of a sudden, the Neighborhood Association, which has provided leadership and strength through several difficult years, became an enemy for a minority of residents. A rock was even thrown through their window.
I spoke to another resident, Osimar, who was offered public housing and a great deal of money to vacate. One small problem: he doesn’t want to leave. “The government has money earmarked for favela communities but instead of using them to pave roads, or to provide schools and medical clinics, it goes to the demolition and construction crews. On the other side of the lagoon, in Santa Monica, a condo sells for BRL 6 million ($3 million US). This is why they want us gone…. The flag says ‘order and progress.’ But we are not given ‘order and progress’. We are being given ‘speculation and real estate.’”
There is something very precious in the favelas that is becoming endangered by the worship of “speculation and real estate”, not to mention the mega-events that fuel speculation and real estate beyond Odebrecht’s most fevered dreams. One should never minimize the very real poverty, lack of services and other challenges faced by the favelas. But those concerns should not blind us to the community, care, and vibrant culture that emerge from the narrow streets, and makeshift cafés. Hundreds in Vila Autódromo want to stay. They are fighting not only for their community but also for favela culture, and against the gleaming, charmless high-rise gentrification springing up all around them. They are fighting against those who aim to bury the favelas—one World Cup, one Olympics and one demolition at a time.