Authorities Face Fight by Favela Residents in Rio for 2016 Olympics
City officials want the entire community moved to a nearby housing complex -- but the 3,000 inhabitants of the slum, which lacks running water and schools, refuse to abandon their homes.
Rio de Janeiro is going through growing pains as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup, and especially the Summer Olympics in four years. Authorities are cracking down on crime, upgrading boulevards, and cleaning up notorious shanty towns, known in Brazil as favelas.
Officials' eyes have long been focused on the Vila Autodromo favela, located on the Jacarepagua lagoon in the western Barra de Tijuca district.
Pedro Paulo Franklin, a retired firefighter who lives with his wife, daughters and grand-daughters in Vila Autodromo, has no intention of moving.
"The eviction is totally absurd. God gave us this little corner of paradise," the 71-year-old retiree said as he proudly showed his fig, coconut, acerola and papaya trees.
"We built it with our own hands, with much sweat, effort, dedication and love," he told AFP.
Vila Autodromo residents say they have a so-called "right of possession," which entitles them to occupy the land on which they live. But for the past 20 years city authorities have tried to evict them under various pretexts.
"Our government wants to act like Robin Hood, but the other way around: take from the poor to give to the rich," said Altair Guimaraes, president of the Vila Autodromo residents' association.
"I have no intention of leaving. I intend to resist in every possible way, because, by right, this land is ours and I have been living here for the past 17 years," he said.
"I don't understand much because I can't read nor write," said 70-year-old Antonia Henrique Macena. "But we have been here for so many years. Why don't they leave us alone in our little corner? Where are they going to put us, for Christ's sake?" he asked.
The Olympic village project being developed by the British firm AECOM would leave the community intact, but authorities say residents need to be evicted to make way for the new highway.
In an attempt to avoid eviction, Vila Autodromo residents last year asked urban planners from two Rio universities to come up with an alternative.
Guimaraes and other residents delivered the plan, which included paved streets, sanitation, a school and a nursery, to Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes on August 16.
Rio authorities want the residents evicted "because the community is located in an area of intense real estate appreciation," said Carlos Vainer, an urban planner at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University and one of the blueprint authors.
The proposal "is better than the brutal alternative of eviction and social segregation proposed by City Hall," Vainer said.
Residents estimate their proposal would cost $7 million, half the cost of evicting and moving the community.
Vainer said there is no need for the planned "Transolimpica" expressway to run through the favela.
"If one looks at the works project, one can see that the expressway is a straight line that makes a detour to cross the community, to give a new pretext for expulsion," he said.
Mayor Paes, who is up for re-election in October, has vowed to act within the law and promised to study Vila Autodromo's proposal.
Asked about their plans, a City Hall spokesperson said that they want to evict the residents because "two thirds of the community is located in an environmental preservation area," and because most residents "don't have access to basic sanitation and live in precarious and unhealthy conditions."
"There will be no expulsion without an alternative solution," Paes told reporters last week. "City Hall acquired land some 500 meters away from the site and will build low-cost housing."
According to the mayor, "Rio always has troublemakers, people who oppose projects -- that's why progress in the city has been stalled for so long."
The World Cup and Olympics People's Committee (CPCO), an activist network opposed to forced removals, claims that some 22,000 people in Rio, population six million, live in fear of losing their homes.
Some 8,000 people have already been evicted to make way for construction related to the two mega sporting events, according to the group's figures.
"Vila Autodromo is a symbol but this is happening throughout the city," said Renato Cosentino, an official with the activists.