By Samuel Elliott Novacich, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Few people dispute the fact that the face of Rio de Janeiro is changing, though an increasing number of individuals are quick to argue that many of the changes currently affecting the city are not as Utopian as they seem. On the brink of hosting two major sporting events, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Rio has recently drawn increased international attention, though not the type of focus the city was hoping to receive.
Amnesty International recently joined the growing number of organizations to express concern for human rights as Rio de Janeiro carries forth large scale “urbanization” plans in preparation for the sporting events.
In many parts of Rio de Janeiro, roadworks projects, ranging from the Trans Carioca to the Trans Olimpica and parking, have been blamed for the planned as well as already executed forced removal of partial or entire communities. These communities, almost always on the economic bottom rung of Rio society, are generally located in the Zona Norte (North zone) and Zona Oeste (West zone).
Unfortunately, many communities find themselves in the direct path of development projects meant for the Olympics or World Cup. Salil Shetty, Secrety-General for Amnesty International, states, “Everyone understands perfectly well that some level of movement is inevitable with such an important project, but the question is knowing if a just and fair process is being followed.”
In the Zona Oeste, Vila Autódromo, a small community wedged between Rio de Janeiro’s Formula 1 racetrack and the site of Rock in Rio, has been threatened several times with removal. The community is located directly across from a tract of land the city has designated for construction of the Olympic Village.
Rio de Janeiro based Catalytic Communities, a local watchdog organization, has followed the case since its inception. The organization reports that Vila Autódromo even came so close as to have bulldozers present and ready to destroy homes until the media was alerted, at which point the bulldozers left.
Catalytic Communities Founder Theresa Williamson argues that full removal of the community is not a necessary prerequisite to development of the area, but states that the ultimate goal of her organization is to ensure effective participation of community residents in deciding their own fate.
One of the major critiques of urbanization projects is the relocation of residents to the suburbs, further from where many work. Williamson explains, “The Municipal Law (Lei Orgânica) requires that all relocations take place within a 7 kilometers area. But across Rio we’re seeing the Olympics used as an excuse to disobey well-researched and important local legislation.”
Shetty reemphasizes the problem, reporting that “these people have ended up with houses located 50 kilometers from where they make a living, or with negligible compensation.”
Many residents who face eviction are being relocated to Cosmos, far in the Zona Oeste, where new developments are being built to accommodate large numbers of forced evictions.
In 2008, the Chinese government relocated some 1.5 million people to make way for the Olympics in Beijing. The move caused an outcry from human rights groups, though violations were quickly overshadowed by the games.
Though relocations in Rio de Janeiro do not come close to the scale of those in Beijing, the events leading up to the games will still be decisive in demonstrating Brazil’s regard for human rights as it prepares to put the city on global exhibition.