by Erika Kreeger, ’15
One of my greatest disappointments for 2012 will be not having been able to watch the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Not only was it a great spectacle, I heard, but I’ve always been fond of the Olympics, and the grandeur that is associated with them. Although I have many problems with globalization, I feel like there’s something to be said for a majority of human nations coming together in a friendly, non-political manner. It builds a sense of solidarity amongst the different populations of our species.
Probably my greatest disappointment of 2012, though, was deciding that I would not attend the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As I am planning on either studying or living in Minas Gerais, Brazil, while both of these events take place, I had these grand plans of going to watch soccer games, see the attractive divers and swimmers race, and hang with my family, who’d try to fly out for one of the events. But after learning of the awful human rights violations occurring in Rio in preparation for both these large events, I can’t in good conscience let myself take part in them.
First, a little back-story. Around 22%, or 1.2 million, of cariocas, the colloquial name for the people of Rio, live in favelas, poor shantytowns, mostly located in the west and north of Rio. 70% of the favela residents are afrodescendentes or non-white. The first favela was created in 1897 by northeasterners, mostly former slaves, who fought in the Canudos Wars and were promised land in Rio, then the capitol of Brazil. When they arrived there, there was no land for them, so, after much outcry, one of the generals in Rio allowed them to occupy some of his land in the mountains outside of the colonized parts of Rio. This was the first favela, Morro da Providência. From Morro da Providência, over a thousand other favelas developed in Rio alone.
It should also be noted that favelas are not slums. The word slum connotes squalor, pestilence, filth, poor sanitation and sub-basic housing conditions, among other things. A favela, on the other hand, is simply an impoverished neighborhood that developed within a larger city in an untraditional manner during the last century, generally unregulated by city officials. The infrastructure is almost always basic and less modern, but recent studies have shown that, at least in some favelas, these houses are, if not spacious, then comfortable, and safe from mudslides and an array of other natural hazards. Contrary to public perception, only about 36% of favelas contain drug trafficking, and only 2% of the people who live in favelas with drug trafficking are actually involved in it.
Rio is under a lot of pressure in light of the World Cup and the Olympics to perform perfectly- they are the first city in Latin America to host the Olympics. And Rio sees the favelas and the favelados as an embarrassing stain on their record that needs to be eliminated if the city, and Brazil, wants to be taken seriously as a major world power. Rather than working with the residents of the favelas to ameliorate massive poverty and unequal access to education, jobs and resources, and in certain cases to overthrow the drug lords, the city of Rio is simply removing hundreds of thousands of the residents of the favelas nearest to the Olympic sites and pushing them to the outskirts of the town to newly constructed apartments, 2 hours away from the center of the city.
In Mêtro-Mangueira, for example, the city has removed over half of the residents, and hopes to remove them all soon so they can start construction projects that can ‘benefit the city and its residents.’ The city say they plan to build a new, community space, but most people believe that the city will instead construct a parking garage for the nearby soccer stadium and centerpiece of both upcoming events, o Estádio Maracanã. 
The manner in which Rio goes about evicting its own citizens is absolutely appalling. Rather than holding any community forums or meetings, or at least circulating plans of the impending projects, the city uses a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy, reminiscent of favela removals during the dictatorships of the 60s through 80s, to take over favelas. When a house is planned to be demolished, the Secretária Municipal de Habitação comes to the house and spray paints on it the initials SMH and an identification number and, if a resident is home, gives them a written notice of the eviction. The resident can then either accept a meager compensation or relocate to new apartments 2 hours away from the center of the city. It should be noted that in Brazil, if you live in a place for 5 year, you have legal rights to that space. Most favela houses are generational, so a significant number do not have proper housing documentation, despite legal rights to the homes. If the resident refuses to leave, the city makes their life a living nightmare. As most residents leave, too scared or unable to fight the city, the city goes ahead and destroys the houses in the favela of residents who have already left. In the case of Mêtro-Mangueira, the city even turned off the water and electricity. Heroin and cocaine addicts are living in the rubble, and the favela has become infested with mice, making it inhospitable for the nearly 300 residents who are trying desperately to preserve their community and their history.
As if this weren’t enough, the problem of forced removals in favelas afflicts many parts of Brazil, with activists estimating 170,000 people in favelas being removed or dislocated in preparation for the Olympics and World Cup. A repeated theme in all of my research is that the residents of favelas, about 5-6% of Brazil’s total population, lack equal access to justice. All cities will have to do is say that the favela is located on dangerous ground, or that the houses are too cramped, or that the infrastructure is too basic, and in most cases, the citizens of the favelas will give in to the all-powerful cities or states who demand their eviction to, as they might put it, make the residents lives better.  And Rio originally tried this strategy with this recent round of favela removals, but were called out by local civil engineering professors on their erroneous calculations and extreme over exaggerations. So now the city’s Housing Secretary, Jorge Bittar, is saying that Rio is removing some of the residents of the favelas to offer ‘these families dignity,’ and to construct new community spaces or projects that will benefit the entirety of Rio. But in fact, all that the city is doing is pushing the poorest, least desirable residents farther away from the South and Center of the city, so that they don’t have to meaningfully deal with the genuine problems that plague favelas. The only people who will have access to these new projects, like luxury cable cars from the docks, through the favelas, to the Center Zone, are wealthier residents and tourists visiting for the Games or the World Cup.
But before these forced removals, which are mostly occurring in small favelas like Largo do Campinho, Pavão Pavãozinho, Morro da Providência and Mêtro-Mangueira, there were other indirect, insidious methods of removals occurring in the larger favelas close to the wealthy districts of Rio. The Unidades das Polícias Pacificadores have taken over about 25 favelas near the Center and South Zones of the city, in a move that earned the city much praise. Storming in there with tanks, the city has eradicated or significantly weakened the drug lords’ control over those favelas and invested in many urban renewal projects to make the favelas more hospitable. But now many of these favelas, like Rocinha, are experiencing gentrification; for as safety increases and living conditions improve, the price of rent goes significantly up, and most people in the favelas simply cannot afford to pay that much. Many move to the outskirts of Rio to other favelas, and white, C class people are beginning to occupy Rocinha.
In Brazil, and in Rio, there is serious outcry against the government’s inhumane actions. Activist organizations are training residents on how to film documentaries to record the process of being evicted, and residents are painting over their houses identification number to confuse the city and earn themselves more time in their homes and in their communities. Raquel Rolnik, professor at Universidade do São Paulo, and Special UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, is actively speaking out against the illegality of Rio’s actions. There are other amazing projects going on to highlight the human rights abuses occurring because of the Olympics and World Cup.
The question now for us reading who are not affiliated with Brazil in any major way is ‘What can we do as non-Brazilian citizens to help stop these injustices?’ As foreigners, it’s obviously not our place to be at the forefront of activism against these actions- that is something to let the citizens of the favelas and Brazilians in general take charge of. We should listen to them, educate ourselves and, if appropriate, help educate others.
But as citizens of a country the will have representation at both events, we cannot simply stand by and let these human rights violations happen in the name of an event that was created, in part, for our viewing and our entertainment.
I’ve decided that unless serious changes in policy and action are made, I will not attend either the World Cup or the Olympics in Rio, nor will I watch them, as much as it pains me to say that. I will encourage other people not to attend or watch them on television. I will try my best to avoid buying products from Olympic and World Cup Sponsors, and I will write letters to these sponsors detailing my concerns with these events, and that I no longer intend to purchase any of their products.
As an individual by myself, my actions are almost meaningless, but I am writing this article today in the hopes that I can encourage you to learn more about the atrocities in Rio and how you can help ensure that the upcoming summer Olympics and World Cup do not occur at the expense of any more forced removals of poor residents that the city of Rio de Janeiro has forgotten are just as equal, meaningful and deserving of rights, respect and due process as the wealthiest citizens living in mansions in Ipanema or Copacabana.
Check out some of the hyperlinks to learn more about these forced removals, about protests and campaigns, and to watch some of the most touching videos you will have ever seen.
Erika is a sophomore majoring in Earth System’s Sustainable Food and Agriculture track. She has a fondness for Brazil, a passion for sustainable food systems and cooking and a desire to make human’s a more aware and empathetic species. Her favorite Olympians are Michael Phelps and Kerri Walsh, and her favorite soccer players are Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and Carlos Puyol. When it comes to soccer, she generally roots for the Spanish men’s team and always roots for the US women’s team.
Look out for an expanded version of this piece in the upcoming inaugural print issue of the STATIC Journal!