The 2016 Olympics in Rio: A Community Plays Against the Real Estate Game

By Theresa Williamson

When Rio de Janeiro won the bid for the 2016 Olympics in 2009, only cries of approval were heard from Brazilians. The government threw a huge party on Copacabana beach, in Brazil’s densest neighborhood. According to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the popular Brazilian president and leader of the Brazilian Workers Party, “Brazil has left its second-class status behind and has joined the first class. Today we received respect.” Lula said that “the same (people) who thought we wouldn’t have the ability to govern will be surprised with our country’s capacity to organize the Olympics.” Lula’s optimism is being fed by Brazil’s booming economy. The World Bank predicts that by 2016, Brazil, where the largest offshore petroleum deposits in the world were recently discovered, will jump from having the tenth largest economy in the world to the fifth largest.

Lula failed to mention that part of the reason Rio won the bid is that there was no organized opposition on the ground. Several groups had expressed concern but were hopeful, as all of us were, that the Olympics would be properly used for public benefit, and thus supported the bid.

Erasing a Neighborhood for the Olympics
But now, as the government moves to clear at least one neighborhood and real estate speculation heats up in anticipation of the games, the chronic, ugly downside of the Olympics is again emerging and, along with it, the seeds of community protest.

Just west of Copacabana, in the area known as Barra da Tijuca, the community of Vila Autódromo is challenging the government’s moves to take its land, apparently for nothing more than the establishment of a buffer zone around the planned Olympics facilities. It has brought its challenge to the International Olympics Committee (IOC), which has an established policy of holding the games only in cities where there is no significant local protest.

Barra da Tijuca, often referred to as Rio’s Miami, was built on marshland over the last thirty years, with exclusive apartment blocks, luxury condos and malls designed to minimize contact with the city’s poor. Rio’s dynamic and youthful new mayor, Eduardo Paes, who was raised in Barra, enjoys good relations with Lula and the governor of the state of Rio and supports the eviction of Vila Autódromo.

Vila Autódromo is at the edge of Barra, next to Jacarepaguá Lagoon. It was first settled over forty years ago by fishermen who lived subsistence lives kilometers away from the developed part of the city, and later by workers brought to the site to build the city’s racetrack. Today it is a working-class neighborhood of some 4,000 residents.

When the first fishermen arrived, the lagoon was immaculate. Today it is filled with sewage and garbage from neighboring apartment blocks. The fishermen who remain complain that there is often no fish, only the occasional Tilapia, a fish that feasts on detritus. Yet residents remember when, in 1992, the city tried to remove them for the first time, alleging that Vila Autódromo posed “aesthetic and environmental damage” to the surrounding area. At that time, Barra had become a new destination for commercial, sports and residential facilities. The legal challenge claimed that the city’s “new aesthetic” excluded the poor and in 1994 Vila Autódromo received title with the right to use the land for forty years. Still, on several subsequent occasions municipal officials threatened the community with removal, including a proposed road widening for the Pan-American Games. The Olympics offered them yet another opportunity.

Only days after the announcement that Rio had been chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games, the city’s largest daily, O Globo, announced plans to remove Vila Autódromo to make way for Olympic venues. When I visited Vila Autódromo and neighboring communities right after this, I found residents were visibly frightened. Community leaders complained of panic attacks. One man spent yet another day building his home—a form of nonviolent resistance, if you will—and told me how he felt when the decision was made that Rio would get the Olympics: “I sincerely knew there would be complications for us. I’m Brazilian, I’d really like these Olympics to be held in Rio, but I was rooting for us not to win. Because we would run this risk.” Then he repeated, “I’m Brazilian, I wanted so much for the Olympics to be held here. But because I knew we’d once again face pressure (to leave), I was rooting that we wouldn’t be chosen.”

This kind of personal conflict over the Olympics is widespread. On the one hand, investment from the event could bring benefits but, on the other hand, municipal officials can’t be trusted to make use of such an opportunity in a way that is fair. Government leaders never visited the community or sought community input. Community leaders were only invited to speak with the mayor after they led a demonstration with hundreds of protesters representing twenty communities outside City Hall in early March. Organizers describe these conversations as “one-way dialogues” in which the city states its intentions without much room for discussion. At the next meeting the city will present its resettlement plans and provide an opportunity for the community to present an alternative plan for the area (though it took the city’s experts three years to prepare their plan).

Stable, Working-Class Favela
Vila Autódromo is a relatively stable, working-class neighborhood and many households are committed to staying. One resident told me, “There is nothing the city could offer me that would make it worth my while to leave. What I’d really like is for them to leave us alone, that everyone stays where they are, and that they sought to legalize and improve our situation so people could pay their taxes, and for something worthwhile. No politician has ever done anything for this community.”

“This is a dormitory community,” Altair Guimarães, president of the neighborhood association, tells me. Everyone’s at work or in school. Vila Autódromo is one of the 18 percent of Rio’s communities that have remained peaceful (no drug or vigilante militias) through citizen action. As one resident explains, “This is a community where anyone can appear at all times of day and no one will question ‘who are you here to see.’ This is a family community, everyone knows each other, everyone lives well, whether near or distant neighbors.”

Little attention is paid to the quality of the housing that is to be demolished—unique houses designed slowly, over time, to suit individual needs of families. In the case of Vila Autódromo, the bulk of residents have successfully built high-quality homes in an expanding part of the city with access to jobs. They have also    built businesses in Vila Autódromo and neighboring communities. They know their neighbors and, unlike other areas, do not have a problem with drug trafficking.

Due to a historic class rift in Rio, known as the “Divided City,” between the “favelas and asphalt” as the debate here is summarized, there is no comprehension on the part of the city’s elite that what constitutes “life in the favela” is not all bad. The cultural wealth, architectural innovation and strong sense of community in these spaces is entirely ignored when making plans to remove them—perhaps because the “elite” parts of the city are notoriously lacking in these attributes. Moreover, the ability of favela residents to participate effectively is severely underestimated.

The City Moves the Goalposts
The city’s actions indicate that they are interested in getting rid of Vila Autódromo even if it isn’t essential for the Olympics. In October of 2009, the mayor announced that the site would be used to build the Olympics Media Facility. But months later plans changed and the city decided to move several facilities to the port area the mayor seeks to revitalize. When asked if this affects Vila Autódromo, municipal officials told me straight up: “No.” Now, the most recent map shows essentially nothing built in the area. Apparently, Vila Autódromo simply needs to be removed to create a “security perimeter” for the Olympic venues.

But if that is the case, why are luxury condos going up just as close—across the street in fact—with a “box seat” view of the Olympic venues? Why couldn’t the city simply provide residents with rent subsidies during the three weeks of the Games, as they have done in other cases? Or why not get rid of the “eyesore” by doing what residents request and upgrading this essentially lower middle-class, up-and-coming community, which has proved its ability to coexist peacefully with major events ranging from the Formula 1 to Rock in Rio? Why not be really creative and develop a model for all future Olympics bids to involve residents directly? Engage them as workers and welcoming agents and encourage small businesses to cater to tourists. Wouldn’t this be a more just way of handling a community? Wouldn’t this speak to the Olympics values of hope, excellence, respect, harmony and friendship, as well as to its new “Development through Sport” initiative, which is supposed to “put human beings first?”

The only explanation for the lack of creativity, transparency and willingness to dialogue and compromise shown by the city on this issue is its desire to maximize real estate speculation in the area. And residents of the area who have put up with the pollution of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon for years will not benefit from the cleanup that is supposed to be part of the environmental legacy of the Games.

Public Defenders Take Action
Public defenders have taken legal action in support of Vila Autódromo’s case. They also notified the IOC with a detailed 78-page document, including a technical overview, because they fear this community’s removal would open the floodgates for forced evictions across the city. In fact, when the news media announced Vila Autódromo’s impending removal in October of 2009, it was cited as first on a list of nine areas. Within a week the city had retracted the rest of the list, claiming that the intention is to remove only this community. According to activists, this is a way of weakening the joint response that would have unfolded. When Vila Autódromo goes down, the precedent will be set, reversing decades of hard-won housing rights legislation.

The Olympics has provided a rare opportunity for the city to avoid the obligation for public comment while making evictions publicly acceptable to the middle class and the bulk of neighborhoods that wouldn’t be affected. In fact, the mainstream media has treated efforts to fight evictions as practically traitorous.

What do residents want to see? As the public defender argues: “It is clear that residents do not want to be removed. On the contrary, they claim the right to upgrades and public investment.” It would be fairly easy to upgrade the neighborhood, given support from the residents, wide roads and solid brick homes.

A technical team of engineers and architects assembled to study the situation asked, “Why are condominiums, shopping centers and other commercial developments being approved for the edges of the lagoon?” In fact, just across the street from the community, five luxury condos are going up. A billboard reads: “Place your dreams at the top of the podium. Three rooms in the region that’ll grow most by 2016. And you’ll get to see it all from your very own box seat.”

It’s Back to You, Lula!
Lula tells us that “this country deserves a chance.” The question now is what it will do with this chance. Build on the cultural wealth of this unique city or strengthen the market at any cost, measuring development through economic growth and a declining crime rate, regardless of whether the end result is cultural sterility? If the current approach goes forward, there is a serious risk that the cultural marvels Lula declares as having attracted interest from the IOC in the first place will be commodified, not humanized, by 2016.

As Lula put it, “These Olympics are retribution to the marvelous people of Rio de Janeiro that many times show up only in newspapers.” But will all people gain retribution equally, or will Rio’s rich end up with the lion’s share?

Theresa Williamson holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and is founder and executive director of Catalytic Communities (, a Rio de Janeiro-based NGO. Follow the latest news on Rio’s mega events and related city politics as relayed by the city’s community organizers

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