Poor people, make way for sports!

Now that Rio de Janeiro has won its bid to host the 2016 summer Olympics, it will be interesting to see what happens to the 1.3 million impoverished people who live in the over 750 favelas on the hills surrounding the city.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Favelas are essentially slums or shanty towns (“favela” translates into “slum” in Brasilian Portuguese) set up in the suburbs of a city by by the poor who have no other means of shelter. They have existed since the late 1800s after former African slaves were ‘freed’ but had no rights to land ownership, means of education, or means of employment. Poor and with no rights or place to go, they started setting up shacks in rural areas and over the years moved closer and closer to the cities in an effort to find work. Now, Rio de Janeiro has the second greatest number of favelas in Brasil after Sao Paulo — 612 for Sao Paulo and 513 for Rio based on the 2000 Brasilian census, although the number for Rio is now over 750. Nineteen percent of Rio’s population lives in favelas and the population growth in favelas is higher than the population growth of Brasil as a whole.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Various governments throughout Brasil’s history have attempted to remove the favelas, beginning in the 1940s when many of them were destroyed in favour of public housing. When the public housing was not delivered, the favelas essentially went right back up on the grounds from which they were originally cleared. Again in the 1950s the government attempted to ‘clean up’ the favelas by building two large apartment complexes, which did not solve the problem of the need for favelas. In the 1970s, while under military dictatorship, the government once again tried to destroy the favelas and move their inhabitants to public housing. However, the poor could not afford even public housing, and so the favelas persisted.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

The number of people living in these slums is due largely to the economic divide in Brasil, which is among the biggest in the world. Over one third of the population lives below the poverty line. The poor and middle class continue to grow poorer while the rich grow richer and control the majority of the wealth.

And of course, drugs and gang warfare are huge problems in the favelas. Thanks to internationally successful films such as City of God (Cidade de Deus), Last Stop 174 (Ultima Parada 174), and to a lesser extent Favela Rising, most people have a sense of what life in the favelas is like.

It could be that getting the Olympics will be a good thing for the 1.3 million impoverished people in Rio. But it’s also likely that they will suffer (even more) from it, as the poor of Durban, South Africa are now suffering from being the host city to the 2010 World Cup.

Durban is one of the most highly populated countries in South Africa, and tens of thousands of people still live in shacks because, although housing is included in their Consititution as a basic human right, the poor have so far not benefitted from this because of the anti-poor sentiments in post-apartheid South Africa. Again, a huge gap between the rich and the poor (here this means between whites and blacks) is in evidence.

Durban's shacks.

Durban's shacks.

There is an organization in Durban called The Shack Dwellers Movement, which comprises tens of thousands of poor people who have been waiting for housing since 1994. Durban itself has 14 informal settlements of about 5,000 to 7,000 people each.

The Shack Dwellers are trying to fight for their rights to homes while they are being displaced by the government in order to build stadiums, malls, and freeways for the 2010 World Cup. The Slum Act, which was introduced by the government in 2006, essentially says that anyone who resists eviction can be fined or sentenced to prison terms. Evictions are occuring in great numbers now as land is being appropriated for the aforementioned stadiums, malls, and freeways in preparation for the big soccer matches.

Durban's shacks.

Durban's shacks.

The World Cup coming to Durban has meant the mass eviction of poor people and the destruction of their shack homes. The poor are being shuttled to transitional relocation camps on the promise of public housing about 50 km outside of the city (and 50 km away from their jobs, schools, and hospitals). In fact, this public housing does not exist and the poor are going to have to live in these relocation camps for at least 10 years.

The film District 9 is not an analogy for South Africa during apartheid; sadly, it is still a reality for many of the poor there. It’s a new apartheid.

Will Brasil’s successful Olympic bid provide the same fate to the favela dwellers in Rio as South Africa’s successful World Cup bid provided to the shack dwellers in Durban? Only time will tell.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I hope we who are living in Rio’s favelas are not relocated out somewheres..

    ~Zezinho

  2. I was trying to find them on google earth. How can anyone (peoples) do this to another? Displace them 50k from where they work? How are they expected to survive?


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