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RIO RIGHTS RISKS – HRDs & the Olympic Games

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Rio de Janeiro: Marvellous City for who?

By Vitor Lira, HRD

The situation in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games

We are living in a city which is being dressed up and embellished to attract investments. The Olympic Games hosted in Rio will worsen life conditions for its citizens.

Construction works are really expensive, as they are built to meet the standards of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and they end up using all the budget which could be spent in the construction of hospitals and schools, among other things. Some of the things that should be done to meet the population's needs are: teaching Olympic sports in the public schools and improving the sport infrastructures in the city.

The Rio’s State and Municipal governments spend their budget without consulting – and without being accountable to – the local population. We get to know about these projects when they are already being built, amidst the chaos all over the city, and often these are works that are never completed.

The repression of street vendors, the criminalisation of popular protests and social movements, the persecution and the threats against human rights defenders and media activists, are all frequent and widespread.

The cost of living is becoming higher and higher in Rio. Risen property speculation is a present factor, followed by gentrification in the favelas. Social inequality keeps growing and the lack of adequate public policies, together with the bad life quality for the poorest people, remain two of the biggest problems. Many favelas residents are being forcedly evicted from their homes, to make space for the tourists. Property tycoons and the IOC have played a major role in these human rights violations.

Because of the delay of the works for the Olympic Games, many human rights violations which are taking place in Rio have been justified with the fact that authorities need to speed up the construction works.

The militarization in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro

A project of pacification in the favelas, known as Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), was implemented in key locations of the city ahead of the 2016 Olympics. This project is coordinated by the Rio’s Public Security Secretariat, and its goal is to take control of the areas dominated by criminal gangs and bring the State closer to the population.

In December 2008 the neighbourhood of Santa Marta was the first favela in the south of Rio where this project of pacification was implemented. The UPPs were developed within the Secretariat of Public Security of Rio, with a vertical approach and without the participation of a public committee. The people living in Santa Marta were the last ones to know about what was happening in their community. In that moment, we saw hundreds of military police officers invading the favela, soldiers going everywhere, with service companies behind (cable tc, water, energy, etc.). These companies started promoting their services only after the intervention of the police.

Police violence, their abuse of power and the killing of afro-brazilians are the most evident marks left by the military police of Rio de Janeiro (Polícia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, PMERJ). These are human rights violations that keep happening in the favelas, to guarantee the success of the so-called pacification. It is worth nothing the high number of young black people who are killed by the UPP, the fake reports about acts of resistance made up by the police, the hiding of the bodies, etc. And in the middle of all of this, there is no improvement of the public service for the local residents, particularly for those living in the higher part of the favela, in Pico do Santa Marta, a historic place and a viewpoint from where you can see the famous beaches of the southern part of Rio, Lagoa Rodrigues de Freitas, a Baia de Guanabara, the statue of corcovado, Pão de Açúcar, among other touristic attractions.

From this hill, you can start a historic trail that leads to Mirante Dona Marta, a place at the top of the favela, with a spectacular view, where many tourists go.

Since 2006, local and national authorities have threatened to evict residents of Pico do Santa Marta.

The bid for the World Cup and the Olympic Games

I am a resident of Pico Santa Marta and I have closely followed the news about Brazil's bid to host the World Cup in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro's bid to host the Olympic Games.

When we heard about the news we were chosen to host these mega events, I was sure we would have enjoyed many investments, that could help the population, reduce social inequality through income redistribution, access to sport facilities, among other things, but nothing has happened.

The World Cup is over, the Olympic Games are about to start, but where is the legacy of these events?

This is a time where the only legacy I can see is human rights violations, committed by the government and its partners who want only to make money, erasing the history of the poor, destroying the space for the favelas, disrespecting the memory of the local communities. It is also worrying the number of killings of poor, young black people in the favelas, or the fact that young people and elderly every day are targeted during police interventions. This shows that we are survivors, we survive the genocide that has taken place for decades in Rio de Janeiro, committed by the police.

The number of police officers killed in armed clashes has increased, and this shows that the police which should be responsible for public security, because of their violent approach, is not going to bring peace.

I am 34 year old and I consider myself a winner, as I have lived so long even if I live in the favela, a place where the only right we have is the right to die – what a relief!

Life in the favela

In the favela I have lived many good and bad things, and I have both good and bad memories, but nothing can be compared to what the residents of Pico do Santa Marta are going through.

Since 2006, when they found out their homes were going to be destroyed and that all the residents were going to be moved to another place, local people didn't want to leave their homes. They were forced to leave the place where they were born, where they had been living and doing parties with their families, dancing samba, calango, forró. My relatives, for instance, arrived at Pico do Santa Marta in the 1930s, they occupied the higher part of the neighbourhood and they built their homes with the materials they could find there, such as rocks, bamboo, clay and wood that were left behind around the buildings that were being built at that time. Residents and construction workers were bringing these materials to build their houses – known as barracos (barracks) - in the favela. For five generations we had been living in this place and we had been resisting several attempts of forced evictions. The argument – used by the authorities and Geo-Rio (the Geological Institute of the municipality of Rio de Janeiro) - was that this was an area at risk, and só they had to remove 150 families from Pico do Santa Marta.

In June 2009 the Committee of Pico do Santa Marta residents was created to fight against and intervene against the forced evictions from the higher part of the neighbourhood. We found an engineer who volunteered for us and did an assessment of the Pico, so that we could discuss the technical arguments brought forward by Geo-Rio. This situation has been very stressful for all the residents of Pico do Santa Marta and other favelas in the city, as they have suffered continuous threats of forced evictions. Yet, the residents have been able to resist the forced evictions and the human rights violations which have occurred more and more frequently as Rio prepared for the Olympics in 2016.

How the residents get organised

It was very important for the residents of Pico do Santa Marta to have the opportunity to link with human rights or environmental institutions, universities, journalists, activists, national and international media, as these key actors helped share information about what was happening in the first “pacified” favela, which the State named as “favela modelo” (the model favela).

Impact and conflicts

The cultural activities organised by the committee of the Pico do Santa Marta residents, with the supports of the partners mentioned earlier, had always to be authorized by the UPP, with an official document produced and signed by the chief of the local UPP. The police was always questioning us about who was supporting us, what was our objective, what we wanted to achieve. Several times I replied saying we were exercising our right to freedom of expression, and that we were simply notifying the UPP that we were organising an activity there.

With all these rules imposed by the State in the favela, which is repressing cultural activities such as the funky dance, among others, I started realising that this was a way to stop all the cultural and popular free activities for the poor in the favelas. Big companies started occupying these spaces and making big profit exploiting the culture of the favela, privatising spaces that before were only used by local residents.

The events are being organised only for upper-class people and foreign tourists, in a way completely distant from the reality of the favela. The local residents often cannot attend these events, because tickets are too expensive.

The impact of mega-events in the daily life in the city of Rio and in the favelas are: public spaces and facilities, which are really useful for local people, are being privatised; popular places become more expensive; cost of living in the city becomes higher; poor people are removed from rich areas. Rio is being transformed for the rich elite and for the tourists, especially in the favelas. Foreign companies and tourism companies every day are committing abuses in Santa Marta and invading the private properties of the residents. Tour operators show tourists the “human zoo” in the favelas in Rio. Local residents don't have privacy any more in their neighbourhood. After the pacification, the doors of the favelas were left open for companies in different sectors.

Tourism in the favelas in Rio is booming

Major tour operators are exploiting the favela without contributing to the social and economic development of the area, because many groups of tourists are brought to Santa Marta by tourist guides who don't live in the favela, and end up committing a number of violations in the favela, such as taking pictures of children, young people and other residents without asking permission. These tourists don't value the artcrafts produced locally in the favela, they don't hire local guides who could walk with them in the little alleys of the favela, telling them the real story of the place and showing the curious things. They only go to the favela as if it was a human zoo, this is the harsh reality we are experiencing.

Long-term impact

In the long term, I can see there will be a strong social impact in Rio de Janeiro, with increasing gentrification in the favelas. Only a few poor people will manage resist and stay in the favelas in the south, as they are built on land which has the higher value per square metre in Brazil, a place where many poor people leave but it is being prepared for the upper class ahead of the Olympics.

After the mega-events

Following the World Cup and the Olympic Games, we are going to have a city with different standards, ready to meet the needs of the upper class, with everyone working to serve the interests of the big business and corporations, exploiting the working class to make sure the “marvellous city” keeps working.

The exodus of the poor from the urban areas

Many poor residents who were living in central urban areas are being moved away because their land has now a higher property value.

There is an exodus of poor people towards suburbs and peripherical areas of they city, far away from the centre and from all the facilities, the hospitals, the schools, the universities, etc.

Social disintegration is happening daily, with residents forced to start a new life in other places because of the Olympic Games.

The city of Rio is going to waste many resources and contract debts, which will be paid by the population for years. The government is not prioritising the wellbeing of the population, there will be a financial crisis in the public sector, the city will be paralised, as it wont' be able to serve the needs of the population and complete projects and social policies which involve the poor.

Brazil could have used the opportunity of hosting the World Cup and the Olympics suggesting ideas for development, creating opportunities for everyone to enjoy the wealth that comes thanks to these megaevents. It could have implemented social policies to help reduce social inequality in the country and give opportunities for people working in the third sector.

Instead, the Brazilian government keeps going on without starting a dialogue with the local population, and leaving behind a legacy of human rights violations.

The repression of the goverment and the control of the territory

The repression and the control of the territory are typical of the government of Rio: peaceful demonstrations in the streets, in the squares and in public spaces are often repressed by state agents.

I have attended several events and protests against the human rights violations committed by the national government and the authorities in Rio.

I have witnessed moments of panic and cowardice, brutality and aggression committed by the military police in Rio (PMERJ). Police officers attacked members of civil society organisations, even if they weren't carrying any weapon and they were defenseless, just because they were questioning the waste of public money for megaevents and denouncing human rights violations committed by the Brazilian government.

Students, teachers, media activist and human rights defenders and all the people who were passionate about this cause were joining the peaceful demonstrations. Many of them were attacked by the police and they were severely hurt, physically and psychologically.

In Rio de Janeiro, human rights defenders and social activists are continuously suffering threats, intimidation, persecution and attacks because they report on human rights violations committed by the State and its authorities.

We want to bring attention to these issues, especially as the Olympic Games are approaching. We know this mega-event will leave behind a legacy of human rights violations committed against the population, and for sure the number of human rights defenders who are being threatened will grow, because they have been denouncing human rights violations and showing the world the reality faced by poor people in Brazil.