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As Brazil Gears Up For Olympics, Some Poor Families Get Moved Out

Feb 27, 2014
Originally published on February 27, 2014 7:16 am

Jeane Tomas scraped all her money together to build a house where she could raise her son. She'd been renting in the favela, or shanty town, of Vila Harmonia and wanted to put down roots in the community where she lived when her child was born.

The house went up — only to quickly come down.

"There is this frustration to have worked so hard, dreamed so much to leave everything behind," she said.

Now that the Winter Olympics in Sochi are over attention will be turning to Brazil, the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Rio de Janeiro is undergoing a massive transformation in advance of the games
and that has brought with it a number of criticisms. Chief among them are the forcible evictions that are taking place across the city.

Tomas was among those who were moved.

It was near her work, near doctors, and other key amenities, she said. About three years ago, she was told she would have to leave to make way for a new road that was being built as part of an infrastructure upgrade.

"And I would ask them, where to? They were asking us to sign papers without knowing where we were going," she said. "Then they showed us this place and, to be honest, we really didn't have a choice."

With the money she received in compensation, she said she couldn't afford anywhere else.

Some 3,000 Families Uprooted

According to human rights groups, some 3,000 families have already been evicted from their homes in Rio alone. As many as 200,000 people across the country are at risk of the same, according to the Popular Committees for the World Cup and Olympics.

It's not just the evictions, but also where people are being sent to.

The place where Jeane Tomas now lives is called the OITI complex.

Favelas — for all their poverty — are teeming with life. But the OITI complex feels like it's on life support. It's a barren, treeless, apartment compound in a Rio suburb called Campo Grande, miles away from where Tomas lived in Barra de Tijuca.

"Our lives were built around were we lived. The transport is awful here. They talk about this special bus line they built for us out here but it's not the miracle they say it is. Its chaos," she said. "There are days when the air-conditioning works, others when it doesn't. We wait for hours to get out of here."

The housing is new though and the people live there at a relatively low cost. They pay a small condo fee and utilities.

Still, they don't own these homes and they can't rent them to others.

Jeane Tomas complains there are no schools nearby. She still hasn't been able to enroll her child in daycare. There are no jobs close either. She says her husband lost his job because suddenly he was so far away from it.

Tomas works as a maid and she said she suspects the reason so many people are being moved is because its the Rio elites making the decisions.

"In my opinion, they want us to be there to serve them, then they want us to go as far away as possible," she said.

Government officials deny those allegations. They say those who have been moved now live in government housing that is far superior to where they lived before.

Upgrades Or Evictions

Leonardo Gryner, the chief operating officer of Rio's Olympic Organizing Committee, said a few families have been moved to improve the life of many people. The roads and bus lines that have been put in place will allow people to travel more freely, he said.

"One of the main reasons that people live in favelas in Rio is because of transportation," he said. "When you offer them a new means of transportation, that will help ... people to move to new areas farther from the city, living in better conditions that in living in favelas."

However, activists and academics allege the forcible evictions have more to do with real estate than real help to the poor.

Rio's Olympic Park is being built in Barra de Tijuca, where Jeane Tomas once lived.

It used to be a poor area. But with the influx of development and roads for the Olympics, luxury apartment complexes are springing up along with Miami-style malls. Land is becoming extremely valuable. For example, the athletes housing during the games is going to be turned into high-end apartment buildings once the games are over.

Orlando Santos Junior is a professor of urban planning at Rio de Janeiro Federal University who has studied the evictions for years.

"Social exclusion is the issue here. The city is more beautiful, but for whom? The city is richer, but for whom? The city is for whom?" he asked.

"The other issue is that the people who are moved live on the margins, if they are uprooted from their networks that allow them to survive it actually makes them worse off, not better," he said.

He said what is happening is going against the very fabric of what a city should be. In Rio, the changes are creating more homogenous spaces with walls, sometimes real, sometimes invisible, that separate social classes.

Other activists say what are being created are tomorrow's favelas. As the city moves out these people, they are being trapped in places where they cannot thrive.

Back in the government housing complex, Jeane Tomas said she was grateful for a roof over her head but she spoke wistfully of her former home. On her way to work, she passes the place her favela used to be. Now it's an empty field next to a new gas station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hosting a major sports event like the World Cup or the Olympics can mean a lot of new construction. Well, how about both? Brazil has the big soccer tournament coming this summer and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Some say the construction making way for these events is forcing some of Brazil's poorest citizens to relocate.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro has this report from Rio de Janeiro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Jeane Tomas scraped all her money together to build a house where she could raise her son. She'd been renting in the favela or shantytown of Vila Harmonia, and wanted to put down roots in the community where she lived when her child was born. The house went up, only to quickly come down.

JEANE TOMAS: (Through translator) There's this frustration to have worked so hard, dreamed so much, just to leave everything behind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was near my work, the doctors, everything, she said. They told us about three years ago we would have to leave to make way for the new road being built, as part of the infrastructure upgrades for the World Cup and the Olympics.

TOMAS: (Through translator) And I would ask them: Where to? They were asking us to sign these papers without knowing where we were going. Then they showed us this place and, to be honest, we really didn't have a choice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With the money they got in compensation she says, she couldn't afford anywhere else.

According to human rights groups some 3,000 families have already been evicted from their homes in Rio alone. As many as 200,000 people across the country are at risk of the same, according to The Popular Committees for the World Cup and Olympics.

But it's not just the evictions that are at issue but where people are being sent to. The place where Jeane Tomas is now is called the OITI complex. Favelas - for all their poverty are teeming with life, but is place feels like it's on life support, a barren treeless apartment compound in a Rio suburb called Campo Grande, miles away from where Tomas lived in Barra de Tijuca.

TOMAS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our lives were built around were we lived. The transport is awful here. They talk about this special bus line they built for us out here but it's not the miracle they say it is. It's chaos. There are days when the air conditioning works, others when it doesn't. We wait for hours to get out of here.

There are no schools, she says, she still hasn't been able to enroll her child in daycare. There aren't any jobs nearby either, she says. Her husband lost his job because suddenly he was so far away from it.

Jeane Tomas works as a maid, and she says she suspects the reason so many people are being moved is because it's the Rio elites making the decisions.

TOMAS: (Through Translator) In my opinion, they want us to be there to serve them, then they want us to go as far away as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Government officials deny those allegations. They say those who have been moved now live in government housing that is far superior to where they lived before.

Leonardo Gryner is the chief operating officer of Rio's Olympic Organizing Committee. He says that a few families have been moved to improve the life of many people - the roads and bus lines that have been put in place will allow people to travel more freely.

LEONARDO GRYNER: One of the main reasons for people live in favelas in Rio, is the problem of transportation. This will help people to move to new areas farther from the city, living better conditions than living in favelas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But activists and academics allege the forcible evictions have more to do with real estate than real help to the poor.

Rio's Olympic Park is being built in Barra de Tijuca, where Jeane Tomas once lived. It used to be a poor area. But with the influx of development and roads for the Olympics luxury apartment complexes are springing up along with Miami style malls. Land there is becoming extremely valuable.

Orlando Santos Jr. is a professor of urban planning at Rio de Janeiro Federal University who has studied the evictions for years.

ORLANDO SANTOS JR.: (Through Translator) Social exclusion is the issue here. The city is more beautiful, but for whom? The city is richer, but for whom? Who is the city for? And also, people who are moved live on the margins, if they are uprooted from their networks that allow them to survive, it actually makes them worse off, not better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says what is happening is going against the very fabric of what a city should be - it's creating more homogenous spaces with walls - sometimes real, sometimes invisible - that separate social classes. Other activists say what's being created are tomorrow's favelas, as the city moves out these people are being trapped in places where they cannot thrive.

Back in the government housing complex, Jeane Tomas says she is grateful for a roof over her head, but she speaks wistfully of her former home.

TOMAS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says on her way to work she passes by where her favela used to be, it's now an empty field next to a new gas station.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.