Forced removals draw fire in Rio de Janeiro
Rita Bonfim Silva is trying her best to keep up her normal routine: going out of her way to offer guests coffee, bread and butter.
But her life is likely to dramatically change very soon. The one room she rents in a crumbing three-level brick house in Metro-Mangueira favela in Rio de Janeiro is set to be demolished by the city as part of a re-development project under way in blighted areas of the city in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
But for Ms Silva, it’s not easy for her to pick up and move. She is a single mother and is forced to be a full-time caregiver to her four-year-old son, Gabriel, who suffers from a form of cerebral palsy and demands constant care.
Rita Bonfim Silva holding her son, Gabriel, in the room she rents in a Rio favela [Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]
Metro-Mangueira favela, where Ms Silva lives, at its peak had 500-700 families, which is small by Rio favela standards. It occupies a narrow strip of land a few blocks long by the side of railroad tracks and right at the base of the much larger and more famous Mangueira favela.
It is a 15-minute walk from Rio’s famous Maracana football stadium, but despite being so close, Ms Silva says she hasn't seen any benefit from the World Cup or Olympics coming to Brazil.
"For me and other poor people too, I have not seen anything change or get better with the World Cup," Silva said. “Nothing has helped us at all. We have not seen any improvement. No financial help. Not housing help. Not education. Not health. Nothing has gotten better for those who need it.”
Some houses in the Metro-Mangueira favela are being bulldozed piece by piece, as residents leave. The residents that have so far refused to leave, now live amongst the rubble of half collapsed brick homes that have become a hidden haven for crack addicts.
Ms Silva, numerous elderly woman and young children, and about 250 other families remain. It's as though they are being forced out with nowhere else to go, they say.
They have been given little information from the city, they say, and the rumor in the favela is that the land will be used to build a parking garage for Maracana stadium (the city denies this).
Jorge Bittar, Rio’s housing secretary, admits that the re-location process is not always smooth, and even concedes some people might be falling through the cracks. But, he says, the city is certainly not intentionally violating the housing rights of anybody.
He says the residents of Metro-Mangueira are living in "precarious" conditions and need to be relocated irregardless of any future mega sporting events.
“We are not trying to undertake a process of forced removal of anyone,” Bittar said. “We are doing relocation of families because they live in at risk areas...We always desire to do what’s in the best interest of families.”
Bittar also proudly shows off drawings and plans of how the area will be made into a public green space, with a community center and walking paths.
He said public housing is being built to accommodate families, but not all units are ready yet.
What is happening in Metro-Mangueira favela is not unique. Rio de Janeiro is going through a re-development boom, with as much as $15bn to be invested in the city in the coming years to make way for infrastructure projects ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.
At least a half dozen other poor communities in Rio de Janeiro are in the middle of forced relocations, and causing alarm with human rights activist.
Amnesty International has a high-level delegation led by secretary-general Salil Shetty visiting Brazil this week partly to take stock of this very issue. And the United Nations special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, has been investigating what is going on in Rio de Janeiro, and her report is due out by the end of the month and expected to be a scathing condemnation of potential human rights abuses. (Rolnik is Brazilian, and a professor at the University of Sao Paulo).
“There is a lot of pressure with the World Cup and Olympics to present the city of Rio in the best light, but it’s having a negative impact on poor communities,” said Patrick Wilcken, Brazil researcher for Amnesty International.
A poster on a house in Metrô-Mangueira favela showing a bulldozer with a Rio2016 sign and a hand trying to block it, symbolic of how many people refuse to have their homes destroyed without a fight [Elizondo/Al Jazeera]
Wilcken also said poor residents of favelas have property rights that need to be respected.
“By Brazilian law, if you have lived someone for a certain number of years you have property rights," Wilcken said.
“In Brazil, more that half the population lives in some sort of irregular settlement as a result of the chaotic way in which the country developed over the 20th century.
Some of these communities in Rio have been around 30, 40, 50 years so they do have housing rights under Brazilian law - the difference is that poor communities don’t have access to justice.”
The city is offering financial compensation, but it varies widely and most residents of Metro-Mangueira didn’t even seem to know what financial help is being offered or how to get it. Few, if any, residents can afford lawyers.
Rolnik, the UN housing rapporteur, said based on her investigation thus far, “the compensation is always absolutely insufficient for families to get adequate housing,” she told O Estado de. S. Paulo newspaper. “They are, therefore, truthfully going to be products of new favelas, new risk areas, or homeless.”
For people like Rita Bonfim Silva and the remaining residents of Metro-Mangueira, things aren’t getting any better. They say the electricity and water lines have been cut, an obvious attempt by the city, in their mind, to force them out.
Ms Silva says she is left with the clear impression that as Rio de Janeiro rushes to re-build itself bigger and better in the name of progress, some poor people like her are seen as nothing more than in the way.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo and news from Brazil on Twitter @elizondogabriel