The “State of Exception”: Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Games and Housing Evictions

(Originally published by Catalyst: Urban Uncertainties, Nov, 2016)

(Image: Vila Autódromo – Source: CatComm | RioOnWatch)

Introduction

Hosting a grand international event such as the Olympic Games is often thought to offer cities the opportunity to promote urban regeneration and attract international capital. Unfortunately, such international events may have significant and costly social impacts on host cities. These impacts are not usually taken into account by government administrators. Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian city with the largest percentage of people living in favelas, was awarded the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in October 2009. Since then, 4,120 families have suffered arbitrary imminent evictions in Rio de Janeiro due to the Olympic project. Most of these displacements have taken place in favelas [1], Brazilian communities built by low-income dwellers without compliance to building codes or urban planning regulations. The favelas, synonymous with slums and squatter settlements in other parts of the world, exist as a response to the lack of affordable housing in Brazilian urban centers. Due to what the government deems to be a physical or visual conflict with the Olympic Games’ infrastructure, low-income families were removed from their homes and their houses were subsequently demolished.


In urban regeneration projects, the removal of poor communities is regularly considered a necessary condition for the economic improvement of an urban area. This is exactly what has taken place leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Most of the Rio Olympics’ infrastructure is located in western Rio de Janeiro, a booming area characterized by intense real estate speculation. This area, Barra da Tijuca, is home to many Brazilian celebrities and star soccer players and is known for its beaches, lakes and its residents’ extravagant lifestyles. The neighborhood is largely comprised of enormous luxury condominiums with tall walls and sophisticated security systems to ensure the high-income residents’ privacy and safety. The Jacarepaguá Lake separates Barra da Tijuca from Jacarepaguá, another high-income neighborhood. In the midst of these luxury communities lies Vila Autódromo, located on the border between Barra da Tijuca, Jacarepagua, and Jacarepagua Lake.

Vila Autodrómo

The favela of Vila Autódromo was originally built by fishermen and construction workers in the early 1960s. At the time, fancy condos did not exist in this region, and neither did streets, electricity, running water or sewage collection. But in 1987, the dwellers organized themselves and founded their own community association. Through this association, they made significant improvements to their community including the installation of septic tanks, electricity, and a telephone network. The inhabitants also created a rudimentary water supply network [2]. In the late 1990s, a process to regularize the land culminated in the land being legally granted to the dwellers for 99 years [3].


Additionally, the inhabitants of Vila Autodromo attained legal rights to remain living in the favela because the government deemed it a Special Zone of Social Interest (ZEIS – Zona Especial de Interesse Social). A Special Zone of Social Interest, or ZEIS, is a delimitated area through zoning legislation especially intended for low-income communities. This instrument of urban planning was created by the City Statute, a Brazilian federal law enacted in 2001 to regulate the Urban Policy section of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. Its intent was to provide municipalities with the legal instruments required to regulate urban land. The ZEIS is critical to favelas and low-income communities because it enables flexibility in urban standards and regulations, allowing for the development of customized urban plans and land regularization. This allows favela dwellers to stay in their communities, taking advantage of and improving existing infrastructure, and preventing unnecessary evictions and relocations.

Evictions and Resistance

Despite this, Vila Autódromo is just one of the many low-income communities in Rio de Janeiro in which housing demolition and mass evictions are taking place. The community is in alleged conflict with the Olympic Games’ infrastructure, namely the construction of Olympic Park. The winning design for the Olympic Park by the architecture firm AECOM proposed to maintain Vila Autódromo [4]. Despite this, Rio de Janeiro’s municipality has been pressuring dwellers to leave their houses for demolition since 2011. Around 200 families came to an agreement with the government to vacate their homes in exchange for money or housing elsewhere [5]. In May 2014, 187 families declared that they wanted to stay in the area and would not accept any incentives to leave [6]. Since then, many houses in Vila Autódromo have been demolished, some without the dweller’s consent. The government is known to have exerted psychological pressure on the inhabitants, including power cuts and even complete interruption of services.

Lightning evictions also took place, consisting of surprise appearances by police guards and bulldozers that resulted in physical conflict and injured dwellers[7].
In the face of great pressure, families bravely resisted. Barricades, protests, vigils, public hearings and media and social media reports were organized. Through a participatory process, Vila Autódromo’s dwellers enlisted the technical help of the urban planning departments of two public universities to develop their own urbanization plan for the community. This plan would show Rio’s municipality that it was possible for their community to be maintained alongside the construction of the Olympic Park. The collaborative plan won the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award, an $80,000 international prize created in partnership with the London School of Economics, “to encourage people to take responsibility for their cities” [8].


The Vila Autódromo community responded to immense pressure by becoming an inspiring symbol of resistance and social action. As a response to this fierce resistance, Rio’s government developed an alternative plan without any collaboration from residents. The city’s plan did not attend to the dwellers’ wishes and demands for their community and the dwellers rejected the plan in turn. After a long process of negotiation, Vila Autódromo’s residents reached an alternative agreement with the municipal government about the urbanization plan. One of their conditions is that the upgrades and new homes are ready before the Olympic Games start, on August 5, 2016 [9].


The Vila Autódromo community should not have been removed. The alleged conflict with the Olympic Park was the justification but ultimately, the motive for the housing evictions and demolitions was the promotion of urban renewal. The real goal was to eliminate the favela and its dwellers and allow for lucrative real estate development. Vila Autódromo’s location among such high-income areas overlooking the Jacarepaguá Lake represents valuable real estate. To conform to private interests, Rio de Janeiro’s government has taken advantage of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to promote what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception”: a condition in which government power increases to dictate the exception and go above any laws, reducing or entirely dismissing constitutional rights [10].

State of Exception

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been used by the municipal government as a means to establish a state of exception and legitimize unjustified housing evictions, violating the constitutional right of the poor to housing, and Vila Autódromo’s dwellers legal right to continue to live in their community. Unfortunately, this is not a unique occurrence. In the past, similar housing evictions and slum clearances have taken place in Glasgow, Atlanta, Beijing, Cape Town, and many other cities due to large events such as Olympic Games, the World Cup, or the Pan-American Games.

Vila Autódromo’s experience reveals the potentials of community action for favelas in Brazil and for low-income communities around the world. In a capitalist setting where the production of urban space is dictated by private interests, any community can challenge developments that will lead to urban renewal and gentrification, and fight for what they believe is best for their community through collaborative community action.

References

[1] “Popular Committee Launches Final Human Rights Violations Dossier Ahead of Rio 2016 “Exclusion Games”,” accessed June 01, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=25747.
[2] “UMA HISTÓRIA DE LUTA – A Conquista do Direito à Moradia,” accessed May 28, 2016, https://vivaavilaautodromo.org/historia_de_luta/.
[3] “Timeline: Documenting Vila Autodromo’s Story of Resistance,” accessed May 29, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?page_id=28610.
[4] “Timeline: Documenting Vila Autodromo’s Story of Resistance,” accessed May 29, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?page_id=28610.
[5] “UMA HISTÓRIA DE LUTA – A Conquista do Direito à Moradia,” accessed May 28, 2016, https://vivaavilaautodromo.org/historia_de_luta/.
[6] “Timeline: Documenting Vila Autodromo’s Story of Resistance,” accessed May 29, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?page_id=28610.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Vila Autódromo People’s Plan Wins Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award,” accessed May 30, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=12851 [9] “Vila Autódromo Residents Reach Tentative Agreement with City on Upgrade,” accessed May 3, 2016, http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=27988.
[10] Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.