Rio Olympics: Favela poor evicted as city spruced up

By Robin Lustig
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight

media captionBerenice Maria da Neve is sleeping rough now her home has been bulldozed

Berenice Maria das Neves is beside herself with grief and rage. As we stand beside a busy highway on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, she points furiously at a pile of rubble.

"Look at that," she says. "That's where my house used to be. That's where I lived with my children and grand-children.

"Then they came and knocked it down - they destroyed everything, my table, my sofa, even a wardrobe with all my clothes inside."

Berenice's misfortune was to live in one of Rio's slums being levelled ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, as Brazil works to improve its infrastructure.

She is - or rather was - one of millions of people living in illegally-built favelas or shanty towns. She ekes out a precarious living by selling food to labourers on construction sites.

image captionNew roads are being created where favelas once stood

In the little community where she has lived for the past eight years, about 1,000 people have already seen their homes destroyed to make way for a new, improved highway, which the authorities say is part of their preparations to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

One day in May, Berenice was summoned to City Hall, more than an hour's bus ride away in the centre of Rio.

There, she was told that her house had been condemned, and was handed a cheque for 8,000 reais ($5,000, £3,000) in compensation. By the time she got home, her house had been bulldozed.

"What use is 8,000 reais?" she asks.

"I'd need at least four times as much to find a house to buy. And I had a terrible time trying to cash the cheque because I can't read or write."

Both the special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council and the international human rights group Amnesty International have condemned Brazil for its policy of evicting people like Berenice from their homes.

Rehousing programme

The authorities in Rio say they plan to demolish about 3,000 houses ahead of the Olympics and insist they are treating people as fairly as possible.

"We have already rehoused thousands of people," says Carlos Nuzman, chairman of the Rio Olympics organising committee.

image captionThe settlement of Campo Grande has 800 new homes but no play areas for children

"There are a few problems, but I think maybe you went to the wrong place to see what is happening."

Urban planner Jorge Luis Borges Ferreira says the true number of houses to be demolished in Rio is likely to be far higher than 3,000.

He says there is a clear process of gentrification under way, where the poor are being pushed further out of the city to make way for the growing middle class who can pay top prices for new luxury developments built where the slums used to be.

For now, Berenice is living in the ruined shell of a half-demolished house close to where her home was.

The floor is covered in stagnant water, and she says she is constantly being bitten by mosquitoes. She is terrified of catching dengue fever, which is transmitted by mosquitoes.

As a nation, Brazil is booming. Its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and it is fiercely proud that over the coming five years it will host both the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

But its infrastructure is creaking, which is why there is now a huge road-building programme under way.

On the outskirts

Some of Berenice's former neighbours are now living in a new housing development even further out of Rio.

In the small town of Campo Grande, an hour and a half's drive from the city centre, 800 houses have been built for people whose homes were condemned to make way for new roads.

Cleyton Martins, a 27-year-old restaurant worker, is one of them.

media captionCleyton Martins says moving meant life has become much harder for his family

He moved in seven months ago with his mother and daughter - and he says it has been hard to get used to the lack of community spirit in his soulless new surroundings.

"The house I'm living in is better than the one I used to have," he admits. "But there are no shops here, (there's) nowhere for the children to play, and we're such a long way from the city."

He worries about how he will get his mother to hospital if she falls ill, and he complains that the authorities take too long to deal with complaints about the leaking sewage which lies in pools between the neat rows of houses.

Local councillor Eliomar Coelho says the way the authorities are treating the country's poor is "criminal", as they are using the World Cup and the Olympics as a pretext for claiming back land to enable developers to make fat profits.

"This is a clear example of how the government treats the poor," he says.

"A big opportunity has been missed. Instead of being better off as a result of the boom, these people will end up worse off.

"It's a complete violation of their human rights."

Robin Lustig is reporting from Brazil for The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 GMT on Friday, 1 July or listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

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