Olympics, World Cup preparation bring evictions

JULIANA BARBASSA Associated Press Published:

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Like most Brazilians, Evandro dos Santos' devotion to soccer borders on the religious. Even when he wasn't watching a game, he loved hearing the roar of the crowd in nearby Maracana stadium -- this nation's temple to the sport.

But Santos says he'll never set foot in the place again.

Rio de Janeiro is giving the stadium's neighborhood a $63.2 million facelift as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Maracana will be the jewel crowning both events, with the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the final World Cup matches held within its storied blue and gray walls.

The shantytown where Santos has lived with his family for 19 years, known as Favela do Metro, does not fit in that picture. It's being bulldozed; hundreds of families have been bought out as part of a "revitalization" process for the big events and the hordes of foreigners they will draw.

"They're destroying our neighborhood for a game," Santos said, standing in the convenience store and bar he runs in the front of his family's house.

All across Rio, people are being pushed out of their homes in dozens of communities like Metro to make way for new roads, Olympic venues and other projects.

Authorities won't say how many people are affected and mostly don't provide details on the plans for the areas where residents are being evicted.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press, however, show that in 2010 alone, the municipal housing authority made 6,927 payments for resettlement costs, rent supplements or buy-outs to people in 88 communities across Rio.

Nationwide, about 170,000 people are facing threats to their housing, or already have been removed, in the 12 cities that will host World Cup matches, according to the Coalition of Popular Committees for the World Cup and the Olympics, an advocacy group for residents of the affected shantytowns.

In Rio, the city housing authority and the international and local Olympic organizing committees say all is being done according to the law. But residents, advocates and legal authorities say rights are being abused and warn that could be the legacy of the Olympics and World Cup.

The office of Rio's municipal housing authority chief, Jorge Bittar, responded to repeated inquiries from the AP about removals with a statement saying that "resettling has been done in the most democratic way possible, respecting the rights of each family."

It said officials explain to each family the value of their property, and then offer a choice from several options: a home in a federal housing project in the place of their choosing, a stipend of up to $230 a month to rent a home they find themselves, compensation for their house, or assistance in purchasing another house.

The International Olympic Committee and Rio 2016, the local organizing committee, said in a statement that they're following the resettlement issue closely and think removals abide by Brazilian law.

Residents of Metro and lawyers tell a different story.

Standing in the bar he runs in the shantytown, Santos gestured at the layer of bricks, twisted metal and broken plaster that surrounds his home. Across the street, next door, even on the floor above, homes have been demolished. Children play in the debris, which has been piling up since demolitions started in early 2009. Other homes are tagged in blue with the letters SMH -- the initials of the municipal housing authority. That means they're next.

But nobody in Metro knows for sure what's in store for the slum. The housing authority's statement said only that the "area around the stadium will be totally revitalized."

Some residents were threatened by city workers who told them they had no rights to the land, which they occupied in the 1970s. The workers said the residents "didn't even own the walls of their homes," Santos said.

Initially, they were offered government-built housing in a working-class suburb 45 miles away, with poor access to transportation and jobs. About 100 families accepted, under duress. Another 100 or so took the offer that followed -- resettlement in a closer housing project.

About 270 families are resisting, however, said the Metro residents association president, Francicleide Souza.

"We are living in fear and uncertainty," Souza said. "We don't know what will happen to our families tomorrow."

Compensation paid per home for the removals in 2010 averaged $16,000. The amount varies according to the size and quality of a structure.

The money offered is not nearly enough to find another home in Rio, said Eliomar Coelho, a city councilman heading an investigation into removals. Market studies say Rio's real estate is now among the most expensive in the Americas.

"If you're going to take someone out of their home, you have to provide them with an alternative that is equal or better," Coelho said.

Alexandre Mendes, until recently head of the housing rights unit of the Rio state public defenders office, contends the relocation process is riddled with illegalities.

"Many of these removals did not respect principles and rights considered basic in local and international law," he said.

There are dozens of pending cases charging irregularities during the past three years, Mendes said. He said abuses include pulling families from homes at night while a bulldozer stood by to start demolition, forcing families to move to distant housing projects, and paying those who chose financial compensation little for their homes.

In the case of the Restinga slum, which made way for the new Transoeste highway across Rio's west side, Mendes was awakened by residents' calls in the middle of the night. It was just before Christmas 2010, he said. He got there at 2:30 a.m. and saw heavy machinery tearing down houses. If people refused to leave, walls were knocked down with them still inside, he said.

"The brutality of that moment, I can describe because I was there and I saw it," he said.

Metro's people know all this, and fear much more since city officials have given them little concrete information.

Santos knows, for example, of one resident who ran a paper goods store out of his home, and got $4,060 in compensation. It's not enough to build a new home and store elsewhere, so Santos is not giving up on his own property.

He's pinning his hopes on a rumor that of the community's 126 businesses, 40 will remain. Maybe he'll be one of the 40.

"I have built something here -- a house, a business," Santos said. "That's what I want. Not a gift, not charity. I want to keep on working and earning my money and feeding my family."