While Rio de Janeiro Unwinds from the Olympics, This Community Gets Left in the Lurch

Olympics Features Rio 2016
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While Rio de Janeiro Unwinds from the Olympics, This Community Gets Left in the Lurch

The Olympic excitement enveloped much of Rio de Janeiro in recent weeks, but not all its residents are reveling in the jovial atmosphere. On August 10, as spectators gathered around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake to watch rowing events, 621 families living less than one mile away were receiving eviction notices.

First settled in 1808 when King João VI invited workers building the city’s botanical gardens to live on the adjacent property, the Horto neighborhood predates the development of other south zone neighborhoods including Copacabana and Ipanema. Generations of Botanical Garden employees built homes on the property, in a longstanding agreement with management that provided housing in lieu of monetary compensation.

But as the surrounding area developed into one of Rio’s chicest neighborhoods over the past few decades, Horto residents have begun to receive threats from city workers and from Botanical Garden management, who believe them to be squatters posing a threat to the environment and restricting the expansion of the Garden’s research facilities. Residents contend that they are the latest victims of social cleansing, manifested in the dozens of favela clearances in the city’s wealthiest districts during preparations for the city’s mega-events.

According the the Horto Residents Association, their principal adversary is the Globo media conglomerate, which built its Rio de Janeiro headquarters in a sprawling complex across the street from the community in the 1980s. Many Globo employees live in the gated condominiums in the neighborhood and company executives sit on the Friends of the Botanical Garden committee that has aggressively pushed for Horto’s removal. In recent months, articles in Globo-owned newspapers have characterized Horto residents as “invaders” and the community as “an irregular occupation,” frequently noting the estimated value of the land as exceeding R$10.6 billion ($3.3 billion).

“My house is my life,” said Neuza Carcerere, 65, a lifelong resident of Horto. She explained the majority of her neighbors are poor, elderly and black and are fearful of relocating to new homes. Where residents will be moving to, however, remains unclear. No compensation has been offered by the Botanical Garden, despite objections of government officials and housing rights groups. Most residents lack the resources to relocate to nearby neighborhoods, meaning that unless compensation packages are delivered, they will be forced to move miles away.

Emilia de Souza, former president of the Horto Residents Association, believes that the Olympics have provided officials an opportunity to remove poor families en masse from highly valued districts in the name of urban revitalization. “They gave the city a makeover by removing the poor,” she said. According to city data, over 80,000 people were removed from their homes to accommodate Olympic infrastructure, with the majority of removed residents now living in isolated public housing complexes in the peripheral west zone of the city.

Residents were indignant at receiving eviction notices while Olympic festivities could be heard down the street. This frustration has been echoed by many other cariocas, as Rio natives are known, who contest that the Games are only for the elite. “There haven’t been opportunities for most of the population to participate in the Olympics because we were totally excluded from the process of hosting it,” de Souza explained.

For the time being, Horto residents plan to resist removal, following the model of Vila Autódromo where some residents successfully negotiated with the government to remain in their homes, with others relocating to public housing or receiving cash settlements. While they hope to negotiate with the Botanical Garden, so far, they say, representatives have refused to meet with residents to discuss the court-ordered eviction.

Luiz Carlos, 53, said he doesn’t resent the tourists but does blame government officials for neglecting pressing issues in the city, such as healthcare and transportation. “People have to have joy and fun, but the government has to meet basic needs first,” he said. “The government is spending so much money on the Olympics but won’t have money to meet social necessities. Tourists will come and have a marvelous time, but they’ll leave and we’re the ones who will stay and live with this pressure.”

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