The Blog

Rio 2016 Evictions: The Victory That Went Against the Odds

It was supposed to be the end of a battle which has lasted at least seven years. Last Friday, July 23, was the day set aside for the 20 families who are still in the Vila Autodromo community, set for removal because of the Olympic Games, to receive the keys to their new homes on the same site.

It was supposed to be the end of a battle which has lasted at least seven years.

Last Friday, July 23, was the day set aside for the 20 families who are still in the Vila Autodromo community, set for removal because of the Olympic Games, to receive the keys to their new homes on the same site.

The victory is still on its way this week, after a short delay as workmen, on a piece of land which now has an open view of the Olympic Park, frantically add the final touches.

The community has consistently resisted attempts to evict them because of through roads and a media centre being built on that site. An accord was reached earlier this year with City Hall to allow these last 20 families to stay on houses which will be built by City Hall for them.

"It's a victory for us," says Sandra Regina, 53, as she surveys the row of neat little identical white houses, so different from the tree-lined roads and alleys of the community as it once was.

"We have become a reference for many people, as our strength was greater in the end."

Once a community of 500 families, these 20 are the only ones that remain. And Vila Autodromo was unusual in getting even this victory. Rio's City Hall has admitted to 22,059 evictions between 2009-2015, but claimed that nearly three quarters of these were people rehomed due to living in "areas of risk". These are often homes in favelas in Rio which were in precarious spots, at risk from flooding or other environmental threats. Many activists and community leaders believe the real number of evictions could be much higher, and that the vast majority have been removed for works including those connected to the games, and the World Cup in Brazil two years before that.

2009 was also the year Rio won the Olympic bid, and projects including a new tramline in the centre of the city and the Transolympic expressway - all announced as legacies of Rio 2016 - have caused thousands to be moved on.

Many left Vila Autodromo itself, and were rehoused in the Minha Casa, Minha Vida government housing projects such as Parque Carioca, but Sandra thinks they now regret their decision.

"People thought they would be left with nothing if they didn't accept an offer," she remembers. "They left because they wanted to, but they were under pressure. When they saw these houses nearly ready, they felt despair. It was all unncessary."

Those residents who left still return for parties which the community holds on days such as Children's Day in Brazil, a tradition which has continued through the small number of residents who resisted until the end.

"I am happy, just for the fact that the community carried on," Sandra says.

As she strolls through it, she notes the fruit trees which are still there - avocado, acerola, pineapple, graviola, mango, and five different kinds of tomato bush. One avocado tree, Sandra remembers, was planted from a seed by a neighbour. Though hundreds of trees have been torn out by developers, those such as Sandra who have spent decades in Vila Autodromo welcome these signs of continuation against all the odds.

Sandra Maria, 48, who has lived in Vila Autodromo since 1995, raised her four children there and now has a grandchild who also lives in the community.

"It was a big victory," she says. "Not just for us, but for all communities. Wherever these Olympics go, they remove people. Our victory gives hope for the next Olympics; people will remember that we fought back."

For Sandra, unlike some families who accepted deals to leave the community and no longer all live together or close by, family life will continue all but uninterrupted. Her four children's father also lives in Vila Autodromo (although they are no longer together). Those still studying can all continue going to the same school in the nearby Rio 2 district.

"They always supported me," she said. "When I was having my weak moments, I was afraid, because if you lose your house you lose everything. My children said no, we won't lose everything. Carry on fighting."

As well as the new homes, a cultural centre, residents' association, green area and sports field have all been promised by City Hall. Many informal communities in Rio do not pay energy or water bills, but Vila Autodromo will now pay these on a special deal for those who are on a low income.

"It was a target [for evictions] for 30 years," she says. "A lot of people got depressed, even children had to seek psychological help. Some went on medication for anxiety.

"People's roots are so important. People only realise that sometimes after they leave. Your house isn't just your house, it's your social, environmental, and cultural context. You might leave and find yourself in a strange place with strange people.

"It is difficult to find somewhere equal to Vila Autodromo. It was healthy, in every sense. There was no violence here and we were close to nature. The majority regret leaving now. They didn't think this victory was possible, they felt threatened."

The two Sandras have mixed feelings about the games which are now just over a week away and will take place on their doorstep.

"I'm going to watch, as above all else I'm Brazilian," Sandra Regina said.

"It is the games of exclusion," Sandra Maria summed up. She now wants to help other communities who find themselves in the same plight as a result of mega sporting events, believing that the extra investment which Rio 2016 brought for its City Hall allowed them to carry out evictions in a more aggressive way than before.

"We had a lot of help when we needed it, so its our duty to bring this experience to others who are also resisting," she said.