For Rio’s favela dwellers the story of the 2016 Olympics has been one of disbanded communities, demolished homes and broken promises of urban renewal. But, as Ben Whitford finds, the determination of one community offers hope for other ongoing struggles
Early one morning in March, the police arrived at Maria da Penha Macena’s home in Vila Autódromo, a leafy favela bordering the new Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro. Next came the bulldozers; by lunchtime, the home where Penha had lived for 23 years had been demolished.
It’s a story that has played out countless times as Rio prepares to host this year’s Olympics: despite grandiose promises of urban renewal, many favela residents have seen their homes levelled to make way for roadways, venues and other construction projects.
But although she lost her home, Penha is one of Rio’s success stories. By rallying local support, rejecting payoffs and refusing to move out without a fight, Penha and her neighbours ultimately convinced Rio’s mayor to build them a new, albeit much smaller, community on the site of the demolished favela, complete with 25 homes, a church, schools and a cultural centre.
“I have the right to be here, and you don’t sell your rights,” Penha told reporters triumphantly.
While hundreds of Vila Autódromo residents and more than 22,000 people across the city have already been displaced, the survival of the community in any form is worth celebrating, says Cerianne Robertson of Catalytic Communities, a non-profit that supports Rio’s favelas.
“Vila Autódromo has become a symbol of resistance,” she says, arguing that the mayor’s unprecedented climbdown “sends a message to favela residents across the city that their lives and their community are worth something.”
With Brazil in the grips of a political crisis, an economic recession and a Zika epidemic, the Vila Autódromo victory is a sliver of muchneeded good news as the country prepares for the Olympics. It also points to a broader trend: disappointed by municipal leaders, who promised but failed to deliver transformative change in the runup to the Games, Rio’s favela residents and community activists are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and finding solutions to the challenges they face.
“Brazilians know how to be sceptical because they’ve been let down so many times,” says Julia Michaels, an American expat living in Rio and founder of Rio Real, a widely-read blog. “But activism has really mushroomed in the favelas. There are so many people doing different things, and managing to keep going despite it all. It’s very heartening.”
Besides the efforts to assert their land rights, the people of Rio – known as cariocas – are coming together to tackle issues ranging from environmental degradation to LGBT rights. Some activists are planting mangrove trees in a bid to clean up polluted lagoons and coastal waters; others are holding literary festivals and gay pride events; some are creating mobile apps to document and challenge police brutality during the ‘pacification campaigns’, staged to clean up favelas as the Games approach.
It sends a message to favela residents across the city that their lives and their community are worth something
Some favela-based charities are also thriving as the Olympics draw near. Fight for Peace, a martial arts gym in Complexo da Maré that helps 2,000 young people a year to find work, stay in school and steer clear of crime and violence, is now an official charity partner of Team GB. As a result, the British Olympic Asscoiation has sent coaches and other experts to help train the gym’s young athletes.
“There’s an expectation in society now that the Olympics will be a catalyst for social change,” says Fight for Peace founder Luke Dowdney. “Is it completely there? Not yet, but we have to keep it moving in that direction.”
The buzz surrounding the Games has brought more favela residents through the doors of Fight for Peace, with the International Olympic Committee bankrolling a four-year initiative to provide personal development and educational opportunities for 800 young favela residents. British boxer Nicola Adams is now helping Fight for Peace to replicate its success around the world, with similar community gyms already operating in 25 different countries.
“We want to see the lessons learned in the favela applied in east London, in Jamaica and around the world,” Dowdney says.
A similarly international perspective is common among favela residents, who are well aware that the Games has focused global attention on their communities. With 30,000 journalists descending on Rio for the Olympics, activists in Vila Autódromo and elsewhere have been active in reaching out to the foreign press, and using international coverage to shame domestic news organisations and municipal leaders into paying attention to long-ignored problems.
“They are using Rio’s moment in the spotlight very wisely and very strategically,” says Juliana Barbassa, a Brazilian journalist and the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, a book charting Rio’s halting transformation into a global metropolis.
With their own battle largely over, Penha and other Vila Autódromo residents are now setting up a mobile museum to memorialise their demolished community, and to inspire other favela activists. It is a poignant reminder of how much people have lost, but also of the pride they take in the movement they’ve built.
“It breaks my heart that I’m saying this, because there are specific people who fought hard and dedicated years of their life to this, and lost,” Barbassa says. “But I do think they built something that’s larger than their community or their homes … And that does matter, that does count, even though it doesn’t restore what they’ve lost.”
Main image: Maria da Penha Macena speaks after her house was demolished in Vila Autodromo. Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty.