Brazil’s History of Favela Eradication Rears Its Ugly Head As World Cup Approaches

In Brazil, illegal settlements, known as “favelas,” exist in most major cities. Migrants from rural Brazil flooded into rapidly-industrializing cities during the early 20th century and created a housing crisis. The explosion in demand drove up the price of real estate and with their meager wages, most laborers were forced to live in “vilas-cidadelas” (“company neighborhoods” that were essentially labor camps) or “cortiços” (“tenements” translated literally, but these were essentially slave barracks). Those who could not or did not choose to avail themselves of these options were forced to construct illegal settlements known as “loteamentos” (“allotments”), out of which grew the favelas (literally, “slums” or “shantytowns”).

Favelas are usually constructed on hillsides with shaky materials, making them vulnerable to natural disasters. They can be home to dozens, hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people (like Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas, pictured here.)  Most favela residents are poor and many work in the “informal” economy as prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members and the like. On the other hand, many work legitimate jobs as salespeople, school teachers or bus drivers, but they simply don’t make enough money to afford the country’s skyrocketing cost of real estate.

From their very beginnings the favelas have been associated with “illegality” in its broadest sense. Violent criminal gangs often control many aspects of life in the favelas, from arbitrating community disputes to providing illegal cable and internet services. Still, the vast majority of their residents are decent people with a strong sense of community. Sadly, the racist and classist perceptions of favelas and their inhabitants by many elements of Brazilian society have perpetuated a long legacy of counterproductive government policies surrounding their existence.

Originally, the main thrust of municipal and federal policy toward the favelas was geared toward “eradication.” This often involved police forcibly evicting residents from their homes, throwing their possessions into garbage trucks  and burning their communities to the ground. The terminology used more often those days is “pacification,” which involves police or army forces invading and occupying favelas. Such operations are not necessarily less violent than the “eradications.” In one particularly gruesome incident, clashes in 2007 between criminal groups and police forces in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo de Alemão favela left dozens dead and many more wounded.

However, with the World Cup approaching this year and the Olympics scheduled for 2016, “eradication” seems to be making a comeback. In 2011, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on the right to adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, expressed concern with “a pattern of lack of transparency, consultation, dialogue, fair negotiation, and participation of the affected communities in processes concerning evictions undertaken or planned in connection with the World Cup and Olympics.”

With the world’s biggest single-event sporting competition just months away, so-called “pacification” operations have been gaining momentum. In July of last year, Amarildo de Souza, a 42-year-old construction worker, was tortured, killed and “disappeared” by police officers in Rio. An Associated Press analysis of official police statistics showed that since 2007, a year before the security push into the city’s slums, the number of missing person cases in Rio and its outskirts rose by a third.

This increasing militarization is not necessarily a new development, but it is a worrying one. Just this weekend, fighting broke out in the Telerj favela as police evicted the town’s 5,000 residents following a court ruling allowing the premises to be cleared. Favela residents often have no legal title for the lands they occupy, but practically speaking, they have nowhere to go. As Rolnik put it, “the very limited compensation offered to the communities affected…can result in homelessness and the formation of new informal settlements…Insufficient attention is being given to access to infrastructure, services and means of subsistence in relocation sites.”

For decades, Brazil has chosen to ignore its urban housing crisis in favor of criminalizing the existence of the most disadvantaged and marginalized segments of its society. Forcibly evicting impoverished people who are systematically discriminated against from their homes will not solve the problem. Instead of investing billions of dollars into irresponsible “development” projects and building the world’s largest police surveillance center, Brazil could look to the example of the US state of Utah, which saved taxpayer money and dramatically reduced housing insecurity by giving homes to the homeless.

Of course, there are major differences between Rio and Provo, but the point is that the eradication and pacification strategy has done nothing more than sow distrust between favela residents and the state. Brazil should be investing in its communities, not dismantling them.

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