A prize-winning plan to bring sustainable living to Rio's favelas has foundered and the residents face losing their homes
They were billed as “green games for a blue planet”, but as the Olympics draw near, how has Rio de Janeiro lived up to its pledge not just to deliver the global sports event in a sustainable way, but also to provide a social legacy that will improve conditions for the one in five Rio residents who live in favelas?
The centrepiece of Rio’s Olympic bid was the Morar Carioca programme, an ambitious plan to upgrade all 1,000 or so favelas, or informal settlements, by 2020, providing amenities such as water drainage and sanitation, and involving communities that had been excluded for decades in a participative process on improving their living conditions. Amid recession, however, the plan has stalled.
“Morar Carioca has not been dropped officially, but it has come to a halt,” says Orlando Santos Junior, a professor of urban planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “When people ask how economic crisis has affected the Olympics, the answer is that it has had an impact on social programmes. In a crisis, it is always the social programmes that are hit: the hospitals and education, and in this case the urbanisation of the favelas.”
When it was unveiled in 2010, Morar Carioca, which translates roughly as “to live as a resident of Rio de Janeiro”, generated excitement, even winning the 2013 City Climate Leadership Award for sustainable communities from the C40 network of cities. The favelas of Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira in the south of the city were highlighted as successes of the sustainability initiative. The community gained a road paved with recycled tyres, water drainage was upgraded and two eco-friendly apartment blocks were built.
Today, however, residents are taking the city authorities to court over their right to remain in the favela. They say they have been betrayed on a pledge that the Morar Carioca plan would ensure new eco-friendly apartments for all residents who live in homes in three categories: in environmentally protected areas; in “areas of risk”, under threat of landslides; and social housing.
“On paper the plan looked so beautiful,” said Nivia Ribeiro, during a visit to her home at the top of Babilonia, which is classified as an “area of risk”. She is waiting to hear if she is among residents who are to be rehoused 65km away in Santa Cruz, after city funds ran out to construct a third apartment block in the community. “Now I am really worried that I will lose my home in the favela.”
Andre Abreu de Souza, president of the residents’ association in Babilonia, says: “The prize should be given back, it’s a disgrace.” He believes poor, mainly black residents in favelas across the city are being moved to the periphery to make way for property speculation and gentrification. He says residents in the two new blocks complain of leaks and that substandard materials were used. Despite the upgrade, he says, some residents on the hill still lack toilets.
According to Santos Junior, the upgrade of Babilonia was merely “superficial”, turning the favela into “a pretty postcard”, without substantive improvements.
Critics of Morar Carioca also say that the participatory nature of the plan ended when the city broke its links with an NGO that mediated with residents. They ask whether any initiative can be called “sustainable” when there is no participatory element, and point to forced evictions resulting from Olympic development.
In its dossier on human rights violations in the run-up to Rio’s giant events in 2014 and 2016, the People’s Committee on the World Cup and the Olympics, a Brazilian NGO, said around 22,000 families had been forced out of their homes because of sports event developments. In April in Vila Autódromo, a small community on the edge of the Olympic Park, around 25 families won their right to stay in upgraded homes after a high-profile and at times violent battle against efforts to evict them, during which the community shrank from around 600 families to the few who resisted.
According to Larissa Lacerda, an urban planning graduate and member of the People’s Committee, the political agenda of mayor Eduardo Paes – who was up for election at the time Morar Carioca was unveiled – was behind the city’s decision to back down on the Vila Autodromo evictions.
“The political and economic context of Brazil has deteriorated in a way that no-one expected,” says Lacerda “On the local level, we have a failing government that cannot pay its workers and is confronting serious strikes. The worsening of the quality of life in Rio is obvious, not just in terms of the schools and hospitals, but huge traffic jams. Eduardo Paes sees all this.”
Once an oasis of nature next to the Jacarepagua lagoon, today Vila Autódromo has been stripped of hundreds of trees; fetid pools of water have accumulated amid the rubble of building works; and chemicals have discoloured the lagoon.
Elsewhere promises to use the Games as an opportunity to green Rio de Janeiro are floundering. A key promise to overhaul transportation by ringing the city with light rail and buses is incomplete because of financial problems. Paes has conceded that Rio will also fail to clean up the polluted Guanabara Bay. Another key pledge of the Olympic bid, to plant 24m trees to offset carbon emissions, has fallen behind.
But it is perhaps the failure to urbanise Rio’s favelas that hurts most. “[The Olympics] were a lost opportunity to make the city more integrated, fairer and more equal,” said Santos Junior. “It is a very big disappointment.”
Rio Olympics sustainable living sustainability human rights violation Urbanisation olympics eco-friendly Babilonia evictions