Tom Phillips, The Guardian
From the roof of his home in the Favela do Metrô, Eomar Freitas enjoys one of the best views in town. Look south and you see the Christ the Redeemer statue towering over Rio’s mountains. To the north stands the green and pink headquarters of Mangueira, the city’s best-loved samba school.
And in between, one of the world’s top sporting venues, the blue and grey Maracanã stadium, which will host the final of the 2014 football World Cup.
“We worked hard to build this place,” said Freitas, 35 and unemployed, whose family moved to Rio from Brazil‘s impoverished north-east 20 years ago. They built a four-storey home where their wooden shack once stood. “It was a great place to live,” he said.
Not any more. Since February, nearly all of the buildings surrounding Freitas’s home have been levelled as part of work to revamp the city’s infrastructure before the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Redbrick shacks have been cracked open by earth-diggers. Streets are covered in a thick carpet of rubble, litter and twisted metal. By night, crack addicts squat in abandoned shacks, filling sitting rooms with empty bottles, filthy mattresses and crack pipes improvised from plastic cups. The stench of human excrement hangs in the air.
“It looks like you are in Iraq or Libya,” Freitas said, wading across mounds of debris that now encircle his home. “I don’t have any neighbours left. It’s a ghost town.”
Founded by railway construction workers in the late 1970s, the Favela do Metrô, in north Rio, was until recently home to about 1,000 Brazilians. By the government’s count, 358 families have already been rehoused. About 320 remain, according to Francicleide da Costa Souza, president of the favela’s community association.
Among them are elderly women and children, including a four-year-old boy with microcephaly and cerebral palsy.
“We ask God to support us, so our hearts don’t give out,” said 77-year-old Sebastiana de Souza, who has spent 13 years in the favela, sharing a damp, cramped apartment with her daughter and four-year-old great-grandson who now plays football next to a heap of broken concrete, abandoned furniture and discarded toys. Souza said she hoped to be relocated to a nearby estate. “It’s sad. It used to be pretty around here.”
The reasons for the favela’s demolition are disputed. Locals believe authorities plan to replace it with a car park for the nearby stadium, a story endorsed by one demolition worker.
“The World Cup is on its way and they want this area,” said Freitas. “I think it is inhumane.”
Rio’s housing secretary, Jorge Bittar, said the demolition was part of a £285m project to “transform” the region around the Maracanã, itself the centre of a £330m pre-World Cup revamp. Cultural centres, tree-lined plazas and a cinema would be built, he said.
“This is a very poor community, with very precarious homes [built] in an inappropriate area and we are offering these families dignity,” he said.
Campaigners claim the Favela do Metrô is just the tip of the iceberg. Julio Cesar Condaque, an activist fighting the demolitions, claims other Brazilian cities would be affected by the infrastructure facelift. “Between now and the 2014 World Cup, 1.5 million families will be removed from their homes across the whole of Brazil.”
This week Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Salil Shetty, is visiting Brazil to meet activists fighting eviction. “We are asking authorities at all levels that this development does not take place at the cost of human rights,” said Patrick Wilcken, the group’s Brazil researcher. “While hosting the World Cup and the Olympics is a great opportunity for Rio and other capital cities around Brazil, they should be events for all Brazilians, whether they are rich or poor.”
Wilcken said he had received reports that slum residents who refused to accept compensation packages had effectively been forced out after authorities began partial demolitions.
“They come, demolish the house, leave the rubble, frequently damage neighbouring houses and the infrastructure – breaking mains pipes, cutting through electricity lines and making community unviable – and then bring in these problems of drug addicts, of plagues of rats and plagues of cockroaches that basically force the rest of the community to move, often in very, very unfavorable circumstances,” he said.
Asked why demolition had started while hundreds of people were still living in the favela, Bittar blamed a construction company’s failure to complete a new housing estate for the displaced residents on time. Leaving children to live and play amid the wreckage was unacceptable, he conceded.
“We will try to improve this. We will isolate the demolished areas [and] the areas that are still inhabited. I recognise that this has caused a nuisance to the residents and we will try and correct this.” He vowed to relocate all remaining families by the end of May.
“I will not let them knock my house down – as long as I have strength my house is not going anywhere,” said Freitas, only to admit minutes later that his exit was inevitable. “I don’t have any hope left.”