‘In the Way of the Games’: March 2014 Interview

March 14, 2013–CatComm’s Executive Director, Theresa Williamson, was interviewed on New Jersey’s WBGO Journal 88.3 Radio on the upcoming mega-events in Rio de Janeiro. Theresa talks about the challenges facing communities over the coming years, as well as the benefits of changing the way we look at favelas for the future of urban development.

[Presenter] As the Winter Olympics and Paralympics wrap up in Sochi, Brazil is getting ready for not one, but two separate international sporting events with the World Cup this June and the 2016 Summer Olympics Games. They bring with them the promise of new jobs and a boost to the economy. But what does that mean for the slums of Rio de Janeiro? WBGO’s Monica Miller spoke via Skype with one urban planner and advocate in Rio who’s fighting to preserve the favelas.

[Monica Miller] My guest is Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of Catalytic Communities in Rio de Janeiro. Welcome to the WBGO Journal.

[Theresa Williamson] Thanks Monica, it’s great to be here.

[MM] Now there’s more than 20% of Rio’s six million residents that live in shantytowns, or ‘favelas’ as they are called in Brazil. Describe for me who lives in these communities. What are they like?

[TW] Well about 23 per cent of the population of Rio live in favelas, and some of them are up to 117 years old, in the oldest case, so you can imagine over generations these have become consolidated and in many ways functional neighborhoods.

[MM] Even before the London Olympics summer games came to an end in 2012 there were protests in Rio to end the evictions of some of the residents in the favelas. Where does that situation stand today?

[TW] Unfortunately we haven’t seen a decline in evictions. There have been several waves of evictions in the past. There were two in particular, historically. One of them during the military dictatorship. And actually now we’ve had more evictions in the last 4 to 5 years thatn we’ve had in those previous two waves, and these were all evictions made possible by this pretext of having to set the city up for the mega events.

When the protests happened last June we had a slow down in evictions during that period. But what we actually saw was a kind of retooling by city officials where, since then there have been evictions, but the levels of intimidation, threats, have increased. And so they do continue.

There’s a community called Vila Autodromo, which is next to the future Olympic site that has been threatened over the years – there’s no actual reason for their relocation – we’ve seen now that a portion of the community is leaving and so it looks like a chunk of that community will be dismantled in the coming months. There other communities that continue under threat. There also communities now that are so fearful to speak up, that we know about the evictions that are happening without any public awareness because people have been threatened with death, in some cases.

[MM] Where are they going? Is there a set place these communities are being told to move?

[TW] Generally speaking they are offered one of three things. One of them is public housing in distant locations up to two and a half hours away from they originally lived. The second is compensation, financial compensation, which according to the law is supposed to be enough to buy a similar property in a nearby location. But actually people are being given compensations that don’t allow them to buy property in that are and force them to essentially build a new house from scratch by buying land. Or the third is that they are supposed to be given Assisted Purchase Offers which is the City will actually buy you a house, up to a certain value, that you identify. That is rarely given. That is what you’re supposed to be given by law, you’re supposed to be offered either nearby public housing, you’re supposed to be offered Assisted Purchase Offers, or you’re supposed to be offered compensation that allows you to live near by.

[MM] One of the issues is crime and for some people here, their idea of favelas come from movies like City of God, communities that are over over run by drug lords and gangs. However in reality homicides are up, and according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek the police have taken over almost 40 favelas since 2008 to stamp out violence. I mean, is there a valid concern about safety for the city’s residents in the millions of visitors coming to these effects?

[TW] Historically Rio hosts millions of people every year for carnival, New Years Eve, and Rio has been able to host large events – the UN Earth Summit on two occasions, the World Urban Forum. All of these events happened without any threats to visitors.

The Pacification Police was a program to bring in the police to these communities has been somewhat successful in reducing incidents of gun violence in these neighborhoods and surrounding areas. And where it has it’s been very popular among residents and neighbors but it’s also more recently led to quite a few cases of torture and civilian backlash. Only one or two percent in any given favela might be involved in criminal activity, so the vast majority of people are actually being inhibited from having parties, from having events, sometimes from even celebrating a birthday by the police occupations of these community. Really it’s not about safety for tourists, although that’s used as a pretence for these occupations.

[MM] One thing when you talk about the Olympics or the World Cup coming, other cities, for example Beijing with the Olympics, or London or Athens, economist and proponents of these big sporting events say that the influx of billions and billions of dollars, and in the case of Brazil for infrastructural loan, are worth some of the gentrification or the changes that happen. Are you seeing any of the benefits of these economic investments?

[TW] I would if I felt that the people who could most benefit from the influx resources were actually benefiting. But as we see with the protest movement that started in June and doesn’t cease, here in Rio if it it’s not the case. So what would happen is the resources that come into the city which are upwards of $28 billion, those resources are going towards large construction projects that are benefiting the construction and real estate sectors and property owners. And we’re not just talking about just any city were talking at one of the most unequal cities in the world – a city that is known internationally for its inequality. So when you’re exacerbating or even worsening inequality in the city, then it is not benefiting those people that really need it.

[MM] What do you hope the outcome will be?

[TW] Well, let’s go back to Rio’s favelas. These communities have been stigmatized dramatically by movies like City of God, that you mentioned, also by the mainstream media… If you look at any of the stigmas associated with favelas, whether its criminality, or precariousness, or or low quality housing… When you look at the vast majority of favela homes they’re built of brick, concrete, reinforced steel… When you look at the level of entrepreneurship is sky high in these communities… They develop the culture that makes Rio internationally known as a cultural hotspot. The vast majority of that culture is developed in the favelas… As a city planner I’m fascinated by how communities naturally developed in modern times, with the pedestrian orientation solidarity networks, collective action where people build their own streets, their own sewage systems, their own houses.

So all of these qualities of the favelas go overlooked when there’s a strong emphasis places on the one or two percent who produce the stigma. And so we miss all of these qualities. And so when you ask me about what could be, I think about what could be if we actually looked at favelas through the quality lens and the asset lens, and said, “Wow, what if we develop these thousand favela communities, and if each one was supported in its continued development, but dealing with the challenges through a participatory process, to get the communities developing further. They’re already used to participating, just not with the government, but with each other. What if they were developed?”.

So I think the ultimate legacy that Rio could provide the world, whether it’s through the Olympics or whether it’s just through future planning, would be to integrate these communities into the city by recognizing their assets. 23% of the city lives in these communities – that’s comparable to those that live in public housing or receives subsidies or support in New York, Paris, Santiago. It’s just in those other cities there different forms of providing affordability. Whereas in Rio, favelas are our affordable housing stock so if we could develop them as such then we can offer a lesson to the rest of the developing world which has much newer informal settlements that Rio, where you have new slums and shanties that are developing now. Instead of thinking about removing those people, thinking about how you can integrate these unique neighbourhoods that have so many qualities into those cities.

[MM] Well, Theresa Williamson, thank you so much for being with us on the WBGO Journal.