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Not Everyone Has a Price, Part 3: Vila Autódromo’s Rise as a Symbol of Olympic Resistance [VIDEO]

Covering 2010-2012

Sign and banner at the entrance to Vila Autódromo on October 16, 2011

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This is the third article in a six-part series that comprises the book chapter entitled “Not Everyone Has a Price: How the Small Favela of Vila Autódromo’s Fight Opened a Path to Olympic Resistance” recounting the story of Vila Autódromo’s struggle. Written by Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities,* the chapter is part of the book ‘Rio 2016: Olympic Myths, Hard Realities‘ edited by economist Andrew Zimbalist. To read our review of ‘Rio 2016,’ click here. RioOnWatch would like to thank Brookings Press for providing the permission to republish the chapter here in its entirety.

I first visited Vila Autódromo two weeks later (see Part 2). Catalytic Communities—the NGO I founded in 2000 that supports favela organizing and development of homegrown solutions as well as advocating for favela-led urban planning policies—was partly inspired by the community of Asa Branca, the closest favela to Vila Autódromo, which I first visited in 2000, due to their extensive community planning programs. When I read about Vila Autódromo being slated for eviction in the newspaper, I reached out to the president of the Asa Branca Residents Association, and he introduced me to Guimarães.

On my first visit to Vila Autódromo in early November 2010, Guimarães provided a rundown of the community’s history, his own incredible personal struggle with eviction—Guimarães had been removed by the government from his homes in two other favelas—and walked me around the calm and livable, family-centered community. Guimarães explained how he’d chosen Vila Autódromo due in part to its peace and quiet when he was evicted from City of God in the 1990s.

As we walked, Guimarães pointed out that the residents’ association headquarters had a stack of recently purchased, long, thin steel reinforcement beams carefully piled up. He explained that these were acquired thanks to weekly fundraisers the community had been holding, and they would allow the association to cover the soccer pitch on its property, guaranteeing an enclosed space for community events. Their other dream for the plot of land, he told me, was a neighborhood day care center. Eventually, he said, the plot would host the association, an enclosed soccer pitch and event hall, and a day care center.

This dream was completely shoved aside in the months and years that followed, and those reinforcement beams eventually grew rusty, as the residents’ association and a wide gamut of community members stopped living their everyday lives, instead dedicating themselves exclusively to resisting the City of Rio’s campaign to evict them. Hearing of their ensuing fate through media channels—rather than from the mouths of municipal officials—residents were confused. Planning maps submitted by the city government to the IOC in the bidding process and later—those approved by the architecture firm AECOM for the final works—maintained Vila Autódromo in place. After all, the favela was not located on the land assigned for the Rio 2016 Games—that land was where the Nelson Piquet Racetrack was—but simply adjacent to it. Yet Rio’s main media channel, O Globo, reported occasionally about the community’s pending removal “for the Games,” and, as they began to visit the community and increasingly did so, municipal workers claimed the same.

Without a moment to waste, Vila Autódromo residents began organizing. In early 2010, association members met weekly with lawyers representing the community from Rio state’s public defendersLand and Housing Nucleus (Núcleo de Terras e Habitação or NUTH). The NUTH was on firm ground in claiming the community’s rights, given Vila Autódromo was one of few favelas where residents held written documentation conceding the right to use the land. In 2005 Vila Autódromo had also been declared an Area of Special Social Interest (Área de Especial Interesse Social or AEIS) via Municipal Law 74, thus recognizing the community’s role as a site of affordable housing, protecting the community from speculative development, and declaring it a priority area for investment in infrastructure and public services. With these legal supports in hand, the community’s case was as solid as is possible for any favela in Rio de Janeiro.

In addition to opening a case against the City of Rio, the NUTH prepared an eighty-page memorandum to the IOC, describing the human rights and broader legal violations being witnessed in Vila Autódromo. The letter attempted to bring to the IOC immediate, direct knowledge of the nature of the unsettling behavior being exhibited by Mayor Paes’s administration toward Vila Autódromo, its legal ramifications, and context about what was at stake. The history and nature of the community was at risk. At the end of 2010, the IOC responded with a direct inquiry to Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sérgio Cabral, who proceeded to “resolve” the problem by disbanding the NUTH, reassigning all the public defenders from the office elsewhere in the state, and temporarily closing the office.1 

Over the course of 2011, municipal workers increasingly visited the community and attempted to knock on residents’ doors individually, but they were barred entry by organized residents who insisted that any negotiations had to be done collectively. The city’s “divide and conquer” eviction tactic had by this point been well documented in communities that experienced sudden evictions in 2010 and were caught unprepared to react, such as Recreio II and Favela do Metrô. Municipal workers were therefore ineffective in reaching individual households during this period.

While some residents held watch, barring entry by municipal agents, others took extroverted organizing roles. Early on Nascimento, Guimarães, and Inalva Mendes Brito were a sort of all-star team of organizers, each entirely dedicated to the community’s permanence yet characterized by a unique skill set and audience. Nascimento, a soft-spoken militant and mother of two teenage girls, was exceptional at building emotional bonds and often left the community for meetings with human rights and church groups and broader networks of communities suffering eviction. Guimarães held his ground in the residents’ association, generally always there when not at his construction job, often flanked by his young daughter Naomy, welcoming visitors and sharing his story of repeated eviction and thus his absolute determination to not allow the same to happen in Vila Autódromo. Brito, a school teacher who had been able to build her home up over decades, into one of the community’s largest with an organic tropical fruit garden near the lagoon, was a popular speaker on university and school campuses as well as academic conferences. All worked together to host community-wide meetings, engage with NUTH attorneys, and generally make strategic decisions.

During 2011 the government’s determination to remove Vila Autódromo became explicit. Not only in the governor’s dismantling of NUTH but in the constant reinterpreting of the “need” to remove Vila Autódromo. Justifications for eviction vacillated constantly and continued to do so over the subsequent years. Initially, in 2009 it was said the community actually occupied the future media center needed for the Games. When the future media center’s location was moved, the new justification became a “security perimeter” around the Olympic park. The community, via legal counsel, quickly defended against this justification, citing the towering condominiums being built across the street from the future park as a much greater risk. And indeed, statistically they were right: not only were the hundreds of new high-rise condos on that land more difficult to police, offering high platforms from which to execute threats, but Vila Autódromo, in its nearly five decades, had coexisted next to Formula One races and massive events like Rock in Rio (on the neighboring plot) without a criminal incident.

At this same time, left in the lurch while awaiting the reestablishment and preparation of a new group of lawyers at NUTH, leaders of Vila Autódromo’s resistance began working with urban planning partners at Rio’s two top universities, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro or UFRJ) and Fluminense Federal University (Universidade Federal Fluminense or UFF). They summoned their help to respond to a 2010 comment by Mayor Paes in which he challenged the community to “come up with an alternate plan (to removal).”

In what constituted the city’s next chess play, however, Rio de Janeiro’s housing secretary, Jorge Bittar, called a meeting in Vila Autódromo for Sunday, October 16, 2011, not to negotiate, but to make an announcement. No high-ranking city official had yet set foot in the community since declaring its removal two years earlier. And neither did Bittar, as his staff set up the “circus” (the meeting literally took place in a circus tent) just outside the community’s entrance that morning.

Citing simply a vague “we need this area for the Olympics,” Bittar shared a thorough PowerPoint presentation with a packed audience of well over one hundred residents and an equal number of supporters and journalists, displaying flashy sketches and blueprints of the Parque Carioca housing development that would be built especially to house the residents of Vila Autódromo. A bright blue swimming pool with a toboggan waterslide was promised and afforded much attention on the shiny brochures. A map showed the housing project would be just one kilometer away on the well-transited Estrada dos Bandeirantes. Apartment sketches included state-of-the-art appliances, including an espresso machine. The presentation was clearly intended to seduce while also sending the message that this was a done deal. He then opened the floor to questions and reactions.

Residents got up, one after the other, posing a number of questions. Some simply wanted more information about the diagrams and maps. Others gave deep testimonials about why they would not consider the city’s proposal and would resist to the end, citing the community’s legal defenses. Still, a few got up and angrily fired back at their resisting neighbors, saying they were eager to learn more and would accept the city’s plans. I recognized these residents—they tended to live in the newer, more precarious area of the community near the lagoon and canal’s intersection. These residents, at their peak equaling some 10 percent of the community, indeed had reason to consider the city’s proposal better than their current conditions, and they felt unrepresented by their resident association.

In previous months, however, with technical support from UFRJ’s Experimental Nucleus of Conflictual Planning (NEPLAC by its Portuguese acronym) and Institute of Urban and Regional Research and Planning (IPPUR) and UFF’s Nucleus of Housing and Urban Studies and Projects (NEPHU), AMPAVA and these technical experts had been leading a series of broadly attended public meetings in the community, debating, developing, and fine-tuning an alternate plan that would allow for the community’s full upgrading and integration with the Olympics site next door. Named the Vila Autódromo Popular Plan, the first thirty-two-page report was completed in December 2011 and launched in mid-2012, demonstrating how, for R$13,526,000 ($6,627,700 at the time), the entire community could be upgraded, including providing affordable housing on site for those in precarious dwellings while making final improvements on established homes and integrating sewerage, lighting, paving, and even the community’s sought-after day care center and enclosed soccer pitch, all outside the boundaries of the Olympic Park.

Bittar’s office, the Municipal Housing Secretariat (Secretaria Municipal de Habitação or SMH)—which became known internationally for marking homes for eviction without warning in a Naziesque fashion, with the famous “SMH” and a number—had uncovered an opportunity through the public display of vulnerability at the October event. Now the SMH argued that the community could not block access from the office visiting individual homes because some residents were clearly interested in the public housing option. So in the weeks and months that followed, while urban planners from the federal universities were holding public meetings debating the Popular Plan, which included community-based affordable housing for those more vulnerable families, SMH workers began going door-to-door, collecting information from residents allegedly interested in the public housing option.

The SMH notably sent large, intimidating groups of workers door-to-door, in many cases pressuring residents into allowing entry by saying if their information was not captured they would have no claim to eventual compensation should relocation take place or claiming they were registering residents for the Bolsa Família federal welfare program or simply asking questions about the home’s size to register something on their spreadsheets. This process went on for many months, throughout 2012 and into 2013, while a large group of residents increasingly organized their resistance.

Meanwhile, in 2012 Vila Autódromo began making its way into the global media spotlight. The first major visibility came from the New York Times in March under the headline “Slum Dwellers Are Defying Brazil’s Grand Design for the Olympics.” Thus, the stage was set for what would grow into one of the key narratives in coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games: how this small peaceful favela resisted the largest of corporate interests, interests represented not only by the IOC but especially by Brazil’s mega–real estate developers who were the ones investing in the Olympic park next door with massive government subsidies and who would thus reap the post-Games benefits of inheriting what was once prime public land. After 2016, the Olympic park would be converted to luxury housing and moguls such as Marcelo Odebrecht and Carlos Carvalho were set to gain.

Click here for Part 4.

This is the third article in a six-part series that comprises the chapter entitled “Not Everyone Has a Price: How the Small Favela of Vila Autódromo’s Fight Opened a Path to Olympic Resistance” recounting the story of Vila Autódromo’s struggle. The chapter is part of the book ‘Rio 2016: Olympic Myths, Hard Realities.’ RioOnWatch would like to thank Brookings Press for providing the permission to republish the chapter here in its entirety.

Bibliographic References

[1] Alexandre F. Mendes and Giuseppe Cocco, A Resistência à Remoção de Favelas no Rio de Janeiro—Instituições do comum e resistências urbanas: a história do Núcleo de Terra e Habitação e a luta contra a remoção de favelas no Rio de Janeiro (2007–2011) (Editora Revan, 2016).

Videos Cited Above in Text:


Complete Series: Not Everyone Has a Price: The Story of Vila Autódromo’s Olympic Struggle

Part 1: (Re)Introducing Favelas
Part 2: Introducing Vila Autódromo
Part 3: Vila Autódromo’s Rise as a Symbol of Olympic Resistance (2010-2012) [VIDEO]
Part 4: Intimidation and the Critical Turning Point (2013-2014) [VIDEO]
Part 5: The City Proceeds with Eminent Domain and Violence (2014-2016) [VIDEO]
Part 6: Conclusion—Vila Autódromo in the Context of Rio’s Olympic Evictions
Also see: Timeline of Vila Autodromo

*RioOnWatch is a project of the NGO Catalytic Communities