Vila Autódromo: Resistance Symbol in the Olympic Village

Cartoon criticizing the eviction practice

The preparation processes for the FIFA World Cup in 12 Brazilian cities has generated impacts in many areas. One of the most common violations has been the mandatory relocation of inhabitants to create space for infrastructure work. In Rio de Janeiro, according to the city government, 21,000 families have already been relocated and either placed in housing programs or received grants to pay for rent. The resistance processes by residents, who are allied with civil society organizations, have been responsible for changes in the number of relocations, the resettlement quality of some communities, and the compensation options for housing losses.

The resettlement program relocates the residents to distant areas of the city, where they have no access to basic services and are far from their workplaces. The network of protection for seniors and children that was created by the ties among the residents is also gone.

One the most symbolic cases was the resistance of Vila Autódromo, a community located in the west of Rio de Janeiro that historically fought to stay in the area. The community was one of the only ones to create an alternate proposal. This was done in a multidisciplinary partnership with architects, urbanists, and social scientists from ETTERN – a laboratory of the Institute for Research and Urban Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) that drafted alternatives in the environmental, social, urban, and economic fields. The Vila Autódromo Popular Plan demonstrates how it is possible to substantially improve residents’ lives with urban planning tools. The plan created terms of what the community needed to increase its access to basic services such as health, education, sanitation, transportation, etc.

Vila Autódromo is a a popular neighborhood and small community in Rio de Janeiro. It is located alongside the area that is destined to be the grandiose infrastructure of Olympic Park – a group of buildings for 16 Olympic venues. The story of the community's resistance has been spreading because it defies the public authorities and those with real estate interests.

It is located alongside the old race track that occupied extensive public land and was transferred to the Rio Mais Consortium for Olympic Park's construction. The community was originally comprised of fishermen and lower-income people who settled alongside Lagoa de Jacarepagua more than 30 years ago. The first residents organized themselves during the 1980s. They called themselves the Association of Residents, Fishermen and Friends of Vila Autódromo and demanded infrastructure and public investments in the settlement. Vila Autódromo had the support of the state government, which in the beginning of the 1990s granted the residents the title of "Grant to Real Right and Use" – a tool to regulate land, with the objective of guaranteeing the residents the security of land ownership.

Housing security, however, was not achieved. The following year, Rio de Janeiro City Hall started an intensive campaign to remove the community. The community was accused of causing "esthetic, environmental, and landscape" damage. The mayor at the time, César Maia, and his deputy mayor, the current mayor, Eduardo Paes, undertook efforts to create appreciation for the region.

Vila Autódromo residents, already organized, sought out ways to guarantee their rights for housing and the rights to the neighborhood they helped to build. Once public investments were made available, the residents felt threatened but did not give up. They reached out to their allies such as the State Public Defender, social movements fighting for housing, and several professionals from different fields tied to the fight for rights.

The mega-events and the threat of relocation for Vila Autódromo

The announcement that Brazil would host the World Cup and the Olympics, celebrated by many Brazilians, brought once more, with full intensity, the relocation threat. Some of the residents were hopeful: With the Olympics, would they have the dreamed of basic sanitation and social apparatus, such as daycare and schools, to supply the area's demands?

The Olympic project, presented by City Hall for the shore of Lagoa de Jacarepagua, reinforced the transformation project at one of the main locations of the city called "Nova Barra," alluding to an affluent area of Rio de Janeiro. In addition to Olympic Park, other plans were for widening avenues, investing in basic sanitation, and building electric power generation plants and public transportation.

The area became a priority for the placement of infrastructure work in the city, contrary to previous studies that demonstrated that the main demand for public transportation would be between the north zone and downtown. Empty areas belonged to construction companies and real estate interests were tied to political interests, such as fundraising campaigns. Vila Autódromo's urbanization was not part of those plans.

In 2012 hopes for a resolution increased at a meeting with Mayor Paes. During the meeting he offered the possibility for the community to stay, if the residents could present an alternative for relocation, which was, according to the mayor, necessary for the Olympic Games. At this moment, the idea of the Vila Autódromo Popular Plan was born.

The Popular Plan for Urban, Economical, Social, and Cultural Development

The proposal for the elaboration of an alternative urban socioeconomic plan for Vila Autódromo was conceived in a meeting at the Rio de Janeiro Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics. The committee gets groups, social movements, organizations, researchers, and scholars together to question the projects of the city that are associated with mega-events, and to denounce human rights violations tied to its preparations.

Vila Autódromo leadership participated in the creation of this committee together with university groups. It formed the Experimental Nucleus for Conflict Planning – managed by ETTERN/IPPUR/UFRJ and the Nucleus for Housing and Urban Studies and Projects – to advise the community. Through meetings, workshops, and assemblies, the methodology for the plan was defined, merging the knowledge and experience of the interdisciplinary team from the two university groups with the residents' knowledge of the needs and possibilities of their urban space.

The plan proposals were the result of surveys conducted by both the technical team and a resident committee. The plan had to be elaborated quickly since the pressure for relocation was still strong. In October 2011, the first meetings were conducted, and in December a preliminary proposal was presented.

The first version contained alternatives so that the residents could make the decisions. That first study had already shown the possibility of Vila Autódromo staying. The residents chose an urban solution inside the area currently occupied by Vila Autódromo, which would not affect the area intended for the game venues. The only changes necessary were in relation to the access roads to Olympic Park.

The proposal contained alternatives for: the environmental rehabilitation of the Marginal Strip Protection of the Lagoa de Jacarepagua, inside the legally allowed zone of 15 meters; basic sanitation issues; the improvement of internal traffic and city access (public education, health, cultural equipment, etc.); housing improvement for health-risk situations; and areas for leisure, sport, and culture. The plan also put in place community proposals for social and community development, such as the creation of internal and external communication channels, support of cultural activities such as theater, and improvements in meeting and gathering places. As the most important social demand, the residents also agreed upon a daycare center.

What is the City Hall project for Vila Autódromo?

In 2012 the newspaper O Globo published news about the bidding invitation for the Olympic Park grant, in which there was news of how the community was to be entirely relocated. Through the Nucleus of Housing and Land from the State Public Defender's office, the residents questioned the bidding and presented their plan as an alternative. The bidding invitation was interrupted and a new version was published after City Hall asserted that relocation would not be necessary for Olympic Park's construction.

As was expected, the bidding was won by a consortium of companies, Carvalho Hosken, which owns large amounts of land in the surroundings, together with the conglomerates Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez. A new project for Olympic Park was presented by the consortium, and City Hall tried again to remove the community. This time, it would be the roadwork in the area – a ring road and a transfer point between Bus Rapid Transit stations. It must be highlighted that, until that moment, in any of the Transcarioca and Transolímpica projects – including the ones presented for environment licenses – Vila Autódromo would be impacted. The argument changed once more, with no public debate or study presented.

The process for Olympic Park's infrastructure work requires an elaboration of the Study and Report of Environmental Impact. This document, which must be public, was never shown to the people, not even after a formal request by the Vila Autódromo Resident Association. The building permit for Transolímpica – a large and fast road that connects the city neighborhoods – omitted the stretch that passes over Vila Autódromo, resulting in project fragmentation. This is considered illegal by federal law, as mentioned in a report by the State Prosecutor's office. In addition, the roadwork projects for the area experienced many changes in the past years, without the proper legal due process, and without presenting studies showing the impacts on Vila Autódromo. At no time did the government consider alternatives to minimize the impacts on the community, even with plenty of empty public land available in the surroundings for other solutions.

The Popular Plan is more than just an urban solution and represents a democratized way to make plans for the city with the citizens' involvement. Alternatives are presented and technical requirements and popular demands are considered and always presented in an open fashion to the public.

Vila Autódromo residents presented the project to the mayor in a hearing in August 2012. The mayor, in an election year, promised to evaluate the proposal and give a response 45 days later. The response, however, was never given.

New threats and the response in the streets

After the elections, Mayor Paes threatened the community again after being reelected. Many newspapers reported that Vila Autódromo citizens would be relocated no later than February 2014, and that the Parque Carioca project would be launched, which is a housing complex from the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) program, where the residents would be relocated to.

Again, City Hall sent its team to the community, unprepared. They even directed officials to disseminate the wrong information and plant rumors, using threats against people to fill out the forms for the database, with promises for those who signed faster. The community had been abandoned by the government. Even so, those who went found streets with little sanitation, a playground, a residents' association with a place for parties, gatherings, meetings, and a bridge to make it easier the access the bus stop. City Hall refused to install basic sanitation – despite the favorable report from the water utility company, Cedae – and removed itself from the requests for urban control. They utilized the argument of urban precariousness to justify this. 

A new hope to stop the Vila Autódromo drama came with the June demonstrations in Brazil. Millions of people went onto the streets, and City Hall felt pressured to answer the accusations related to relocation. For the first time, the residents heard from the mayor that Vila Autódromo residents might be able to stay. But the negotiation rounds between City Hall and the community were abruptly interrupted.

The mayor returned to Vila Autódromo to continue discussing community relocation, combining various strategies already tested in the other almost 30 community relocations during his term. Another roadwork project was presented that impacted 278 houses in the community – the project had not, however, been through a public hearing or impact study.

The residents were again threatened by the continued presence of City Hall employees, and by the constant harassment from the Deputy Mayor Tiago Mohanedda, whose intent was that the residents would sign a document unilaterally surrendering their homes and their rights, including the right to judicial defense by the State Public Defender, in exchange for an apartment in a government housing project. Yet, neither a guarantee nor a commitment was given by the city government.

Direct institutional violence is still reinforced with symbolic threats by the media. In October 2013, the residents accused agents of the city government of being responsible for bringing buses and signs for a fake demonstration of about 20 residents who requested community relocation in front of City Hall. The "demonstration," which was different from the countless demonstrations all around the city against the city government, was reported in many of the big newspapers. The protesters, appearing on Rede Globo, the largest TV Brazilian broadcaster, were received at the mayor's office. In the meantime, the 256 residents who signed papers concerning community permanence and urbanization were ignored.

International recognition and the dream of a daycare center

The residents who resist relocation and feel certain about their rights keep on fighting. City Hall threatened to demolish the houses of those who did not accepted relocation in March 2014, and it has not yet presented an urbanization project for those who stayed. The fight for housing and the collective and democratic elaboration of a Popular Plan received important recognition in the absence of the city government in December 2013. The Plan received first place in the Urban Age Award from the Alfred Herrhausen Association, a Deutsch Bank organization, in partnership with the London School of Economics. The award recognizes and celebrates the creative initiatives of cities, and around 170 projects from the Rio de Janeiro metro area have been entered.

"We share this award with all the communities and all those who collaborated and cheered for us. It brings self-esteem to the residents during a moment of concern with the recent City Hall actions," says Inalva Mendes Brito, who has lived in the Vila since the 1980s. "Rio is experiencing this moment of demands in the streets, of fighting for rights, and this award is an incentive to keep on going," Brito concludes.

The future of Vila Autódromo is still uncertain. But its history of fights and conquests offers a positive example to other threatened communities in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil.

Translated by Marli Tolosa.