Like his house, Jose Santos de Oliveira is an island of resistance.
The middle-aged gardener and his home stand amid the sea of rubble that remains of the slum community of Vila Recreio 2 in the west of Rio de Janeiro.
The mistake of the roughly 200 families who used to live here? They were in the way of Brazil’s make-over to host the world’s biggest sports events in the coming years — in this case, one of three new bus routes aimed at easing congestion.
The 2014 soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games in Rio two years later are spurring a multi-billion dollar drive to upgrade Brazil’s creaking infrastructure. However, as work gets under way, it has run up against a barrier — Brazil’s unequal society and chaotic urban planning that has seen hundreds of slums spring up throughout cities like Rio in recent decades.
Rights groups say poor residents appear to be losing out, raising early questions over whether the double-header of sporting “mega-events” will help heal Brazil’s deep social divisions or worsen them.
Both Amnesty International and a UN rapporteur have condemned Brazil over evictions related to World Cup and Olympic building work, a potential embarrassment for center-left Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who has vowed to eliminate dire poverty in Latin America’s largest economy.
Rio is not alone. UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik said last month that she had received allegations of evictions and possible rights abuses in eight of the 12 cities that will host World Cup games, including financial capital Sao Paulo.
She cited a pattern of a lack of consultation with affected communities as well as insufficient compensation at a time when real estate prices are booming in many Brazilian cities.
Rio city authorities have said they will seize about 3,000 houses to make way for one of the three new bus routes, the 39km Transcarioca.
They say they are following legal requirements to give notice of evictions, offer alternative housing and pay fair rates for properties, although the illegal nature of most slum houses means they cannot pay for the land.
“The city is absolutely not trying to gentrify and push the poor away,” said Jorge Bittar, Rio’s housing secretary and a member of Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party. “These new routes are meeting a demand that’s been there for decades in Rio ... the people who will use the buses are the poor, not the rich.”
The number of families facing upheaval from the works is small compared with the many low-income citizens who will benefit from better transport and a wave of public investments in slums that has been stimulated by the Olympics, he said.
However, critics see signs that Brazil is heading down a familiar path trodden by hosts of big sports events — spending huge amounts of public money without much debate over whether the projects are in the long-term interests of the population.
About 1.5 million people were evicted by Chinese authorities as Beijing prepared for the 2008 Olympics. Beijing and other recent Olympic hosts Sydney and Athens built expensive stadiums that have been used little since the Games.
“This is very authoritarian, top-down, with no public audiences, no democratic participation — and it’s going to change the city forever,” said Chris Gaffney, a visiting professor of urbanism at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University. “Everywhere mega-events go, this is the model.”