The dark side of Rio 2016: 20 families win fight to stay in their homes, against all odds

By Josefina Salomón, news writer at Amnesty International @josefinasalomon

It is a story with an unthinkable ending. A true fight of David against Goliath.

On the one hand, 20 families living in the ruins of what was once a vibrant community of 600 families set up five decades ago in front of what is now Rio’s Olympic Park – and one of the city’s property hotspots.

On the other, the unbreakable will of Rio de Janeiro’s authorities, determined to vacate the land, despite having awarded the community the right to be there for a century.

Months of brutal fighting followed, in the courts and the streets – with more than half the community’s inhabitants harassed to leave their homes and some violently evicted.

Vila autodromo is across the road from Rio de Janeiro's Olympic Park ©Amnesty International/Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Maria da Penha, a 51-year-old mother of one and the most vocal member of the community, is finally smiling – albeit with caution.

Against all odds, the relentless campaign she headed for months managed to secure an agreement with the local municipality to allow the 20 families still standing to remain on their land. The local municipality agreed to build new homes from them – with construction due to start in May.

There is still a lot of distrust because of everything the authorities have done to us, everything we went through but we are waiting for a happy ending.
Maria da Penha, community member

“There is still a lot of distrust because of everything the authorities have done to us, everything we went through. But when they start building the houses they promised, that will be a victory for us, for everybody who supported us and for the city as a whole. We are waiting for a happy ending,” said Maria speaking at the church that has become her home after the house she had built was demolished last March.

A rocky road to victory

Tucked away in one of Rio de Janeiro’s upcoming districts, 45 minutes from the fashionable Ipanema beach, barely 30 houses stand in the ruins of the neighbourhood that once housed some 600 families.

The few residents that remain are surrounded by reminders of the long and painful battle to hold onto their homes – piles of rubble, graffiti, burnt bags of rubbish, discarded toys and broken TV sets.

A year ago, Vila Autódromo was a vibrant community. It was known as one of Rio de Janeiro’s few “peaceful favelas”, a survivor of the relentless drug war that has blighted millions of lives. It had restaurants, a park for children, a cultural centre and a church.

But after the site became a property hotspot in one of the most expensive cities in South America, and with the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games looming, the authorities decided that the community had to go.

Maria and her neighbours fought back in the courts, spending years battling to remain on land they had the right to occupy.

A long battle
Perhaps without realizing it, through the seemingly endless battle to protect her community Maria da Penha Silva and many of her neighbours became activists. She moved to Vila Autódromo nearly three decades ago with the hope of a peaceful life. But a few years later, authorities began harassing families to leave their homes.

Everything has been very difficult. I’m lucky to have had the strength to resist this. They knock down our homes but they cannot knock down our right to be here.
Maria da Penha

The latest threat came as soon as Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games and the authorities begun scouting for locations for new facilities. This beautiful stretch of land, overlooking a lake, was a top choice.

Building work began almost immediately. The authorities wanted to ensure that by the time Rio welcomed the world, a perfectly neat park was the only thing standing between the Olympic Park – with its gymnasia, pools, arenas and media centre – and the busy road connecting it with the town centre.

Some residents were offered money or new apartments if they left. Many who moved now complain that their new accommodation is dangerous and badly built. Those who rejected the offer were slowly pressured to leave. Water and power were cut off, rubbish collections were cancelled and eventually the municipal guard showed up with bulldozers, evicting people from their homes without notice. Maria and others were badly injured during the evictions.

Maria da Penha was injured in one of the evictions ©Amnesty International/Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

And so Maria lost the three-bedroom house that had taken her six years to build. She now lives with a neighbour, her few possessions packed in garbage bags liners and cardboard boxes in what used to be the community’s church.

“Everything has been very difficult. I’m lucky to have had the strength to resist this. They knock down our homes but they cannot knock down our right to be here,” says Maria.

Maria spends her days and nights walking around the community, checking on the neighbours who have become her family, and showing visitors what the place used to be like.

And it takes some imagination to picture the scene she describes with such passion. To picture the house that she built, to see the streets freed of rubble and rubbish, to imagine the 500 trees that once ringed the community and protected it from Rio’s punishing heat. In fact, you can barely hear Maria speak above the deafening noise of trucks helping build the Olympic Village next door.

Viloa Autodromo ©Amnesty International/Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Today, Vila Autódromo and the Olympic Park spell out much that is wrong with Brazil. This symbol of Rio’s international status lies beside the site of Maria’s tragedy, across the abyss separating the wealthy few from the marginalized masses in South America’s largest economy. Shiny, new buildings on one side, rubble and desperation on the other.

Their fight is an example to many other communities who, across Brazil, continue to fight for their right not to be kicked out of their homes.

Despite the agreement they managed to secure with the authorities, many questions remain as to how it will actually be implemented and when the residents of Vila Autódromo will have their new homes.

But for now, Maria is happy.

“They left me without money, without a home, without anything, but I was never going to give up. There are things you cannot put a price tag on. You cannot put a price on your happiness or on your human rights.”