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Olympic exclusion zone: the gentrification of a Rio favela

Residents of Babilônia complain they are being callously pushed out as the favela undergoes a rapid ‘upgrade’ ahead of this summer’s Olympics.

Jo Griffin, who has been working there, hears the inside story of Rio’s gentrification project.

The Babilônia favela above Copacabana beach, one of Rio’s most desirable areas. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty

“Look at that house,” says Nivia Bruno Ribeiro de Cajazeira, pointing to a small dwelling hidden by lush vegetation near the top of Babilônia hill, in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. “All the homes in the favela used to be built like that, from pau-a-pique [wattle and daub containing bamboo].”

We have arrived at her own blue wooden house via a dirt path splattered with the red pulp of the jaca fruit, its terrace offering a glimpse of the distant sea. Outsiders rarely come to this part of the favela; to do so requires stepping so close to people’s homes that it can feel like an invasion.

Two theories explain why this favela – one of more than 1,000 informal settlements in Rio – is called Babilônia: some say it borrowed from a local brewery when it was founded at the end of the 19th century; others believe the area’s exceptional natural beauty evoked the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Near the top of the green mountain where residents must lug food and supplies on foot, many people lack basic sanitation and nature still seems to hold sway.

For five generations, Ribeiro’s family has lived here, a short distance from the white sands of Leme beach. The favela has always been known for its tranquility, says Ribeiro, 38, who teaches computing. “For years, people used lanterns at home as we had no electricity. Being so near the sea we have many natural springs, where people would wash clothes. When I wake up, I am surrounded by birds in the trees.”

Now, as Babilônia undergoes rapid gentrification, Ribeiro is among the residents who are waiting to hear if they will be rehoused 40 miles away in Santa Cruz, in the west of Rio – a consequence of the city’s prize-winning Morar Carioca plan, introduced in 2010 to upgrade all favelas as part of the social legacy of the Olympics. In Babilônia, the plan provided for the removal of homes in three “risky” categories: those in Areas of Environmental Protection; those whose residents receive social rent and who have been rehoused; and homes in “areas of risk”, where rains can trigger landslides, such as Ribeiro’s.

A view of the Babilônia favela from Rio’s popular Leme beach. Photograph: Bert Kohlgraf#70921/Flickr Vision

It is André Constantine, president of the residents’ association, who is taking their fight to the city. Fittingly, it seems, the concrete building housing his office is located just above the point where the paved road ends. From here, he mediates with the housing office, organises meetings to tell residents about their rights and dispenses advice to those who climb the stairs to his green door. When I visit, a small group of women are waiting in the shade outside the health post next door.

Constantine is angry that the city has not kept its initial pledge to rehouse all the residents in those categories into three eco-friendly new apartment blocks in Babilônia and the adjacent favela, Chapeau-Mangueira. The Morar Carioca plan,which has been criticised for not delivering on its original promises, led to a partial extension of the main road and improvements to the drainage system, but the money ran out before all three apartment buildings could be completed. Meanwhile, some residents still lack basic sewerage facilities, he points out.

Constantine is particularly enraged by what he says was a deliberate deception. “If this is an area of risk, why have they done nothing to make it safer? It was declared an area of risk six years ago and nothing has been done.” The “lie” of Morar Carioca goes to the heart of a wider cause that consumes him: the battle against the city’s “project” of gentrification, which he says is pushing poor, mainly black, residents out of favelas in desirable areas like the south zone, ahead of the Olympics. “We residents are paying a very high price for these mega-events,” he says.

Constantine entered politics following the murder in 2007 of his father, who was caught up in the drugs trade. After such a life-changing event, you might choose that or religion, he says. He read about political theory and today he is a militant leader of the rights movement Favela Não Se Cala (“the favela won’t shut up”). All over the city, he says, similar battles are being fought.

Constantine is in no doubt that the ultimate goal of the UPP pacification projectbegun in 2009 – whereby armed police seize control of and then occupy favelas controlled by drug gangs – is gentrification. “What people have to understand is that the UPP police are the protagonists for this process,” he says, referring to the tide of property speculation, that has led to inevitable “social cleansing”.

Tributes to Mandela and Gandhi on a wall of the Babilonia favela.
Tributes to Mandela and Gandhi on a wall of the Babilônia favela. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Since the UPP project began, the price of buying or renting property in the favela has doubled, he says, pushing out tenants and preventing settlement by migrants from poorer areas of Brazil. “Someone from the north-east cannot come here and rent a place because it is too expensive now. It is only the middle classes who can afford to rent a place here now. Even foreigners are moving in to the community, and it is pushing the poverty to the edges [of the city].”

Nevertheless, the community looks as though parts of it are still being built with bare hands. Above his office, builders are hefting bags of cement on their shoulders up the hill. Below, at the UPP unit on the main road, armed police look on as foreign tourists trudge up to one of the hostels that has opened since pacification. While these new developments might look as modern as any building along the beachfront, there are concerns about construction methods and materials. Meanwhile, some residents at the top don’t even have toilets, he says. Human excrement is just hurled into the trees.

Ribeiro expresses frustration that the community now has to cater for tourists, who leave extra rubbish, for example. “We have so many problems here and we have to take care of tourists as well. It’s so difficult for us and tourists add to our problems. It makes me angry. We don’t even have a proper path to go up [the hill].”

While gentrification has led to new buildings and interest from outsiders, few visitors have left anything tangible for the residents, Ribeiro says. “These big architecture projects are not carried out in accordance with our reality. They don’t bring a school or health clinic, or install internet cables.”

The interest from outsiders is merely transient, she says. “I am tired of answering interviews, filling in surveys. Does all that leave anything solid behind? If people come here to do a film project, for example, why don’t they donate a camera?”

That gentrification has opened up the area and brought new income is evident from the crowd usually milling around Bar do David, one of several eateries at the entrance of Chapeau-Mangueira. The food has won awards and the bar is famous for the display of 200 varieties of cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane juice). Most evenings, Brazilians and tourists alike climb the lower part of the hill to sit with a beer and watch the sun go down over the apartment blocks that drive a wedge between the favela and the beach. Nearby, a welder in orange overalls is mending a rickety metal cart with the word “lunch” scrawled on it.

A man performs yoga at the top of the Babilônia favela.
A man performs yoga at the top of the Babilônia favela. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Bar owner David Bispo, 44, was struggling to make ends meet as a fisherman before opening his bar after pacification six years ago. But today he is on edge; after years of relative peace, there has been a rare explosion of violence between rival drug factions in the two favelas. Two nights ago, locals steered foreigners into his bar and drew the shutters. During a weekend of gunfire, two men died and a third was injured by a stray bullet while he was taking a bath at home. Locals say the gangs were goaded into the violence by others from their factions elsewhere in Rio.

Police cars are stationed at the favela entrance as a helicopter hovers overhead and a caveirão (the feared black armoured police vehicle) lumbers up the hill, sending residents and tourists from the centre to the edges of the road.

Bispo, a friendly host who chats in English to customers, says pacification has made many feel safer and enabled him to start a successful business, but he, too, is wary. “You see foreigners arriving and wanting to live here and start a business here in the favela, fleeing taxes elsewhere … this is a kind of cowardice.” He points out that such businesses invariably have an advantage over their rivals – the local residents.

Bar owner David Bispo
Bar owner David Bispo. Photograph: Christine Cellier

His father founded the first residents’ association in Chapeau-Mangueira and was involved in the luta, the struggle to remain in the favela under Brazil’s military dictatorship. Shouldn’t the benefits of the new era go to the “true deservers” he asks, whose ancestors fought for the community? Outsiders help businesses like his to thrive, but it irritates him, for example, that a foreign toddler has a place at the community nursery but there is no space left for a relative’s child.

For decades, state neglect forced a pace of progress that was slow and painful in Rio’s favelas, which – unlike many other informal settlements around the world – have a largely stable population. While some residents express satisfaction that state involvement has brought new income streams and improved security, there is anger that changes are imposed from outside, without consultation with residents.

Some residents talk about the golden era of the mutirão (an indigenous word meaning a group of people who work together to benefit all), when residents pooled resources to build their homes. Gentrification belongs to the more individualistic development of Rio that has characterised the run-up to the Games, they say.

To counter this trend, Pol DHuyvetter, a Belgian who has lived in Babilônia since 2012, launched solar power project RevoluSolar, empowering residents to become energy self-sufficient as electricity bills have risen. “I found out that Babilônia had been presented during Rio+20 summit as a pilot project on sustainable development. But I soon learned this had been a PR operation by the Rio host governments and some big companies,” he says.

A member of the Belgian renewable energy cooperative Ecopower, he “realised that a solar energy cooperative would be a perfect instrument for sustainable development with clear economic, social and environmental benefits”.


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