RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - 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 around 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. But 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 United Nations rapporteur have condemned Brazil over evictions related to World Cup and Olympic building work, a potential embarrassment for center-left President Dilma Rousseff who has vowed to eliminate dire poverty in Latin America’s largest economy.
Rio is not alone. U.N. 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.
Oliveira, whose house is still standing because he filed a legal complaint against the evictions, said no residents were invited to city planning meetings before bulldozers and trucks arrived to begin demolition work late last year.
Aggrieved residents like him say they are suffering because they have no political clout and their messy shack-like houses don’t fit the image the city wants to project.
“We aren’t garbage, we are people,” said Oliveira, as municipal trucks carried mounds of debris away behind him.
“We are being trampled by the economic powers.”
Rio city authorities have said they will seize about 3,000 houses to make way for one of the three new bus routes, the 39 km (24 mile) 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 to 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.
But 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 for ever,” said Chris Gaffney, a visiting professor of urbanism at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University.
“Everywhere mega-events go, this is the model.”
Another example Gaffney cites is the more than $600 million overhaul of Rio’s iconic Maracana soccer stadium for the World Cup that forced it to close last year through 2013. The stadium will be bid out to the private sector, a move that local fans fear will result in higher ticket prices.
“When you look at what the projects are actually doing, they are fragmenting and dividing the city,” Gaffney said.
Forests of newly built condominiums for Brazil’s emerging middle class and billboards advertising real estate opportunities line the route from downtown Rio to the western beach area where most Olympic events will be held.
Work has been underway for months here on the bus routes that officials say should ease congestion for the events and beyond, but which pass directly through poor communities.
“I didn’t have much choice. My four children would have been on the street,” said 43-year-old Tania Maria Alves, who accepted 40,000 reais ($24,700) in compensation for her three-bedroom house and used it to buy a home nearby.
Amnesty head Salil Shetty, who visited affected communities on a visit to Brazil last month, told Reuters some residents have been offered new homes up to 60 km (37 miles) away and the compensation offers were often a “pittance.”
“There’s a sense that these issues of human rights are coming in the way of development,” he said.
Like most Brazilians, Sueli Afonso da Costa is passionate about soccer and swelled with pride when her country won the right to host the World Cup. Now, though, the event will always be tainted by the loss of her home in the Vila Harmonia slum, which was also in the way of the new bus route.
“The city never came in here to help us, to check on our health, our sanitation. But when it was time to destroy, they came in and robbed us,” said the smartly dressed nurse.
“We are all for progress and the culture of sports, but in this case they came and destroyed our lives.”
Additional reporting by Thales Carneiro; Editing by Kieran Murray