Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bulldozing the right to housing in Rio de Janeiro

by Jess Polebaum
Morro da Providência - Flickr/CatComm

As Rio de Janeiro prepares for the international sporting events it will host in 2014 and 2016, the city’s most vulnerable citizens face an abiding uncertainty: will their homes survive the city’s development plans?

Evictions across the city

Two major projects have the potential to leave a large wake of evictions in their path. A multi-focal, multi-million dollar development program initiated in 2009 and intended to renew the city’s derelict commercial port threatens to raze a portion of Morro da Providência, one of Brazil’s most historic favelas. A second effort involves the construction of a network of highways that will connect various points in the West Zone of the city, where the Olympic Village will be located and many of the Olympic events will take place. Rio On Watch, a journalistic project of Catalytic Communities, reports that more than 8,000 individuals have been evicted from their homes since preparations for the Olympics began in 2009, with up to 10,000 more evictions expected.

The city’s government denies wrongdoing and highlights the compensation and/or alternative housing it provides to evicted residents, as well as the city’s official reasoning for the evictions—namely that the homes slotted for removal are structurally unsafe. Both local and international groups, however, have protested and observed recurring patterns of abuse in the eviction process, including lack of adequate notice of eviction, unreasonable compensation, violent intimidation, and autocratic justification for the orders of removal.

Raquel Rolnik, a Brazilian architect and the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, has vociferously denounced the city’s behavior:

Where are the infrastructural construction projects slated to take place? On top of informal settlements. Why? Because it’s cheaper. Why? Because the city is violating rights. Because, in the majority of the evictions, the city has not paid the residents the true value of their homes, claiming, “Well, she wasn’t the owner of the property.” But that resident lived there for 50 years, and the right to housing, as a human right, doesn’t have to do with title to the land—it is a human right.

A right in jeopardy

In light of broadly accepted standards regarding the right to adequate housing, the forced eviction of thousands of Cariocas should be of grave concern to the international community.

The right to adequate housing is enshrined in international human rights agreements to which Brazil is bound, including in the twenty-fifth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the eleventh article of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In General Comment 4 of the ICESCR, where “adequacy” is acknowledged to be a relative term, certain elements of adequate housing are held to be absolute and are particularly relevant to the evictions and relocations taking place in Rio: legal security of tenure, location, and cultural adequacy.

The ICESCR envisions legal security of tenure extending to those who own their homes and those who rent, as well as those who occupy land or are housed in informal settlements. Rio’s government has maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the city’s favelas, at once investing in their infrastructures through the Favela-Bairro project and, in a new and purportedly more holistic effort, attempting to establish a more robust rule of law through the placement of UPPs (Pacifying Police Unit) - all against the backdrop of years of exclusion and evictions. Regardless of how the city views the favelas that stand in the way of its construction plans, the Covenant requires that the residents that are being faced with eviction receive protection.

The right to adequate housing also entails an individual’s ability to live in an appropriate location, such that the individual has access to “employment options, health-care services, schools, child-care centres and other social facilities.” When the city offers to relocate evicted favela residents, it is to sites on the outskirts of the city, miles from where these residents have otherwise built their lives. Relocation thus requires a complete restructuring of how people live and may have devastating impacts on employment status.

Relatedly, the matter of cultural adequacy is at play in assessing the appropriateness of the relocation sites. Favela residents, and particularly residents of Providência—where some families have lived for multiple generations—often feel a strong sense of place and of community in relation to their neighborhood. This cultural patrimony cannot be recreated in a relocation site and should be respected by the city government. There is a danger of romanticizing the favela in promoting the right of favela residents to remain where they are—there are certainly a good deal of social struggles and challenges that residents face regularly in relation to the poverty and crime that can dominate life in a favela. But the concern remains: by forcing residents from their homes and tearing through their neighborhoods in order to construct highways and cable cars, the city is seriously threatening individual rights.
Voices of the Mission - Morro da Providência (English version)

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