Brazil’s World Cup Development Debacle

The 2010 World Cup will kick off in South Africa this June, but Maureen Msisi, of the Landless People’s Movement wants to know “who this development [is] really going to benefit? Not … the people that most need it,” she says. Activists across the Atlantic in Brazil are saying the same thing, throwing into question a development model that has accompanied massive international events such as the World Cup and the Olympics for nearly two decades.

Protests in BrazilThe 2010 World Cup will kick off in South Africa this June, but Maureen Msisi, of the Landless People’s Movement wants to know “who this development [is] really going to benefit? Not … the people that most need it,” she says. Activists across the Atlantic in Brazil are saying the same thing, throwing into question a development model that has accompanied massive international events such as the World Cup and the Olympics for nearly two decades.

The teams have been chosen for the first round and the stadiums are almost complete.  Behind-schedule construction covers the South African countryside, working around the clock to finish the countless roads, rapid transit, metro and development projects before the 2010 World Cup kicks off this June.

“We are happy with the state of World Cup preparations,” Dr Danny Jordann, chief executive of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa told the BBC in late November.  “Most of the construction of stadiums is now complete, and work on the perimeter of stadiums is now being carried out.

International and private investment has tumbled in—even amidst the economic crisis—to revamp South African infrastructure for the international event.  Nearly a half million fans are expected to descend on the Southern-most African country for the games. 3.4 billion dollars in marketing contracts have been parceled out and government spending has topped a billion dollars.

But in this complicated country, with poverty that affects over 40% of the population, not everyone is happy with the development.

“Who is this development really going to benefit?” asks Maureen Msisi, of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), who has lived in her shack for two and a half decades in the poor community of Protea South at the far end of the immense Johannesburg township of Soweto.

Msisi points in the direction of the massive multi-million dollar stadium that has just been erected for the 2010 World Cup only a few miles away.  “It’s not going to go to the people that most need it,” she says.

Activists across the Atlantic are saying the same thing, throwing into question a development model that has accompanied massive international events such as the World Cup and the Olympics for nearly two decades.

The Barcelona “Success” – Olympics 1992

Maureen MsisiIn preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games, the Spanish city of Barcelona launched a massive revitalization project, which completely renovated the city.  The empty warehouses, and run down industrial yards of the city’s obsolete harbor, Port Vell, were transformed into the Olympic Village, complete with a commercial tower, a 5-star hotel, a marina, and an entertainment center including shops, bars and restaurants, movie theaters, a huge IMAX theater and one of the largest aquariums in Europe.

The massive port renovation was coupled with countless new roads and parking areas, new hotels and entertainment areas, and sports and development infrastructure for the other Olympic Areas: Montjuic, Vall d’Hebron and Diagonal.  According to a 1995 study by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the total direct investment related to the Barcelona Games between 1986 and 1993, topped $8 billion US dollars.

Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing all followed the Barcelona model for their Olympic game development, as have several World Cup hosts.  Barcelona 1992 continues to be a benchmark.

“We have gone to Barcelona to look and learn. What they have achieved continues to inspire us and to prove that hosting the Games really can change a city and a country for the better,” said Tessa Jowell, England’s Olympics Minister in 2006, when researching their development plans for London’s 2012 Summer Games.

“We studied the Barcelona experience when we were deciding whether to bid for 2012. But now this is for real and I am determined that we will repeat its tremendous achievements – a series of exciting projects that breathe fresh life into the city, a revitalized waterfront, whole new districts and better public transport,” Jowell said while visiting Barcelona with a British delegation in November 2006.

“Since 1992, all of the cities that received these large international events—the Olympics or the World Cup—they took advantage of the large influx of capital to carry out these transformations,” says Leandro Anton, architect and participatory budgeting representative in Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which in July 2009, was one of twelve Brazilian cities that got the green light to host the 2014 World Cup. “But these “revitalized” areas are handed over to a population that has to have money to frequent these locals.

“So it is the privatization of the space,” says Anton. “If you put in a restaurant, where they are going to charge you four or five Brazilian Reais (two or three dollars) for a bottle of mineral water, that’s not going to be for the entire population.”

Nevertheless, Porto Alegre developers and the city government are now pushing for just that development model for the city’s 2014 World Cup events.  Environmentalists and community groups are fighting back.

World Cup Development – Porto Alegre

On January 1st, 2009, Porto Alegre created the new Secretary of the 2014 World Cup (SECOPA), to elaborate development projects and procure funding for the games.  Like Barcelona, Porto Alegre’s Guaiba River waterfront is the heart of the projected development.  Among the two-dozen development projects, the city plans include massive renovations to the city’s Beira-Rio stadium (on the banks of the Guaiba river), multiple high-rise hotels and commercial buildings just outside the stadium, a revitalization of Porto Alegre’s defunct port with a pair of modern commercial towers, a new soccer stadium for the cross-town rival Gremio, a metro system, airport renovations, new roads, and numerous high-rise complexes.

“It is a measure of our city.  It is a measure of our state, to be able to receive this giant event known as the World Cup,” said SECOPA President and Porto Alegre Vice Mayor Jose Fortunati, at an event in August 2009.

But the proposals have been met with major resistance from environmentalists, who say private real estate interests are pushing major development that’s not suitable for the city’s needs.  The international environmental organization, Friends of the Earth, says the development would increase traffic, garbage and sewage runoff into the Guaiba River, and infringe on an environmental preservation zone of 30-500 meters mandated along the banks of the Guaiba River.

Activists at Guaiba“Building land use is not legally permitted in a waterfront area in order to maintain the permeable nature of the area’s soil when there is a rise in the water level of the Guaiba river, as well as the issue of ventilation barrier, because much of the breeze that blows into the city comes from the river, which is an open space where the breeze circulates freely.  So buildings create barriers that damage the circulation of the breezes and ventilation of the city,” says Carolina Hermann, an environmental architect and organizer with Friends of the Earth, Brazil.

In perhaps an early poll on the larger development issue, in August 2009, Porto Alegre asked city residents to vote on weather or not to allow the construction of a multi-million dollar apartment complex, just around the corner from the city’s Beira-Rio soccer stadium.  Although voter turnout was considerably low, the 15-acre Pontal do Estaleiro development was overwhelmingly shot down with more than eighty percent of the vote.

Environmentalists had organized around the proposal to form the Movement in Defense of the Guaiba Waterfront.  As member, Sylvio Nogueira Pinto Jr. said a few weeks before the referendum, “The Pontal is the tip of the iceberg.  If it passes there, it’ll pass everywhere else.  The door will be open.  So that’s our worry today.  Today it’s the Pontal and tomorrow, all of the initiatives that there will be along the waterfront that damage the quality of life and the environment.”

Despite the referendum results, developers, and the Porto Alegre city government say the development of the waterfront is an essential component of the Porto Alegre of tomorrow.

“The Guaiba River is our post-card image.  It is the heart of our tourism.  And we utilize it very little.  Why?  Because today we have a city which has it’s back to the banks of the river,” says Carlos Aita, President of the Porto Alegre Industrial and Civil Construction Union (SINDUSCON), which supports the development projects. “And that means that we need to think about how to take advantage of the waterfront.”

Aita says that doesn’t mean the Guaiba River will be 100% privatized.  “It needs to have a balanced-use.  Parts for private use or private investment, with a part of that also for public use, and part of it destined exclusively to public use.  That’s a modern vision and we aren’t inventing it.  We are copying it from other cities,” says Aita, who specifically pointing to Sydney, Australia and it’s 2000 Summer Olympics development strategy.

But like elsewhere, these projects will not come without a price.  Thousands of low-income families are scheduled to be removed by the World Cup developments, to make way for roads an extended airport, and numerous additional projects.  This is a tough sell, especially in the neighborhood of Cristal, just South of Porto Alegre’s Beira-Rio stadium, where hundreds of low-income people were recently displaced to make way for the new Barra shopping center and a giant chain store owned by WalMart.

“A lot of people I knew lived there. A lot of friends that came from the slums,” says Tania Siquiera, a Cristal community member, “It was really sad when they destroyed the houses there to construct that huge mall.”

But the development debate is far from over.  Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation estimates that over the next five years, the 2014 World Cup will generate three and a half million jobs across the country.  With SECOPA, Porto Alegre is already ahead of the game, actively courting investors to raise the more than 2 billion dollars in funds it will need in order to proceed with all of the two-dozen proposed World Cup development projects.

Beira Rio Stadium, Porto AlegreMeanwhile, Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro, was recently tagged to host the 2016 Olympics.  Development plans are on the slate, but improving the conditions for the millions of individuals that live in the city’s poor favelas does not appear to be a top priority.  Last year the city began construction of miles of containment walls to surround dozens of the city’s urban slums, under the guise of preventing deforestation.

Activists are hopeful that the 2016 Olympics will carry with it a renewed social agenda. But the forecast is not bright.  Rio hosted the Pan American Games in 2007.  According to an August 2007 article in Brazil’s progressive weekly, Brasil de Fato, much of the nearly $2 billion dollars in Pan American infrastructure was privatized shortly after the Games, and sold off as high-end apartments.  Activists hoped the development would be used to help resolve the massive lack of low-income housing in the world-class city.  In 2006, Rio officially boasted a housing deficit of nearly 300,000 homes.

Meanwhile back in Brazil’s Southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, activists and community members like Tania Siquiera say their struggle for a preserved public waterfront has also only just begun.

Siquiera herself is a soccer fan, and she’s happy the World Cup is coming to Porto Alegre but that doesn’t mean she agrees with the development.  “I don’t think they need to do all this [development] for the World Cup, because the tournament is only going to last for two months, and then it’s over,” says Siquiera who fears their neighborhood’s humble riverfront homes could also be added to the slate to be removed in the name of progress.  “I think they are just wasting money, with so many other things to invest in here.”


Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, a reporter, and a documentary filmmaker based in South America.  He is currently on tour in the United States with his new book Venezuela Speaks!: Voices From The Grassroots (PM Press 2010).  Visit PM Press, for a list of dates and locations.