Rio de Janeiro: From the City of Wonder to the City of Business

The City of Wonder has become “the place with the highest concentration of public and private investment in the world,” thanks to the big events of this decade: the Rio +20 conference held in 2012, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, in addition to the Military World Games in 2011 and the 2013 Confederations Cup.

Source: Americas Program

“They come and mark the houses like the Nazis did.” The story flows from Inalva’s mouth with gentle fluidity, as if speaking of something far removed from her. “They mark three letters—SMH [1] and a number, and you know which ones they are going to demolish.” At a glance, one in three or four houses of Vila Autódromo are marked.

Inalva Britos is a 66-year-old retired teacher. Daughter of northeastern migrants, she came to the village three decades ago as a refugee, when it was an island of freedom under the military dictatorship. “The neighborhood was filled with soldiers dispelled from the army, teachers and fishermen.” Now she is a member of the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics since the mega-event threatens to evict those who have thirty years living next to the racetrack.

The City of Wonder has become “the place with the highest concentration of public and private investment in the world” [2], thanks to the big events of this decade: the Rio +20 conference held in 2012, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, in addition to the Military World Games in 2011 and the 2013 Confederations Cup. It is estimated that by 2020 the city will receive one billion dollars for infrastructure, services and industry [3].

Mega-events go hand in hand with megaprojects. These are located in three places: Açu Complex in northern Rio, for export and processing iron ore from Minas Gerais; Puerto Maravilla, which is reshaping the center to become a tourist haven, and to the west, the Bay of Sepetiba, which will house operations being transferred there from the port of Rio.

These huge investments have a dark side: the eviction of thousands of families and the consolidation of a security apparatus that militarizes poverty. The 2011 report of the Human Rights Commission of the state parliament reports that 5,488 cases of disappeared persons, 4,280 homicides and 524 executions in the form of “auto resistance,” a legal figure born in the dictatorship in Rio.

“The police in Rio holds the world record of deaths in armed confrontations,” said the report from the Commission [4]. In São Paulo police cause 0.97 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, in South Africa 0.96 deaths and in Rio 6.86. In São Paulo police arrested 348 people for each death it caused, while in Rio there are only 23 detainees per death. [5]

Silver powder

Marta sits on the couch, smoothes the scarf covering her hair as dark as her skin, and pulls a small bottle from her purse. The bottle is neatly corked and on its sides are two symbols: a black skull and a hand with the letters TKCSA [6]. It contains a shiny gray dust she collects when sweeping the courtyard of her house, 500 meters from the huge steel smokestack.

We are in Telma’s house, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz and within walking distance of the largest steel company in Latin America, the Atlantic Steel Company of Germany’s Thyssen Krupp (TKCSA). The city of more than 200,000 inhabitants is about an hour from Rio, on the Sepetiba Bay, provides a refuge for endemic and migratory birds because of its forests and mangroves. As a transitional marine environment–estuaries where the sea and river freshwater converge–it is an ideal place for fishing.

Santa Cruz is part of the western outskirts of Rio, the poorest city and the one that has experienced the most growth in recent decades. We arrived after crossing Barra de Tijuca, a residential area of the upper middle classes in the same coastal strip of the famous Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. The area south of the city, where the finest services and luxurious buildings can be found, seems a strange break from the favelas of Rio’s center and the western region that is home to underemployed workers.

The government plans to convert Sepetiba Bay into a large steel processing center and port, next to the neighboring port of Itaguaí where the Navy develops its nuclear submarine program. In the 1980s they developed two industrial parks in Santa Cruz. The emissions have severely damaged mangroves and fishing. In 1986 the coastal region of the bay was declared an Environmental Protection Area [7].

The new cycle of development in Brazil brought the oil company Petrobras, Gerdau steel, the TKCSA and several smaller companies. These promote the construction of a huge port to add to the harbor and the Navy shipyard in Itagui, which will be able to drain 50 million tons of iron ore [8]. Thus Sepetiba becomes the alternate port of Rio de Janeiro.

Public works of this scale have huge impacts. To get an idea of the size of the project, members of the Institute for Policy Alternatives for the Southern Cone (PACS) state that to build the TKCSA steel factory, which will produce 10 million tons of steel, requires a space the size of the Cariocas neighborhoods of Leblon and Ipanema combined.

Until the arrival of industry people like the quilombolas [9], Indians, fishermen and residents of the coastline lived off fishing and crafts. The first attack on the local population was the eviction of 75 MST families who had been camping for five years and living as farmers on the estate now occupied by TKCSA.

The second attack affected fisherfolk. The TKCSA could not be built in the northeastern state of Maranhão due to the widespread mobilization of fishermen, environmentalists, unions, churches and authorities. Now the bay waters are contaminated with cadmium, lead and zinc. Following the installation of equipment and the massive movement of large ships, fishing was restricted in large areas of the bay. More than 8,000 fishermen were left without a source of life.

The third impact is on the population as a whole. The State Ministry of Environment calculated that TKCSA raises CO2 emissions in Rio de Janeiro 76% and that the plant emits 12 times more pollution than the rest of the state’s industry combined [10]. The iron in the air increased 1,000% according to official studies.

The results are evident. Miguel, a fisherman for four decades, said he caught up to 80 kilos of croaker and parati and now only gets three kilos when he goes out. “Eight thousand fishermen are unemployed and working informal jobs,” he complains with anger and helplessness [11]. Nine fishermen associations have denounced the pollution and the steel company and are working to oppose it.

The silver rain that Doña Marta collects in bottles is a consequence of the steel company’s method of storing iron in outdoor wells that eventually are windblown. Environmental authorities were unaware of the existence of these wells and yet TKCSA was legally allowed to operate.

As in all cases of environmental and social aggression by large companies, the population is divided. The people who are organized are a handful, despite strong resistance from fishermen’s organizations and teachers. “There is fear,” says Marta. “They are powerful and strong and our neighbors feel small, but everyone knows that something is wrong with our health.” She refers to the huge increase in respiratory, eye and skin disorders.

She adds that since the companies changed the course of the river, the poorest neighborhoods flood every time it rains. The word “militia” is pronounced softly. No one dares to ask and the people never talk about it to strangers. These illegal armed gangs of police, firefighters and military control all the slums and favelas, transport, gas distribution and the security of small businesses.

The militias are working with the local political power and the state of Rio de Janeiro, and are supported by some parties because they are considered a “lesser evil” against drug trafficking. In Santa Cruz they support the multinationals by controlling social protest and resistance.

Heaven and hell are played

Every step is a great effort and struggle for breath. The thermometer reads 36 degrees Celsius in the shade while Carlos Walter (who leads us throughout the tour) says that the perceived temperature is 45 degrees [12]. The climb seems endless. The Morro de Providencia is so steep that cars have to park halfway up. Marcia, a tall, elegant woman who bears her poverty with pride, accompanies us. She forms part of the Neighborhood Commission for Housing Rights.

She leads us uphill through stairs and labyrinthine alleys, between thick water pipes that are embedded with small white pipes that supply homes with water. Every few meters she graciously stops to show the gaps in the favela made by bulldozers who have demolished houses here and there for family “security” reasons. The selection seems capricious.

“This on was torn down with the family inside,” she says, pointing to a huge pit filled with debris, pieces of sheet metal, wood and scraps of clothing. It sounds like a bad joke on an unbearably hot day, but the shock caused by the story caused us to pause at the site a long time. Then we continue uphill, until we reach a point with a wonderful view of the city.

Cold bottled water, plastic chairs and a large balcony facing the harbor and Guanabara Bay. Below us the 13-kilometer long bridge to Niteroi, the islands and highways, and the Cidade da Samba. Turning your head you can discern the Sugar Loaf, the Christ of Corcovado, and trimmed green mountains in the distance, with the Sambadrome very close. We are well above the Morro da Providencia, in a family bar.

The architect Denise Penna Firme, blonde, thin, and precise, pulls out her plans and does her best to explain the gigantic construction project taking place under our noses. “The cable car starts at the bus station near the Sambadrome, makes a stop in the favela, at the most popular square, and ends there in the Cidade da Samba. It’s for tourists, because the favelados cannot pay.” With her fingers she marks the linear route of the favela maze.

Marcia takes the floor. “Providence was Rio’s first favela, it’s 110 years old and was founded by fighters of the Canudos War” [13]. In that single sentence she tells us many things: it is a well- established zone, with good infrastructure, a downtown, and within walking distance of the port. In addition, it has a special history. All that makes it coveted by real estate speculators and the tourism business.

“It is one of the more attractive and beautiful hills in Rio,” adds Denise. The whole area will be converted into what has been named Puerto Maravilla, covering the neighborhoods of Gamboa, Santo Cristo, Saúde and Box, where a total of 40,000 people live in slums, abandoned barns and occupied houses – almost all public lands in one of the most degraded portions of the city.

The area was given to a consortium of three construction companies (Odebrecht, OAS and Carioca) for 15 years to implement infrastructure to build office towers, condos for upper-middle class residents and tourist enterprises [14]. Puerto Maravilla now welcomes cruise liners when previously it was the port for general cargo and storage. Now tourists disembark, stay in the area and have access to a circuit including favelas y samba schools.

The so-called “revitalization” of the old town requires the expulsion of 835 families in Morro da Providence and an undisclosed number of residents in adjoining areas. The port remodeling involves the privatization of a strategic area that is funded by the State Federal Savings Bank.

Almost out of Morro da Providencia, in the center of the favela, is the building of the UPP (Police Pacification Unit), which began to operate in November 2008. Now there are 28 and although they were created to combat drug trafficking, their location reveals UPP’s particular interests, according to the Human Rights Commission.

“They prioritize the hotel corridor in the South Zone, the port area for the Puerto Maravilla project, the residential zone and Maracana Tijuca, the environment of the Sambadrome, the Alemao and Penha complex, and the passage in and out to the international airport, which are all areas of interest to economic sectors. “[15]

The Commission concludes that the UPPs does not represent an alternative model of public safety but “a new police practice that articulates the old military management model of urban poverty.” [16] Human Rights Watch warns that in the five areas where there are more cases of ‘autos de resistencia’ (execution-style killings) and homicides, UPPs were not implemented nor are there plans to do so. [17]

The Commission affirms that it receives reports of human rights violations in communities occupied by UPPs, and complaints of abuse, excessive use of force, use of youth prisons, and repression by the police, especially repression of informal funk dances, a rhythm born in favelas with Afro-Brazilian samba and northeast influence.

Speculation, control and marginalization

The plans shown to tourists and real estate advertising agencies have something in common: the favelas are erased from the map and replaced by green areas. The highway through the favela of Maré, perhaps the most violent in Rio, is insulated from view by a plastic wall that hides the poverty. The attempt to make the favelas invisible is so ridiculous that it provokes laughter and indignation.

On our way to Barra da Tijuca we walk on the Yellow Line, a highway that runs through the city. To the left is Tijuca Lagoon, to the right the Jacarepaguá. The wide avenue is lined with luxurious buildings, shopping malls, a giant water park and an indoor stadium, HSBC Arena, which hosts concerts, basket ball games and gymnastics competitions, which hosted the 2007 Pan American Games.

Just beyond, there are posters announcing the future Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village, where today stands the Autodromo Nelson Piquet, in the process of being dismantled. On one side of the highway we arrive at Vila Autódromo, a neighborhood of about 450 houses squeezed between the lake, the racetrack and freeway. Its two thousand people are threatened with eviction for “interfering” in the Olympic projects.

This is the most important highway linking Transcarioca Galeão International Airport to Barra de Tijuca, where there will be many Olympic events and where the athletes will stay. To build it, three thousand housing projects will be demolished, among them the Vila Autódromo.

Inalva welcomes us at the Neighborhood Association and asks us to sit in the shade of the trees, next to the wall separating the town from the speedway, in a children’s play area built by the community. This is one of the few communities where neither the narcos nor militias have entered, but this little area is now threatened by real estate speculation.

We asked her to explain how it was possible that such a small community has been able to resist for three long decades. Her simple answer was, “Because most of us are self-employed, we survive with our hands. When I arrived, I went a year without buying anything in the store, because we exchanged fish, fruit and crops”.

Women grow medicinal plants at home and Inalva likes to remind listeners that a supportive fisherman built her home. A small community of people persecuted by the military regime achieved high levels of internal cohesion and autonomy: “We don’t have to pay rent and we have no boss. We’re artisans, masons, teachers, and small businessmen.”

They resisted the bulldozers in 1993 when the mayor tried to evict them. They are now developing a Popular Plan to urbanize the village with the support of the university research centers that are their main resource to avoid eviction. “Urbanizing the village is only 35% of the cost of removal and relocation to a residential community,” explains Inalva.

Two days later, she was invited by the Human Rights Commission to speak in parliament. Sitting with Frei Betto, attorneys and deputies she explained how property speculation destroys the city and human relations, impoverishing life. With her characteristic calmness, she cited Paulo Freire to charge that speculators are awakening “the righteous anger of the oppressed.”


Comissão de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos e Cidadania da Alerj, “Relatório 2009-2012” December 2012.

People’s Committee for the World Cup and Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, “Megaeventos e violações dos directos humanos no Rio de Janeiro”, 2012.

Interview with Inalva Britos, Vila Autódromo, December 8, 2012.

Interview with Marcia, Benny and Denise, Morro da Providencia, December 9, 2012.

Interview with Marta, Telma and Miguel, Santa Cruz, December 9, 2012.

Institute of Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone PACS “Compahia Siderúrgica do Atántico. Impactos e irregularidades na Zona Oeste do Rio de Janeiro”, 2012.

Institute of Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone PACS “Megaeventos e megaemprendimentos no Rio de Janeiro”, noviembre 2011.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program

Translation: Nidia Bautista

[1] Abbreviation for the Municipal Department of Housing in Portuguese.

[2] PACS, 2012, p. 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Comissão de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos e Cidadania da Alerj, “Relatório 2009-2012”, December 2012, p. 51.

[5] Ibid. p. 52.

[6] Thyssen Krupp-Atlantic Steel Company.

[7] PACS, 2012, p. 22.

[8] Ibid. p. 25.

[9] Descendants of slaves who escaped from the sugar mills. There are two thousand Brazilian Quilombo communities fighting for their land recognized in the 1988 Constitution. View

[10] PACS, 2012, p. 45.

[11] Interview with Marta, Telma and Miguel, Santa Cruz, December 9, 2012.

[12] This is Carlos Walter Porto Gonçalves, geographer who worked with Chico Mendes in the state of Acre. He currently heads Laboratório de Estudos de Movimentos Sociais e Territorialidades (LEMTO) of The Fluminense Federal University

[13] Confrontation between the army and members of a popular movement led by Antônio Conselheiro between 1896-1897 in the community of Canudos in the state of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil.

[14] [14] PACS, 2011, p. 11.

[15] Comissão of two Direitos Defesa da Alerj Human and Citizenship, op cit p. 50.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, p. 59.