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29 Jul 2016

Júlia Mello Neiva, Senior Brazil, Portugal & Portuguese-speaking Africa Researcher & Representative, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Will the 2016 Rio Olympics be remembered as the “Games of Exclusion”?

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[This blog was originally published in Portuguese in El Pais Brasil, available here. To read in Spanish, click here.]

In August the city of Rio de Janeiro will host for the first time the Olympic and Paralympics Games amid one of the most turbulent political times the country has ever experienced. The political and social crisis in Brazil has shown just how many of our institutions still need strengthening.  These are the same institutions that could have protected Brazilians in the lead up to the Games and secured a positive legacy, but this has not happened.

Earlier this year, I met and interviewed community leaders and residents of Vila Autódromo, a neighbourhood in Rio that is located right next to the Olympic Park. Together with the renowned human rights NGO, Justiça Global, we witnessed a protest by residents, with people and organizations that have been supporting the community. The protest was against the restrictions that those whose homes were neighbouring the construction of the Olympic Park were facing, as most were prevented by local authorities from freely entering and leaving their homes.

Courageous and impressive women leaders told tragic stories of their suffering as a result of the works to host the Games. Families have been evicted and removed from their homes without consultation or access to information. They were left without a voice to raise problems about their community that used to be a peaceful and safe area surrounded by nature.

Some of these families were promised new homes, the keys were meant to be delivered last week. During years of construction for the Games, residents frequently reported violence by the security forces and also suspension of water and energy services. Resident Heloisa Helena/Luizinha de Nanã said that for over two years her access to her home and religious centre was restricted. The house was later demolished.

Residents of the same neighbourhood had previously reported that the city of Rio had negotiated with private companies to build homes for middle-class people in the neighbourhood where they live, causing the removal of at least a thousand poor families. According to these residents, they have  been excluded from what the municipality and the companies call "progress."

In addition, many families lost their homes to property speculation, renovation or construction works that local government claimed were necessary for the development of the city. Those affected by these “unnecessary and unfair evictions” were never adequately consulted nor included in decision-making, said Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Adequate Housing, Rio on Watch and Lena Azevedo and Luiz Baltar on their study of Rio evictions.  Undoubtedly, the affected people will not be among those enjoying the Games; the construction activities have transformed their lives forever, not just for the Olympics. To add to this bleak legacy, dozens of workers died in Rio during construction work for the Olympics and the World Cup.

Those brave enough to protest abuses related to the Games often faced violence from police and security forces. Unfortunately, this will probably be the case again for members of the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics who are set to host important debates and protests to show how these Games have excluded people and rights. Important to remember in this context the recently-approved anti-terrorism law that has already been used to unfortunately target protesters and will continue to risk civic freedoms long after the games have finished.

The promise of protecting the environment during preparation for the Games was not met either.  Sad and ugly examples involve the contaminated Guanabara Bay, that was never cleaned, nor were rivers that the government had promised to clean. Many trees were chopped down, communities continue to suffer with air pollution, and the controversial construction of a golf course in an environmentally protected area shows poor planning and misconceived policy.

The Games received high levels of public investment but ultimately favoured private interests. For many Brazilians this has marred what could have been a proud and powerful moment for our country. Once again an opportunity to create a lasting, positive legacy has been completely missed.

Even the mayor of Rio agrees, although he has done little to prevent it from happening. We are yet to see if any positive outcomes will be salvaged from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. There are a few shiny new sport venues and some transport improvements, but it remains to be seen if brand-new stadiums and other venues will serve a useful public purpose after the events.

Both the government and businesses should have done a better job. Deaths and poor working conditions were preventable and could have been avoided if existing labour and human rights laws and principles had been followed correctly. Brazil has very strong labour laws that would have avoided these tragedies, if respected. The same can be said about the evictions, lack of adequate consultations, and the other abuses mentioned above. Unfortunately, it seems the 2016 Rio Olympics will be remembered as the “Games of Exclusion”.