14 Aug 2016

Rio highway 'tearing our houses apart'

6:19 pm on 14 August 2016

Rio 2016 Olympics - Residents of a favela near the Olympic Park in Rio are angry about a new highway that is splitting the community and causing houses to fall apart.

Damage to an Olympic media bus hit while driving on the transolympica highway.

Damage to an Olympic media bus hit while driving on the transolympica highway. Photo: AFP

As excited fans flock to the Olympic stadium to watch famous international athletes competing, just 2km north, angry residents curse the Olympic Games. An official Games bus was hit with stones this week as it travelled between venues.

As buses rumble over the overpass - a new elevated highway constructed to transport fans and competitors to Olympic events - residents of the Vila Uniao favela say the vibrations are tearing their homes, and their community, apart.

Ester Silva curses the Games as another bus rumbles past, sending a tremor through her brittle brick house.

"That road ripped our little community in two," said Ms Silva, who has run a snack shop from her home for 16 years.

"My home is crumbling, all for an Olympics that is not being put on for us poor, yet we are the ones paying the highest price."

She pointed out where large patches of plaster had fallen away from her ceiling and deep cracks in the walls.

The 26km, six-lane highway, which was completed just ahead of the Games, connects the main Olympic Park and a cluster of other Games venues. The government described it as a legacy for western Rio, promising to use it as a major bus route for the area's many poor communities.

A total of 368 families were relocated to make way for the Transolimpica BRT highway, and residents say the demolition of those homes and the construction works, often just metres from their front doors, caused serious structural problems.

Residents are demanding that the city help repair the slum's 900 remaining homes, mostly tall, narrow terraces made from weak, locally made bricks.

Protestors hurl stones

At least three Olympic buses have been hit by projectiles while speeding along a dedicated lane in recent days, a senior security source said.

One bus was carrying a dozen journalists on Tuesday night when two of its windows were shattered by what some on board were convinced was gunfire, but what authorities later concluded were stones, probably shot at the bus by powerful slingshots.

In interviews with more than 15 residents and community leaders of Vila Uniao, none said they heard any gunfire when the media bus was hit. But all said they would not be surprised if the buses were targeted by angry young residents, although they denounced the throwing of rocks.

"We're an activist community, we've been fighting against the forced destruction of our homes for years," said beautician Maria do Socorro.

"If we wanted to protest, you would know it. We would barricade that road with burning tires."

The community also wants the city to meet a promise to provide it with basic sanitation. All its household waste flows into a putrid stream which regularly overflows during Rio's rainy season, sending raw sewage into homes and streets.

The Rio mayor's office strongly defends the BRT highway as desperately needed public transport for the poorest communities of western Rio. "It's an important legacy for those who use buses daily," the mayor's office said in an emailed statement.

New highway connects wealthy areas

Critics say Transolimpica BRT highway, and other new highways built ahead of the Games, are inefficient modes of transport and point out that all of them run to the wealthy Barra neighborhood, home to the Olympic Park.

Barra is also the home turf of Mayor Eduardo Paes, who began his political career there and counts on it for strong support.

The University of Zurich's Christopher Gaffney, who has studied the impact of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games on Brazil, said the new highways were "retrograde". He said it would have been better to expand Rio's metro system to densely populated areas in the west and other needy areas.

The government instead built an extension of the metro network linking the wealthy Ipanema neighborhood to Barra.

Watchdog groups say about 20,000 families have been relocated since late 2009 for Olympic and World Cup works and legacy projects. The mayor's office says 15,000 of them were moved because they lived in high-risk areas in danger of mainly mudslides and floods and does not consider them Games-related relocations.

"Funny how none of the rich areas in Rio are high risk, nor were the wealthy forced to leave communities where they had spent their whole lives," said Ms Socorro. "Why is it the poor always pay the price for what the government calls the advances that Rio needs?"

Residents say city officials promised to provide basic sanitation to the community, where all household waste flows into a putrid stream that regularly overflows during the rainy season.

But they're not optimistic that will happen: "I think that after the Olympics, officials might just give us a little bit of attention, tricking us, because of the elections coming up, but after that I think they will abandon us," Janaina Assis said.