Bright flags rippling in the wind, roaring crowds, an everlasting flame— these are the images most commonly associated with the Olympics. Social unrest and forced uprooting of people to build stadiums, roads, and houses do not immediately come to mind.
For three weeks this January, I, along with 14 other students from the undergraduate and graduate schools of Harvard University spent three weeks in Brazil participating in a collaborative field course with 15 Brazilian students. The course, called Engineering and the Urban Environment, was sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in conjunction with the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the University of São Paulo, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. It incorporated site visits and classroom discussions led by faculty from all three schools. One of the most memorable field visits for me was to Vila Autódromo, a developing area called a favela, surrounding the site of the future 2016 Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro. Often times, houses in these favelas do not have adequate plumbing or proper waste treatment. The land that these settlements are on will be used for Olympic infrastructure.
“We don’t want to move—the government always asks us to move and we feel like we are being taken advantage of,” said one woman living in the settlement we visited.
Tiago Donato, a policy intern at Catalytic Communities, a non-profit representing some of these communities, explained that the Brazilian government “counts on the international community not having direct contact with the communities that are being impacted by forced evictions.” He added, “The real problem is that our government employs several means, often successfully, to get residents of informal settlements to accept less than our law and Constitution provides them.” These injustices occur despite the fact that many settlement residents want to move to areas with better infrastructure. “Rio's public defenders currently represent communities in over 200 cases where residents are determined to stay on their land,” Donato said.
This situation is particularly striking because the Olympic Games are a symbolic gesture of world peace. During the sixteen days of the Olympics, countries set aside their differences in order to unite in friendly competition. Forced relocation and unhappy citizens are bizarrely out of place alongside the vision of Ralph Lauren tracksuits and spectacular firework displays. It is unfair that those from privileged backgrounds benefit from the enjoyment of watching the Olympics every four years while those in the poor neighborhoods where Olympic facilities are deemed necessary give up their friends and family ties to make room for expensive stadiums and large displays of a nation’s wealth and power.
Carlos Krykhtine and Luis Valverde, Secretariats of Housing for the City of Rio de Janeiro assured us, as Donato had said they would, that those living in informal settlements were eager to move into new housing developments. Gentrification is common in developing areas because new businesses and buildings are built; it is inevitable in a fast-paced economy. However, a better business solution would incorporate a more amicable arrangement for the locals who need to be relocated. Perhaps the government would be more successful if it incorporated community involvement, such as by employing the locals to help build new homes. Maybe the government needs to institute a more legitimate agreement to ensure that those who are relocated receive fair compensation. In addition, it seems that the effort to relocate people is met with resistance because it lacks a personal touch. Community developers, who can connect with the locals, rather than hoity politicians or businessmen, need to have greater involvement in such a relocation project.
This J-term trip was exemplary in that it enlightened students to the challenges of the real work environment. Engineers sometimes forget that simply installing the infrastructure isn’t enough—any type of significant social or environmental change is a result of collaboration across many different sectors and countries. I hope that the organizers of the Olympics in Rio do not forget this.
Ling Lin ’12, a Crimson associate design editor, is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Quincy House.