Recap – Public Debate – PUC-RJ (April 14, 2011)

Last week members of Rio de Janeiro’s academic community, as well as members of local community action groups gathered for a public debate, sponsored by the PUC-RJ and the Nomadic University Network. The discussion was centered on housing rights, such as the recent wave of arbitrary forced evictions, the role of the Public Defender’s Office and Social Participation. The event was met with great enthusiasm and there were roughly 100 people in attendance. It was a moving debate on an sensitive topic, and included commentary from speakers Adriano Pilatti, Francisco Guimaraes, Emília Souza, Maria Lucia de Pontes, Alessandro Molon and Pedro Mendes.
Providing a great context with which to understand the violations taking place in Rio de Janeiro, speakers praised the work of the Public Defender’s office – especially the Nucleus for Land and Housing (NUTH) – which has defended the rights of poor communities for decades. Mendes and others stated that Rio’s Public Defenders are the pride of the city and indeed all of Brazil because of the work they conduct with the limited resources they are provided with. The very effectiveness of NUTH also been a double edge sword and could lead to their eventual closing. Their work defending Rio’s most vulnerable residents in land and housing disputes had earn NUTH many enemies from sectors of Rio’s power elite. Often NUTH is the only legal entity standing in developers and real-estate speculators way from evicting poor communities. In an adverse twist of fate this has caused NUTH, an office dedicated to fighting arbitrary eviction, to be faced with the prospect of being dismantled, or evicted so to speak. It is could even be ventured said that as Rio’s poor communities are being removed from public view so are the very organizations and institutions that defend them, creating a domino effect of rights’ violations. Similar to the favelas that are in the way of ‘growth’ hot shot politicos and developers see these types of entities as obstacles. Maria Lucia de Pontes alluded to this when she stated that since the Pan American games favelas that have been in the way of development have always suffered, and in this case so will those who dare to stand in the way of the powerful in order to defend these communities.
Among the central topics touched upon during the debates was the importance of Rio’s transportation or mass transit system. But participants were quick to point out that contrary to popular belief the infrastructural projects geared towards easing traffic for the World Cup and Olympic Games won’t do much more than add some new asphalted paths and air conditioned buses routes, many of which are plowing through low income communities and sensitive ecosystems. Transportation is among Rio’s most critical issues in regards to infrastructural development and it is an area increasingly engulfed in the clutches of corruption and misappropriations.  According to Alessandro Molon, Federal Deputy in Brazil’s Congress, the bus companies, which today behave similar to transportation cartels, will be the real winners of this current wave of development. Though many ‘projects’ are expected to bring changes to the quality of life for many residents of Rio, who must travel as much as 2.5 hours per day to get to work, this reality will not change.
Among the many concerns voiced by speakers were those relating to the 2007 fiasco that was the Pan-American Games. Many touted the Games as a solution to Rio’s economic woes, but beyond filling the pockets of a handful of people the Games resulted in scandals and wide spread corruption. Many believe that if preparations for the Olympic Games are anything like the ones for the Pan-American Games then Rio’s poor and middle class are in for trouble. Molon provided a compelling anecdote that highlighted the inefficiencies of these projects and the hypocrisies taking place. Molon referenced the Engenhão soccer stadium that was built in the north zone of Rio and comically compared the stadium to a shinny flying saucer that landed in the ghetto. Though the stadium was built and expected to bring some sort of community revitalization this has not been the case, with decay of the surrounding community contrasting the large modern city stadium. Many fear this will be the norm with projects being proposed for the World Cup and Olympics.  
Panelists also noted the lack of creativity with these new infrastructure and development projects. Most of the proposed projects are dated and in fact some are just plain old ideas that were stored away in file cabinets because their supporters didn’t have the political capital to push for them. Now under the opportune political economic environment of contemporary mega-event Rio many projects are being aggressively pushed through, with even some pretty hair brained of schemes getting approved. Raquel Rolnik, a UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, speaking on this issues and controversies surrounding these mega-events, said that the UN is acknowledging that the situation in Rio, in light of the World Cup and Olympics, is very corrupt.
These aggressive acts by government and private developers are causing furry among thousands of Rio’s residents, especially those being directly affected. Maria Lucia de Pontes was bold in her assertions about the state of Rio’s development and its effects on marginalized communities. She was unapologetic when she stated that “people have the right to resist eviction in the same way they have the rights to resist being murdered. It is a legitimate defense.” Emília Souza seemed more reflective, asking those in attendance, “I would like to know just who will be able to live in Rio de Janeiro in ten years?” As Rio becomes increasingly expensive and difficult for poorer sectors to live in this is a question many are waiting for an answer to.