Every Monday evening dozens of young Cariocas, as Rio de Janeiro residents are known, gather at the Pedra do Sal (the stone of salt), a small plaza located near the old port. They listen to a live samba band playing classics for hours on end and sing along. This is one of Rio's best-kept secrets, one that few tourists know about, yet which has shaped the city's identity.
Rio's old port area is pretty much where samba was born. It's also where much of the city's trade was being conducted, and where tens of thousands of slaves first touched Brazilian soil in the 19th century. In 1897, soldiers returning from the Canudos war by boat claimed the land that had been promised to them by the government. But the promise was never honoured, and the soldiers settled instead illegally on a nearby hill, thereby forming Brazil's very first favela, Providência.
The area was largely abandoned during the latest half of the 20th century, as Rio lost both its commercial and political power, and now sits underpopulated and underutilised, in spite of its central location. But the old port is set to make history again as the city slowly regains its lustre. Just like London used the momentum brought about by the Olympics to revamp its East End, Rio has an urban waterfront revitalisation plan boosted by its own 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics preparations — but a plan whose flaws were obvious even before construction work began.
Rio has an urban waterfront revitalisation plan boosted by its own 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics preparations--but a plan whose flaws were obvious even before construction work began.
Not so wonderful
Porto Maravilha, as the project is known (roughly translated as Port of Wonder), is Rio's very first public-private partnership (PPP), and Brazil's biggest, at 7.6 billion Reais (3.7 billion US dollars). It includes major infrastructure works such as construction of a cable car line and a light rail train, new tunnels, renovation of heritage buildings and construction of two major museums. Porto Maravilha will also be home to the referees' house and the media centre during the 2016 Olympics, and is scheduled to attract high-value commercial real estate thanks to generous fiscal incentives. Plans for Trump buildings, a Microsoft research centre and head offices for several major Brazilian companies have already been announced.
PPPs allow municipalities to avoid putting the burden of a project's costs on taxpayers. In this case, the project was financed by selling certificates of additional construction potential — in other words, selling to investors the right to build taller buildings than what zoning rules require in the area. A common scheme, which implies that private investors would share the risk of taking the project to fruition. In this case, however, all of the certificates were bought by an investment fund controlled by the Caixa Econômica Federal, a government-owned bank, and comprised of workers' assets (the FGTS), which essentially makes it a publicly-owned venture. The Caixa was supposed to resell the certificates on the market for a profit, but has been struggling to do so. So far, private interest in the project hasn't met expectations. This leaves the Caixa-controlled fund, and therefore the public, bearing the entirety of the risks associated with this venture, while the private sector takes in most of the profits.
PPPs "have the advantage to serve both the public and private sectors. But the way they've been used, particularly in Brazil, is not how they should be used," says Clara Irazábal, an urban planning professor at Columbia University who conducted a studio on the project and was invited to make recommendations to Rio's secretary of housing. "There needs to be checks and balances so that costs and benefits are fairly distributed, which is not the case in the Porto Maravilha project."
Culture for whom?
It is very clear that the Porto Maravilha project is meant to dramatically increase land value in the area. Meanwhile, no concrete measures have been taken to leave room for affordable housing, even though doing so would have helped to relieve Cariocas from an already over-inflated and prohibitive real estate market. Porto Maravilha would have been an ideal site for Minha Casa, Minha Vida, Rio's social housing program, but the municipal housing secretary, in charge of the program, was mostly left out of the planning process.
In Providência, 30% of houses have been scheduled for removal to make way for the new cable car and other infrastructure works as part of the Morar Carioca favela upgrading program, which is being conducted simultaneously. Many residents claim they never received any warning from city hall and only learned of their house's upcoming destruction when walls were marked by the housing secretary. They say plans made by city hall for their relocation have been inadequate; most of them will be unable to remain in Providência or surrounding neighbourhoods. The community is struggling to fight back, as only 36% of residents hold documentation of their land rights and the rest fear they may face retaliation.
Providência's only leisure area, where children used to play soccer and adults organised traditional celebrations, has also been demolished, against the residents' will. They see this gesture as a symbol that their history and culture don't fit into the city's vision for the area...
Providência is seeing its identity being slowly washed away and its needs ignored, as a huge part of its population is leaving. The favela's only leisure area, where children used to play soccer and adults organised traditional celebrations, has also been demolished, against the residents' will. They see this gesture as a symbol that their history and culture don't fit into the city's vision for the area, even though many families have been there for generations.
In fact the history of the entire old port area, which literally resurfaced when slave cemeteries and other early traces of the city's afro-brazilian heritage were accidentally dug up during construction work, will barely be acknowledged. Meanwhile, "high culture" will be given prominence with the new Museum of Art and the Museum of Tomorrow, which have no connections with the area's heritage. All of this raises questions about what kind of cultural identity Porto Maravilha seeks to promote.
"The Porto Maravilha project is conceived as part of a worldwide trend to cater to international investors and tourists," explains Irazábal. "It entails turning places into places of consumption, including the consumption of culture. The question to be asked is: Whose culture? And culture for whom?"
She says there is still time to challenge the project legally. In Brazil, the "social function" of urban land and participatory city government are guaranteed by the constitution. And since the cost of the project is being borne by public funding, the public would have every right to bring the case to courts. In practice, however, the level of organisation this would require makes any effective action impossible, unless a politician dares to come on board.
Porto Maravilha is just an example of how the city has been conducting urban renewal projects as part of preparations for mega-events. The case of Providência echoes those of Vila Autodromo, Vila do Metrô and several other lower-income communities that have been affected by removals, each time for dubious reasons. There is every reason to believe that a large part of Rio's olympic legacy will only benefit a privileged few.