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RECIFE, Brazil — At dusk, just a few days before Christmas, Veronica Maria da Silva, her husband and her brother-in-law were taking the last valuables they could out of their homes in their neighborhood of São Francisco near the city of Camaragibe.
Windows and doors can be reused, but only if they're saved before the demolition crew arrives. So the family pulled them out of the walls, leaving ragged holes behind with piles of loose brick and tile spilled over the floors.
Da Silva grew up here, although years ago there was just one house in the area, and it was surrounded by trees and a garden. Manoel da Silva, Veronica’s 81-year-old father, lived on the property for 57 years. When his three daughters married, he allowed them to cut down some of the trees and build their own homes, creating an extended family compound.
This proximity has been invaluable since he suffered a stroke.
“He lost his speech and (use of) his right side,” Veronica said, noting that she and her two sisters had moved their father from the home in the days prior to its demolition because the situation upset him too much.
But the da Silvas are not victims of a natural disaster or economic hardship. Their problem is a sporting event cherished by millions around the world and perhaps especially in Brazil itself: the World Cup.
Their property, like those of 78 other families in São Francisco, is being appropriated by the city of Camaragibe to make room for an expanded urban transit hub. It is one of the pieces of infrastructure being rushed to completion as the June opening game of the 2014 World Cup approaches. São Francisco sits on the path to a new soccer stadium being built for the World Cup on the western edge of Recife, Brazil’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.
Now that the da Silvas are no longer homeowners they have been forced to rent, unable to afford the cost of buying in an economically booming region. Though they were compensated for their loss, they argue that it was not enough. Veronica’s husband, Elias Ignacio, said an independent assessment of their home's value came in substantially higher, at 440,000 reals (US$185,000), than the state evaluation, which awarded them just under 150,000 reals.
Threatened with a forced eviction, the da Silvas accepted the indemnity offered and now live several kilometers apart, each in a different dwelling — a situation that complicates caring for the elder da Silva. The home was the family’s primary asset; taking a financial loss on it entails not just an economic blow, but a substantial emotional one as well.
Criticism from abroad
Thiago Norões, the attorney general for the state of Pernambuco, which includes Recife, told Al Jazeera the state had set aside 100 million reals for indemnities, but many argue this is not enough to prevent people suffering. Further, the process of obtaining the funds was frustrated for dozens of families when the state deposited the indemnities into a judicial account. Such accounts require a paperwork process that can take months or years before deposits are released. According to Ana Ramalho, a professor of urban planning and architecture at the Federal University of Pernambuco, roughly 3,000 people are known to have been displaced for World Cup projects. The attorney general's office provided information about 191 private residential households affected by the evictions, but Ramalho questioned how many people remain unidentified victims of the displacements.
“It’s almost a black box to find out how many people altogether are being affected,” said Ramalho, explaining how she and her colleagues have attempted to piece together official information to determine this number. “There's no information,” she said, describing phone calls made to follow up on requests for data and still receiving no answer.
Brazil’s treatment of those in the way of its World Cup plans has prompted condemnation from the United Nations. Raquel Rolnik, the U.N. special rapporteur on housing, has visited Camaragibe and Coque, a neighborhood in Recife also targeted for World Cup–related transit projects. She said Brazil was clearly breaking a commitment that those evicted in such projects must see their living conditions improve or at least stay the same. Describing some of the small indemnities presented to the homeowners, Rolnik concluded: “We see that the people getting these amounts are living much worse than they were before.”
Some are hitting the streets to protest. Last month roughly 200 Camaragibe residents and their supporters blocked the street in front of the municipal building, burning tires and brandishing signs calling for justice. Many of those targeted for eviction had already abandoned their homes at that point, but some had done so without receiving any compensation.
Manoel and Maria Cardozo — a couple in their late 60s who lived in Camaragibe for roughly 30 years before being displaced by the transit works in mid-November — are one such case.
“We went hungry to build this house,” Maria Cardozo said. “There was nothing to eat in the house, and we just put everything into (building) the house.”
She said they were given 15 days to relocate, “but when the (justice official) returned, we were still there because we had nowhere to go.”
The loss of their home has had a huge impact. Manoel has health issues related to his heart and his legs, and while he receives heart medication from the state at no charge, he must pay 85 reals each month for the other prescription. This comes out of the 678 reals he receives monthly from a social security check, the couple’s only income. Now that they have been displaced from their home, the Cardozos are also spending 300 reals on rent. This leaves a thin margin for groceries and other necessities.
Signs of change
Speaking up has helped — even though it cannot bring back lost homes and communities. Residents and organizers report that the situation has improved since the protest, and that now many have been receiving the funds promised to them. In some cases, the amounts have also been increased. But residents argue that they should have been treated better all along. The da Silvas and others cite threats of bringing in the police to remove them, and little initial willingness on the part of the state to negotiate.
“There’s a legal process, in which the legislation outlines a participatory process, but it’s not being respected,” Eugenia Lima, an attorney volunteering with the residents' committee, told Al Jazeera.
Stories such as these are not unique to Recife, nor are they limited to the impacts on housing. Ramalho noted, for example, that walking street vendors will be prohibited from selling their wares near the new stadium, affecting the livelihoods of one segment of the city’s most vulnerable population. This prohibition will affect vendors in other tournament cities as well.
“It’s not nice and pretty to have mobile vendors, but it’s not by prohibiting it that you resolve the issue of mobile vendors,” Ramalho stated. “If he’s there, it’s because he needs the income.”
Activists and analysts have denounced similar issues that arose with both the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2012 London Olympics. They describe evictions, price increases and marginalization of small and medium-sized businesses, pointing to a pattern of mega sporting events leaving out some of the poorest segments of the societies that host them.
Some activists are organizing more than street protests. A nationwide grassroots coalition, the Comité Popular da Copa (People's Committee on the Cup), is working to highlight any injustices in the preparations for the World Cup and to pressure government authorities to change their policies and actions. Though it is too late for those who have already been moved away from their homes, there are signs that some people are listening.
Describing how FIFA, world soccer's governing body, may have to reassess its approach to World Cup host countries as a result of what has happened in Brazil, Ramalho took pride in the protesters’ role in explaining their plight.
“It's good that we Brazilians,” he said, “are going to be useful for this historic change.”
This story has been updated to correct the amount of money set aside by the state of Pernambuco for indemnities, and the process for distributing it.