Brazil Is Using The World Cup To Destroy Communities

Anthony Ling Architect
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Who would ever think that something as beautiful as a soccer championship could be destructive? The World Cup has become a social and public policy disaster for Brazil.

I’m an architect and entrepreneur living in São Paulo, so I care what happens to my city. I need to speak out, because politicians are busy spending money we don’t have to build a stadium we don’t need and won’t use again, and to build infrastructure that we know will only make our transportation problems worse, while making it nearly impossible for entrepreneurs to provide services to the mass of people who are coming.

That’s not even the worst of it. The attempt to produce a “legacy” does not only have a financial cost, but also an invaluable social cost, possibly the largest loss of all generated by the World Cup. Research done by NGOs such as ANCOP and Conectas estimates that around 250 thousand people will be evicted from their homes because of new public works related to the event.

The large majority of them live in informal communities that happen to be in public land instead of private land. That detail eliminates their legal right of homesteading, which had it been private land, they would have earned long ago. Most of the mass evictions aren’t in recent communities, but in real neighborhoods that should have been formally recognized a long time ago. After a century of not receiving their property titles or any public investment, the oldest of them – and possibly the first Brazilian favela – Morro da Providência in Rio de Janeiro — is now getting R$ 75 million to build a cable car to serve tourists. Instead of trying to solve their problems, the city will create a spectacle for the elite, removing people and houses that stand in the way.

An independent documentary called “Casas Marcadas” (Marked Houses) reveals that the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Housing Department (SMH) marked hundreds of houses with codes in preparation for sending bulldozers to tear them down, without any prior notice or personal contact with the residents. The price of properties sold in these communities, even restricted to the informal market and with low quality construction, reach R$100 thousand.

However, reparations handed out to residents that lose their homes rarely amount to R$10 thousand, when they even get anything back. To make it all worse, there are hundreds of police brutality complaints filed and reported by those who have challenged their removal, with no success. Now imagine this happening throughout the country in all cities preparing for the World Cup. Being literally removed with no other place to go, the already astonishing inequality and social exclusion gap widens even more.

The mess started when Brazil was selected as host country, and the government promised to redirect public resources to do whatever was necessary to provide a stadium that meets FIFA’s requirements and a city that can handle the influx of people.

Let’s remember that large urban agglomerations with adequate host stadiums are already ideal places for large events. Urban centers can generally absorb mass influxes of people as they count on relationships between a large variety of suppliers and entrepreneurs. Hotels prepare for an increase in demand by adjusting their prices and pack their rooms with maximum efficiency. Homeowners use websites such as AirBnB, where they can easily create short-term rentals and temporarily increase room supply.

Problems arise when government interferes in this process. Hotels in Rio de Janeiro face price controls and a mandatory discount for tourists. This puts investors and entrepreneurs at great risk, while virtually ensuring that many won’t be able to find a place to stay. To make matters worse, regulators are cracking down on AirBnB for promoting “commercial” activities in residential areas. The easy rental process which made AirBnB so successful suddenly isn’t that easy anymore.

As for transportation during the event, President Dilma recently said that it is “too expensive to make collective transportation. If it isn’t through a partnership or if the Federal Government doesn’t finance it, it just doesn’t happen.” But is money really the largest challenge to entering the transportation market?

No, much more harmful are laws keeping transportation operators and taxi drivers from simple fixes like putting more vehicles on the road, creating new routes and raising fares to balance supply and demand during an event. To be an entrepreneur and innovator in transportation – both land and air — is a job for the very powerful or for the insane given the barrier to entry for these sectors.

Micro-entrepreneurs running small vans, a sight common in East-Asian or Central-American countries, are illegal in Brazilian cities. Ridesharing is also forbidden, seen as a threat to taxi corporations. The path to better urban planning will not come through building more infrastructure, but by revising old urban regulations that control the proximity of urban attractions and the competitiveness of the transportation system.

So what’s the government’s plan to ready Brazil for the World Cup? The 41 “urban mobility” projects they have planned will cost an estimated R$8 billion. And it’s going mostly to build overpasses – which actually make traffic worse by displacing pedestrians and socializing costs, to the primary benefit of drivers and busses.

The BRT (a high-capacity bus line on the surface using adapted buses instead of trains) worsened Bogota’s transportation system, a case study that received unchecked international praise. One of the reasons for its failure was that important bus and minibus routes from the old system were eliminated in order to raise demand for the BRT.

Centralizing the system in this way also makes it fragile to both political change and changing demand for different routes – guaranteed for any city. In order to fix a complex decentralized system like traffic, one should find complex decentralized solutions, instead of simplified centralized. Brazilian mobility works. Besides, any system that requires forced restriction of its competitors in order to operate successfully is, from the start, a failure.

The “infrastructure” that the country ends up with are stadiums that, according to Instituto Ethos, will receive R$9 billion in public resources. Moreover, there is no evidence that they will have any future use, as most cities do not even have teams or supporters. Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” built for the 2008 Olympics is facing the exact same problem, organizing infamous Segway tours around the field to desperately get some return out of the investment. The the Brazilian World Cup organizing committee showed poor judgment when it suggested using the derelict structures for wedding celebrations. Recently, public officials considered turning the Amazon Arena into a prison after the event, improvising on a monumental scale.

Spending money does not mean generating wealth, or fixing the nation’s toughest problems. The World Cup has given politicians the prerogative to centralize power and increase taxes. Make no mistake, despite the rhetoric, there are no “detained” resources to be “released” to build this infrastructure. And in actuality, our economy is not “stimulated” by spending. Our money has just been redirected from the sphere of our personal choices and transferred to state decisions at a federal level.

Inefficiency and corruption reign throughout this reallocation. Politicians just collect more when there is not enough. The costs for the Curitiba and Salvador airports expansion, the stadium in Porto Alegre and the port in Fortaleza practically doubled from their original budget. The Mané Garrincha Stadium, in Brasilia, may well go over R$2 billion: R$1.78 billion is already gone and they have just opened up contracts of around R$350 million for works surrounding the stadium.

The Brazilian government interfered in the World Cup in order to avoid a chaotic scenario and to build a “legacy” for the country. The result we see up to now is the opposite: chaos and a legacy of destruction.

Anthony Ling is an architect, urbanist, and entrepreneur currently living in São Paulo.