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Rio de Janeiro on building spree for Olympics, World Cup – but at what cost?

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“There is no question of if we have to upgrade [favelas] or not; it is the right of those communities to be upgraded,” says Raquel Rolnik, the special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations who is based in Sao Paulo. “And infrastructure, especially the [rapid-transit], will be used by many people, including poor people.”

“But, at the same time, unfortunately, Brazil is also going backwards,” Ms. Rolnik says.

Building up, 'losing potential?'

The first favela, Providencia, was populated in 1897. But similar squatter communities spread across the city in the 1960s and ‘70s as migrants from Brazil’s interior relocated to urban centers. Simultaneously threatened with clearance while often ignored by city authorities over the past century, many favelas became centers of entrepreneurship, with residents finding their own ways to get electricity or sewage. But in the absence of state control, many were overtaken by drug traffickers and became epicenters of violence as drug gangs and militias battled for control. Favelas have been both stigmatized as no-go zones of violence and celebrated in popular culture like in the movie “City of God.”

Today the informal communities have taken center stage during Rio’s preparations to host upcoming mega-events, as police forces, called Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), have been sent into two dozen favelas to root out drug traffickers and militias, bringing down crime rates. At the same time, under both city and federal initiatives, new cable cars are connecting isolated communities to the main transport system and public housing is being built. Jorge Bittar, Rio's municipal housing secretary, says that 20,000 families have been relocated, the far majority because they are susceptible to natural disasters like landslides. By 2016, 100,000 new housing units in total will be constructed in Rio, Mr. Bittar says.

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