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Transforming Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics: another path to accumulation by dispossession?

Transformer Rio de Janeiro pour les Jeux olympiques: une autre façon d’amener à l’accumulation par la dépossession?
Luanda Vannuchi and Mathieu Van Criekingen


The intricate links between the Olympics and urban change have been theorised in diverse ways in critical urban studies, including readings of Olympic city-making in terms of enforcement of neoliberal entrepreneurial governance, gentrification through large-scale redevelopment projects, reproduction of growth-machine politics, and acquisition of symbolic capital through city branding politics. Following these points, we reflect in this paper on how the Olympics exacerbate wider trends in urban political economy under contemporary capitalism in the case of Rio 2016. We attempt to do so by turning to David Harvey’s (2003) conceptualisation of accumulation by dispossession. Our hypothesis is that this concept holds a sizeable heuristic value for making sense of the not-so-exceptional character of Olympic city-making in the present configuration of capitalism. Our findings confirm the relevance of Harvey’s elaboration on the empirical ground of sport mega-events but also outline limitations.

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1More than 40 years ago, Guy Debord called attention to the depoliticising potential of spectacles and their capacity to obscure the very nature of capitalism. Given the increasing eventization of sports competitions such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup and the parallel rise of their centrality in urban agendas, one could now question how far such events obscure the very nature of contemporary capitalist urbanism. Such mega-events are now heavily used as promoters or catalysts of massive urban restructuring schemes, deeply impacting urban politics and built environments (Gold and Gold 2011). The Olympic Games to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016, preceded by some of the World Cup football matches held in 2014 in Brazil, are clearly along the same lines.

2In reaction to official discourses celebrating the legacy of large-scale infrastructural improvements and economic benefits, urban social movements, NGOs, and alternative media have recurrently reported a series of adverse outcomes of such mega-events: rising land values and rent increases fuelling displacement of residents, slum clearance implying violent evictions and forced relocations, militarisation of public spaces, bypassing of laws and planning measures, temporary suspension of assembly and association rights, enormous public expenditures in structures of arguable utility, and public indebtedness to cover inflated expenses (Cohre 2007, Rolnik 2009).

3The intricate links between the Olympics and urban change have been theorised in diverse critical ways in academic literature, including readings of Olympic city-making in terms of enforcement of neoliberal entrepreneurialism (e.g. Hall 2006, Vainer 2011), gentrification through large-scale redevelopment projects (e.g. Coaffee 2011), reproduction of growth-machine politics (e.g. Castro 2011), and acquisition of symbolic capital through city branding politics (e.g. Broudehoux 2007). Some authors also point to the sidestepping of existing planning or participatory regulations as actual major legacies of the Games, hence formulating the notion of an ‘exceptionality urbanism’ (Swyngedouw et al. 2002). Examining the London case, however, Raco (2012) contests this argument, for it bears the risk of treating Olympic city-making as purely distinct from any other forms of ‘ordinary’ city-making, hence relegating it to a specific, ad hoc literature niche. Furthermore, sociologist Carlos Vainer (2011), following Agamben (2005), discusses Rio de Janeiro as a ‘city of exception’, although underlining that exceptions brought up in the context of mega-events actually become the rule in Rio’s current urban regime. Following these points, we reflect in this paper on how the Olympics exacerbate wider trends in urban political economy under contemporary capitalism in the Rio case.

4We attempt to do so by turning to David Harvey’s (2003) conceptualisation of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Although this notion has guided numerous works, most of them appear directed towards processes of rural land grabbing and privatisation of natural resources (Levien 2011, Perreault 2012). In contrast, the urban face of accumulation by dispossession remains relatively under-explored. Our hypothesis is that this concept holds a sizeable heuristic value for making sense of the not-so-exceptional character of Olympic city-making in the present configuration of capitalism.

5Following a brief introduction to the concept, our first section is devoted to the construction of a theoretically informed yet empirically practicable analytical framework based upon accumulation by dispossession. Although the literature does provide some indications as to how this concept could be transposed to empirical investigations, no systematic operationalisation yet exists. Based on this framework, our second section details recent and ongoing urban restructurings played out in Rio de Janeiro in the wake of preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Empirical research was conducted in 2013 and 2014 and included a close reading of official documentation regarding both the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 FIFA World Cup (e.g. candidature files, final plans, and subsequent agreements), examinations of existing reports on violations of rights in association to these mega-events elaborated by groups or experts (i.a. Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas do Rio 2013, 2014), and inspections of media articles, as well as fieldwork including direct observation at construction sites and in impacted neighbourhoods; conversations with residents, workers, and activists; participation in plenaries and meetings of citizens’ committees; and, finally, semi-structured interviews with two experts professionally engaged in critique of the mega-events. Namely, we refer to Mrs Raquel Rolnik, architect and urbanist, a professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism in the University of Sao Paulo and Special Rapporteur for the United Nations for the Right to Adequate Housing until 2014, and to Mr Carlos Vainer, sociologist and economist, a professor at the Institute of Research in Urban and Regional Planning of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, director of the Urban Conflict Watchers Network, and coordinator of the Plano Popular da Vila Autódromo. Findings are discussed in the third section. Our conclusions finally underline the relevance of the concept of accumulation by dispossession for the interpretation of Olympic city-making while outlining structural and contingent elements.

Accumulation by dispossession

From primitive accumulation to accumulation by dispossession

6Accumulation by dispossession (AbD) is the term David Harvey (2003) proposes to reformulate what Marx referred to as ‘primitive accumulation’ in Volume 1 of Capital. For Harvey, this form of accumulation has proved persistent throughout history since the rise of industrial capitalism, albeit under contingent spatio-temporal appearances.

7Harvey’s case for a contemporary reappropriation of this concept emerges out of his theorisation of the moments and landscapes of crisis that persistently punctuate the ‘historical geography of capitalism’ (2003: 142). While recognising the multidimensionality of each crisis, Harvey’s look is strategically directed at the contradictions of capitalism’s economic engine—capital—that are repeatedly played out as chronic pressures of overaccumulation. From this vantage point, his prime research concern is the identification of the ways capital constantly (re)organises its circulation and accumulation circuits in order to gain even more power while bypassing its inherent crisis tendencies. Following Harvey, these ways are always a historically and geographically contingent combination of 1) devaluation of existing assets (through disinvestment, abandonment or destruction); 2) expanded reproduction (i.e. reinvestment of capital surpluses in productive capacities in order to induce further economic growth); and 3) rent extraction out of commodified assets as diverse as labour power, land domains, natural resources, intellectual works and, more recently, pension savings, education systems, public utilities, genetic materials, and seed plasma. This last type of reorganisation is basically what Harvey names AbD: ‘What accumulation by dispossession does is to release a set of assets (including labour power) at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Overaccumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use’ (Harvey 2003: 149). Other political economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, rather speak of this as ‘rent seeking’ strategies (Harvey 2014: 133).

8These three types of reorganisation are dialectically articulated in space, constantly (re)shaping landscapes of uneven geographical development. In The New Imperialism (2003), Harvey argues that these processes are now largely, if not primarily, directed by attempts of capital to accumulate through economies of dispossession, rather than through strategies of expanded reproduction. As he vibrantly puts it: ‘The sinister and destructive side of spatio-temporal fixes (just look at how Greece is being pillaged and devastated) becomes just as crucial to capital as its creative counterpart in building a new landscape to facilitate the endless accumulation of capital and the endless accumulation of political power’ (Harvey 2014: 162).

9This shift to AbD implies the deployment of new types of imperialist spatial practices that, Harvey argues, appear relatively less devoted to widening markets for consumer goods, opening up new productive investment fields, or accessing cheaper inputs than they are to seizing assets hitherto out of reach for profitable deployment of capital—including land reserves, public utilities, natural resources, education institutions, genetic materials, etc. This shift is symptomatic of the rise of that fraction of capital—finance—whose favourite accumulation circuits do not pass through reinvestment in productive capacities aiming at further economic growth (i.e. expanded reproduction) but rather rest upon the extraction of rents out of a gradually longer list of commodified assets. Accordingly, the rise of AbD testifies the upswing of ‘an unholy alliance between state powers and the predatory aspects of finance capital [which] forms the cutting edge of a ‘vulture capitalism’ that is as much about cannibalistic practices and forced devaluations as it is about achieving harmonious global development’ (Harvey 2003: 136).

10Whereas the place of work is the prime locus of expanded reproduction of capital, the bulk of rent extraction strategies actually take place in the living space, that is, at home, in the neighbourhood, in transport facilities, at school or university, etc. We believe this makes AbD a highly promising category for any critical interpretation of urban changes in the present historical-geographic configuration of capitalism.

11To sum up, AbD is thus best conceived of as a diversified set of rent-seeking practices coalescing to transfer a ‘[wide series of] assets from the public and popular realms to the private and class-privileged domain’ (Harvey 2006: 153). This statement eventually enables Harvey to interpret the ascendance of AbD as part and parcel of the rise of neoliberalism, for he conceives of the latter as a ‘political project concerned both to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and the restoration of class power’ (op.cit.: 149).

Towards an operational analytical framework

12Harvey’s argument has been critically discussed in several contributions (e.g. Fine 2004). Moreover, although repeatedly exemplifying the concept, Harvey does not propose any systematic empirical operationalisation of AbD. Yet over the last decade, multiple studies eager to locate situated projects or conflicts amidst wider capitalist trends have found it relevant to refer to AbD, including a few works dealing with urban issues (Banerjee-Guha 2010, Freeman 2012). In diverse works, however, AbD regularly appears less central for the research per se than as an a priori exhortation serving to situate the investigation within the critical/radical literature—a criticism also occasionally addressed to studies framed into the language of ‘neoliberalization’ (Harding 2007).

13These elements call in our view for the building up of a framework that could help to better seize the analytical value of AbD. In this respect, the literature does provide some clues that can enlighten an operational transposition of the concept to empirical investigations (Freeman 2012, Levien 2011, Perreault 2012). Basically, these elements relate to the components of AbD (accumulation and dispossession of what?), its mechanisms (how does AbD take place?), and its protagonists (who stands at both ends of AbD?). Figure 1 is an attempt to integrate these elements into a synthetic framework of what AbD is all about. It is used as background for the investigation of Olympic city-making in Rio de Janeiro that follows.

Figure 1: Accumulation by dispossession: an analytical framework.

Image 2000086B000051D9000073E0C7D57891.wmf

Source: authors, 2015.

Accumulation by dispossession in the making of Olympic Rio

14The awarding of the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in 2009 was the result of a project started in 1993 with the launching of the Strategic Plan of the City. Promoted by the local government in alliance with industrial and commercial interests (which also partially funded the plan), the Strategic Plan inaugurated a wave of entrepreneurial urban governance in Rio, uniting public power and private actors around a market-oriented agenda (Vainer 2012). Noticeably inspired by the widely advertised Barcelona ‘success story’, the Rio Plan established, among others, the strategy of hosting the Olympic Games as a ‘catalyser for city development and for urban ‘restructuring’’ (quoted by Santos 2012: 41), an agenda that would only come to pass years later, with full cooperation of the federal and state governments. The awarding of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in 2007 and the commitment of public authorities to provide new stadia and to improve infrastructure certainly contributed in this direction.

15Rio’s Olympic Candidacy File alone cost US$ 43 million, half of which was paid by the federal government and the other half split between private investors (Oliveira 2012). Announcing a total budget of US$ 13.92 billion (i.e. more than twice that of any of the other competitors), it presented a statement signed by the three levels of government (city, state, and federal) providing a series of guarantees to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Among them were the funding of infrastructural projects and the construction/renovation of main venues, the commitment to expropriate land when needed, the provision of subsidised credit for private companies to build the Olympic Village, and the cover of any economic deficit the Olympic Movement might generate (Rio 2016, 2009).

Olympic city-making in Rio

16The territorial strategy for the Games was to provide four ‘Olympic clusters’ spread throughout the city, thus sharing the impact of the interventions among different areas: Barra, Deodoro, Copacabana and Maracanã (figure 2). Those areas are being prepared to host new and refurbished venues for the competitions; villages for athletes, press, and arbitrage; and a range of projects only loosely associated to the Olympics, such as a new metro line, a Bus Rapid Transportation (BRT) system (the green lines on figure 2), and a major ‘regeneration project’ of the old harbour in the city centre.

Figure 2: Olympic clusters and transportation network for Olympics 2016, Rio de Janeiro

Figure 2: Olympic clusters and transportation network for Olympics 2016, Rio de Janeiro

Source: Rio 2016 (2009: 111).

17Among those, this article only discusses interventions in two areas: Barra da Tijuca and Maracanã (which includes the regeneration of the harbour area). These are the largest intervention areas where projects have huge impacts upon the communities. Furthermore, these are both upper- and middle-class areas wherein localised pockets of working-class settlements have become subject to removals in the context of the Olympic city-making.

Barra da Tijuca

18Concentrating most of the Games’ venues, including the Olympic Park, Barra da Tijuca is a well-equipped neighbourhood and expansion front for the luxurious housing market in the south end of the city. If previous Olympic city-makings triggered the notion of regeneration of deprived areas and resorted to the idea of anticipated ‘trickle-down effects’ (e.g. in London or Barcelona), the choosing of Barra da Tijuca in Rio primarily benefits incumbent elite residents and landowners, such as the influential Carvalho Hosken group, owner of the majority of the vacant land in the area (Oliveira 2012). Hence, the spending of vast amounts of public resources in a well-off area reinforces the enormous socio-territorial inequalities existing in Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, since the land devoted to the building of the Olympic Park was not vacant but a functioning municipal racetrack that will now be rebuilt elsewhere, this area provides a first concrete and localised example of AbD.

19Moreover, in the context of new construction works and increasing speculation in the area, the various informal settlements that existed since the founding of the neighbourhood in the 1970s, which were occupied by poor families on either parcels of land that were uninteresting to the market (hillsides, environmentally protected areas, e.g.) or ones that were kept vacant by their owners, became immediately subject to removals. A series of evictions started taking place from 2009 onwards, resulting (up to December 2014) in the removal of more than 2,000 families from 17 different favelas (CPCOR 2014). At the same time, also between 2009 and 2013, more than half of all the new real estate developments in Rio were concentrated in Barra da Tijuca and the neighbouring Recreio and Jacarepagua (ADEMIRJ 2015). Increasing the value of existing plots of vacant land by cleansing their surroundings from the urban poor and opening up land for new developments are both plausible motivations for the series of removals in the context of a heated real estate market.

20The municipality justified the majority of these forced removals with the construction of the new BRT system, designed to connect the main venues of the 2016 Olympics with the airport and the city centre. The BRT alone has been responsible for the displacement of 1,200 families since 2009, while 4,400 remain at risk of being removed (CPCOR 2013). Various documents report several violations of rights undertaken by the state in these settlements: misinformation, poor compensation, late noticing of removals, lack of transparency and intimidation, lack of time for the residents to remove their personal belongings before demolitions, and various forms of coercion of great symbolic violence. For example, the Municipal Housing Agency (SMH) marked with spray the houses to be demolished. Residents have reported coming back home after a workday to find the initials of the SMH and a number painted on their houses, a sign that the property was listed for expropriation and demolition (figure 3). Furthermore, after demolishing the first houses, technicians of the SMH have been reported to leave all the wreckage behind, a strategy to coerce those who would not negotiate and leave by deteriorating their quality of life. Finally, many of the evictions have been conducted with the strong presence of riot military police making use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and warfare apparatus (Plataforma Brasileira de Direitos Humanos Econômicos, Sociais, Culturais e Ambientais 2011, Rolnik 2009, CPCOR 2013).

Figure 3: Houses marked by the SMH for eviction and demolition, Morro da Providência.

Figure 3: Houses marked by the SMH for eviction and demolition, Morro da Providência.

Photos: @Vannuchi, March 2013.

21Nearly four years after the forced removals, some of these areas remain either vacant or underused, reports activist and researcher Cosentino (2013), pointing out that the reason claimed for displacement was not an actual one. In the neighbourhood of Recreio, close to Barra da Tijuca, the old Vila Harmonia is now partially occupied by a small administrative public building, and the rest of the vacant land remains in process of frank speculation, since the value of the land should increase once the developments are finished. Across the street, the Press Village for the Olympics is under construction, and flats are expected to be sold after the games for up to 937,000 reais each. The compensation for the evicted families, however, was an average of 14,000 reais (Cosentino 2013).

22An emblematic case is the one of Vila Autódromo, a legal and consolidated working-class neighbourhood located smack in the middle of the new development sites neighbouring the Olympic Park. The 500 families living in Vila Autódromo have been targeted for removal since the early 2000s. A plethora of justifications issued by the SMH has been used in this effort: it has been called ‘visual pollution’ and a security threat, and has been claimed to be located in an area of environmental protection, on the site of the new Olympic Park, or on the site of a section of the new BRT line. Residents have been struggling for years to unveil the real interests behind the removal acts and receive the right to stay, but they face a state apparatus that is acting basically as market facilitator and land broker (Associação de Moradores e Pescadores da Vila Autódromo 2013, Sørensen 2013).

23For professor Vainer (interview, 2013), the sociologist who coordinated the elaboration of an alternative popular plan for Vila Autódromo, the reason the city wanted so much to remove this specific community remains a mystery. ‘One of the hypotheses is that the mayor gave his personal word to local investors that the community would go’, he stated, as it is presumably undesirable for the developers of upper-market housing towers to have a poor neighbourhood across the street.

24Although after the mass protests of June 2013 popular pressure led to a commitment from public authorities that the community would not be removed, in 2014, the municipality started coercing residents to accept a deal and either move into a recently built public housing project 1 km away from Vila Autódromo or to take compensation in money. Inalva Mendes, a local resident and activist, warned in the meetings of the Popular Committee that the city’s strategy to ‘divide and conquer’ would end up weakening the community. In April 2014, about half the community had already left, and with the demolished houses, Vila Autódromo turned into a sort of ‘ghost town’, also affected by cuts to the water and electricity supplies. Residents who stayed put in Vila Autódromo recently (2014) reported to Rio On Watch (2014) that the compensation offered by the city was half the market value—although those residents still have the titles to their properties.


25The area surrounding the historic stadium Maracanã, renovated in order to host the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the opening of the 2016 Olympics, has also been the seat of profound changes and social territorial conflicts.

26The very decision to renovate the stadium was controversial, since it had been renovated and adapted to the FIFA Standards just a few years earlier for the Pan-American Games of 2007. While the previous renovation consumed 397 million reais (about US$ 125 million in 2015) from the public treasury, the one undertaken for the 2016 Games consumed another 1.2 billion reais (about US$ 376 million in 2015) (Monteiro 2013). Furthermore, the second renovation resulted in deep architectural and functional changes, including a drastic reduction of the number of seats (from 200,000 to around 70,000), especially in the most affordable zones, dedicating room to larger VIP areas and ensuring an increase in average ticket pricing.

27Not least controversial is the fact that the renovation was followed by a 35-year public concession of the stadium as well as its surroundings, now commercially exploited by a consortium of two major companies (i.e. Odebrecht Properties, a Brazilian construction firm that participates in many of the construction works for the Olympics, including the BRT, the Olympic Park and Porto Maravilha, and AEG, a US-based entertainment firm; see: The city prepared part of the area for the concession by removing a whole nearby community, favela Metro Mangueira, forcibly evicting 500 families from their homes.

28The consortium presented a project for the complete transformation of the neighbourhood, which included the demolition of a series of public facilities including a public school, an aquatic park, an athletic track, and the historic building of the former Museum for the Indigenous Peoples. In their place, the consortium designed for the whole area a shopping mall, a parking lot, and a helipad.

29The movement ‘O Maraca é nosso’ (‘Maracanã is ours’, Maraca being a popular way to talk about Maracanã) emerged among citizens claiming that Maracanã was being taken from its traditional users, local working- and middle-class football fans, and reshaped according to the consumption models of the local and transnational elites. A series of demonstrations demanding that the stadium remain public and popular were organised with the support of local celebrities such as the composer Chico Buarque. The struggle, together with the public investigation of alleged irregularities in the concession, has managed to prevent the demolishing of the public school and other amenities.

30Not far from this area, the large-scale regeneration of the old Rio harbour—now rebranded as ‘Porto Maravilha’ (‘Marvel Port’)—was also launched in view of the 2016 Olympics. It consists of the redevelopment of 5 million square meters of mainly public land in a historically devaluated central area bordering a middle-class area. The entire operation is framed by a special Master Plan (the ‘Consortia Urban Operation of the Area of Special Urban Interest in the Port Zone of Rio de Janeiro’), approved by the city council just a month after the official granting of the Games to Rio. This ad hoc institutional framework has been used in Brazil for large-scale urban development projects (Swyngedouw et al. 2002) since the 1990s, and it is often regarded as a ‘magic formula’ that allows the city to undertake massive projects without raiding the public treasury (Fix 2004).

31The financial model in this kind of operation rests upon the trading, by the city, of building potentials above the thresholds established by law to developers (i.e. ‘Cepacs’, ‘Certificados de Potencial Adicional de Construçao’—literally Certification of Additional Building Potential. For a further explanation of this financial model, see Fix (2004). For a further explanation of this specific urban operation, see Castro (2011)). This provides financial resources that are then used to fund public works within the perimeter of the project, hence attracting investors prone to buy even more Cepacs in the area. One of the expected (and desired) consequences is a heavy verticalisation of the area. The main arguments in favour of this model are that 1) it is financially viable on a large scale even with budget restrictions, 2) it allows the city to recover part of the urban surplus value produced by its own investments, and 3) it makes investors who will benefit from public works pay for its costs (Fix 2004). However, increasing land value is another systemic consequence of this model, hence it is difficult or even impossible for a broad range of activities and populations to stay put or access the area.

32In Porto Maravilha, however, the auction for the Cepacs had no other interested buyer than the government-owned bank Caixa Econômica Federal, which acquired all of them for a total of 3.5 billion reais (about US$ 1 billion in 2015) (Antunes 2013). The lack of significant private investors not only shows the myth behind the notion of a self-financed large-scale project but also means that all the risk in the operation ends up being taken by public stakeholders. These financial resources have now been injected into a public-private partnership associating a consortium of three construction firms ranked among the largest in the country and often acting in public works (i.e. OAS, Odebrecht and Carioca Engenharia). This consortium is in charge of construction works (i.a. the demolition of an elevated expressway and its replacement by tunnels, the redesign of the mobility system in the area), refurbishment of public spaces (i.a. upgrading of streets and sidewalks, new street lighting), and of the provision of public services in the area once the project is completed. In payment from the city, the consortium will receive 8 billion reais (about US$ 2.5 billion in 2015) over the next 15 years, resources that are expected to come from the sale of the Cepacs (Antunes 2013).

33The much anticipated private investments, however, came only with subsidised credit and the designation of vast areas of public land for development of new office spaces. But these investors can only seize hold of this territory because the public power has prepared the terrain for such economic activities and new users of the area, making it interesting for new developments. One way of doing so is to provide new services and facilities that bring attractiveness to the area, such as the construction of two new museums, one of them designed by Spanish ‘starchitect’ Santiago Calatrava.

34The other way is to push away less desired uses and users. In the perimeter of Porto Maravilha, the forced removal of 8 squats—some of them almost 20 years old—has driven away 535 low-income families (CPCOR 2014). Incumbent residents have lost resources attached to the place, such as the possibility of squatting in the numerous vacant buildings and the very low rents due to the depreciated character of the area. For them, squatting has been the only possible means to live under a roof near their jobs. For the remaining inhabitants, threat of rent increase and gentrification are the order of the day.

35It is important to say that Brazil has a strong urban legislation that favours the social function of land over property rights. Legally and in theory, urban land is regarded first in terms of its use value, and only second for its exchange value. But as former Rapporteur of UN for the Right to Adequate Housing, Ms. Raquel Rolnik (interview, 2013) puts it, ‘after years of political struggle for the recognition of certain rights for those who have occupied land irregularly, it is as if those rights didn’t mean anything any longer’, for ‘the only thing that matters [for the city] is to put in movement a machine for the production of cities, internationalized and financialized’.

36Rolnik remarks that in Porto Maravilha, although nearly 80% of the land was publicly owned, its destination was never publicly discussed. The Urban Operation was approved with no adherence to the existing planning background of the city and, as was true for all the urban projects associated with the Olympics, it was not the product of any democratic debate. Also on this matter, Vainer (interview, 2013) recalls that federal, state, and city legislation determine that public land must be designated primarily for social housing. Instead, the highly speculative development vision promoted by the city focuses on upscale private consumption facilities while giving a large role to non-state actors in the definition and implementation of the projects.

37Furthermore, the opening of land for profitable upscale market development in Rio de Janeiro is now moving uphill, towards the neglected portions of the city where the poor have historically resided, e.g. in Morro da Providência, the oldest favela in the city, which has been occupied since the late 19th century. The requalification of the surroundings of the favela led by the local government is intended to turn it into a tourist destination. Accordingly, although the occupation is fairly structured, the SMH has already removed 140 families and threatens to evict another 692 (CPCOR 2013: 31). Like in other redeveloped favelas, the operations are justified by invoking risks to safety and infrastructure works, and the disregard of residents’ rights is equally pronounced. Expelling the poor from the favelas on the hillsides—well located and with stunning views—to make a place for upper-market developments is beginning to consolidate yet another strong window of opportunity for AbD in Rio.

The making of Olympic Rio as accumulation by dispossession

38This synthetic narrative on the Olympic city-making of Rio situates AbD as a cutting-through element in the implementation of the main projects launched in the context of the Olympic Games: the Olympic Park, the construction of the BRTs, the renovation of Maracanã, and the regeneration of the old harbour. Reformulation of planning measures, commodification of land, privatisation of public assets, and forced removals of favelas and centrally located low-income dwellings continue to function to open up new fields for capital investment, releasing public or popular assets at a low cost.

39Operated by the state (through militarisation, forced evictions, re-regulation) or by market mechanisms (through speculation, gentrification), the active dispossession of the urban poor of their housing and of their right to centrality has opened a notable opportunity for rent extraction and capital accumulation by powerful public and private interests. As far as militarisation is concerned, Freeman (2012) discusses the role of Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the favelas as a mechanism for AbD. His argument is that police presence brings a feeling of security that allows the market to go uphill, creating outlets for the expansion of private capital. Contractors, construction firms, developers and real estate agents largely benefit from infrastructural works funded by the city as well as from the sudden availability of developable urban land in a city with low vacancy and increasing demand for housing and office spaces. A new frontier of land speculation and real estate development has been opened by an urban regime prioritising accumulation of property income at the expense of the dispossession of use values attached to the land. As Fix (2004: 11) puts it, the planning instruments used for these projects ‘[…] are not the ‘magic formula’ they are called, in which all win and no one loses. Instead, they work as a mechanism that allows a fraction of the city to solve their problems, using the State as a private instrument for capital accumulation’.

40The role of construction firms as accumulating agents nonetheless must be highlighted. Odebrecht, Andrade and Gutierrez, OAS, and Carioca Engenharia, among others, are major donators to political campaigns in different cities and for political parties. They participate in nearly all of the large-scale projects currently being developed in Rio. Sports mega-events, however, are only one of the many niches of government-funded programmes in which they participate. Bearing in mind that these firms have in recent years entered the stock market, a link can be made between accumulation through rent extraction in Rio and global financial circuits—yet another point underlined in Harvey’s (2003) conceptualisation of AbD.

41Official figures report 65,000 people removed from their homes between 2009 and 2013 (Cosantino 2013). However, one should add here that a significant number of families are most likely to be priced out in the near future, given the rapid increase in land and real estate prices (not to mention the increasingly exclusive character of the area, which prevents newcomers from moving in): in the central area, average real estate prices increased more than 200% between January 2008 and April 2014 (e.g. + 366% in Cidade Nova, close to Porto Maravilha, +434% in Estácio, future host of the Olympic Committee of Journalists, +292% around Maracanã stadium) (CPCOR 2014 : 21).

42Finally, it cannot be ignored that the carving out of these dispossession patterns ran into an unexpected stumbling block when public demonstrations opposing an increase in the bus fare in São Paulo spread over the country and began contesting the public expenses in the making of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Whereas an accurate analysis of the national social unrest that took place in June 2013 demands more time and space than this article allows, some immediate consequences are worth mentioning here. As a result of popular struggle, some evictions and public concessions were immediately stopped or proceeded more slowly. Governments from different parts of the country, including the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, invited protestors and social movements to the negotiating table for the first time and claimed out loud to be hearing ‘the voices from the streets’. However, almost two years later, many of the evictions and concessions that were cancelled in the midst of the uprising have already been taken back up.


43In the last decades, sports mega-events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup have grown to represent more than a grandiose international gathering around sports. Mobilising huge amounts of capital and lots of political will to implement deep transformations in host cities, this sort of mega-event has become a major strategy led by coalitions of local governments and corporate interests to implement or strengthen an aggressively entrepreneurial urban agenda. The fierce international competition for hosting these events only makes literal the neoliberal conception of cities as competing units. Structural elements involved in hosting the Games nowadays are the massive transfer of public resources to private groups and privatisation of venues, institutionalisation of an authoritarian governance attitude, increase of financialisation, and rise in speculation—all of which entail accumulation of wealth and power by some at the expense of the dispossession of the diverse assets, use values, and rights of many.

44The concept of accumulation by dispossession delineated by D. Harvey (2003) is emerging as a privileged framework for understanding these processes. Preparing the city for the Olympics is opening new fields for capital investment tailored for accumulation through rent extraction. However, neither the role of accumulating agents nor mechanisms of AbD appear specifically linked with sports mega-events. The difference the Olympics seems to make is that it inaugurates an alignment among different powerful state actors and capitalist agents while forging a consensus around an urban agenda aimed at dropping existing barriers to rent extraction and further capital accumulation. These barriers are institutional ones, where existing regulation would not allow a high-yielding development of certain areas to be undertaken; physical ones, where favelas, squats, poor neighbourhoods, or other existing land uses hindered the profitable redevelopment of targeted areas; and social ones, where controversial (not to say conspicuously unfair) projects of urban restructuring could not be politically supported. As such, rather than a case of exceptionality urbanism, the Rio case shows an exacerbation of wider trends involved in conducting present-day capitalist urbanisation.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 2: Olympic clusters and transportation network for Olympics 2016, Rio de Janeiro
Credits Source: Rio 2016 (2009: 111).
File image/jpeg, 140k
Title Figure 3: Houses marked by the SMH for eviction and demolition, Morro da Providência.
Credits Photos: @Vannuchi, March 2013.
File image/jpeg, 2.7M
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Electronic reference

Luanda Vannuchi and Mathieu Van Criekingen, Transforming Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics: another path to accumulation by dispossession?Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 13 July 2015, connection on 28 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Luanda Vannuchi

LabCidade, Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo, Brazil. Contact:

Mathieu Van Criekingen

Assistant Professor. Department of Geography, Free University of Brussels, Belgium. Contact:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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