Olympic exclusion zone: the gentrification of a Rio favela

Olympic exclusion zone: the gentrification of a rio favela
A view of the Babilônia favela from Rio’s popular Leme beach / © Bert Kohlgraf
Residents of Babilônia complain they are being callously pushed out as the favela undergoes a rapid ‘upgrade’ ahead of this summer’s Olympics. Jo Griffin, who has been working there, hears the inside story of Rio’s gentrification project

“Look at that house,” says Nivia Bruno Ribeiro de Cajazeira, pointing to a small dwelling hidden by lush vegetation near the top of Babilônia hill, in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. “All the homes in the favela used to be built like that, from pau-a-pique [wattle and daub containing bamboo].”

We have arrived at her own blue wooden house via a dirt path splattered with the red pulp of the jaca fruit, its terrace offering a glimpse of the distant sea. Outsiders rarely come to this part of the favela; to do so requires stepping so close to people’s homes that it can feel like an invasion.

Two theories explain why this favela – one of more than 1,000 informal settlements in Rio – is called Babilônia: some say it borrowed from a local brewery when it was founded at the end of the 19th century; others believe the area’s exceptional natural beauty evoked the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Near the top of the green mountain where residents must lug food and supplies on foot, many people lack basic sanitation and nature still seems to hold sway.

For five generations, Ribeiro’s family has lived here, a short distance from the white sands of Leme beach. The favela has always been known for its tranquility, says Ribeiro, 38, who teaches computing. “For years, people used lanterns at home as we had no electricity. Being so near the sea we have many natural springs, where people would wash clothes. When I wake up, I am surrounded by birds in the trees.”

Now, as Babilônia undergoes rapid gentrification, Ribeiro is among the residents who are waiting to hear if they will be rehoused 40 miles away in Santa Cruz, in the west of Rio – a consequence of the city’s prize-winning Morar Carioca plan, introduced in 2010 to upgrade all favelas as part of the social legacy of the Olympics. […]