Will Rio be ready for the World Cup and the Olympics? It's a favorite question of many international media outlets, and a hot topic among Cariocas. But the more important questions include what will happen to Rio after the mega-events, and what the development for these events will mean for the city. Christopher Gaffney, an American geographer, writer, and professor living in Brazil, is perhaps among the most outspoken voices on these matters. A journalist and author, he writes a blog called Hunting White Elephants with analysis and observations on mega-events, as well as insight on what's happening with all of the changes taking place in Rio. Christopher is also a visiting professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói, and he's researching the social and urban changes--as well as a variety of impacts--associated with the World Cup and Olympics in Rio and in other host cities in Brazil.
"These events need a massive restructuring, a dose of humility, and should attend to the demands of the places in which they are held. As it is, they are ever-larger, require ever-more public funds, and re-shape spaces and places to meet the exigencies of international sport federations and their corporate partners while stimulating real-estate speculation and re-enforcing false notions of 'progress' and 'social development'...But shouldn’t these projects have long-term urban and social planning as their foundation?" writes Christopher on his blog.
I spoke to Christopher about his work and his outlook for the mega-events in Rio. Have a read below.
What do you hope to accomplish with your blog?
It’s as much as a pressure release valve for me as it is a way to communicate the complexities of Rio de Janeiro to a wider audience. Some of the things happening in Rio are so frustrating and the actions of the “mega-event industrial complex” so maddening and nasty, that I need to write them down in order to process them. Fortunately, it also serves as a way for me to write about what is happening in Rio in a more accessible format than I do with academic writing. I’m also hoping that my blog will generate attention and educate people. It’s also a bit of fun to watch the dots light up on the globe when someone accesses the site. I’m getting around 2,900 hits a month and Hunting White Elephants has been accessed from 142 countries.
What are some of the possible "white elephant" projects that will result from Rio's mega-events?
It is easier to talk about the “non-white” elephants, and that’s a short conversation. Nearly everything under construction for the mega-events is being done with an urban plan that was created behind closed doors, and with little thought for the usefulness of the projects post-2016. I think they should actually paint everything white and put big ears on just to remind us. In the case of some stadiums like Maria Lenk, the taxpayers paid to build it in 2007, paid to maintain it and are now going to pay to reform it for tens of millions just five years later. Ditto Engenhão. Maracanã, pô. Ironically, the only way to make some of these things economically viable, and this is no accident, is to privatize them so that at the very least our taxes won’t go to maintenance. This was the case of the HSBC Arena but it too will need a nip and tuck before the Olympics. If we look at the recent history of Rio’s mega-events and urban planning and then look at who is involved in the current administration of the World Cup and Olympics, we see a disturbingly familiar set of faces. The PAN 2007 left some small elephants for the city. They’ve grown up and are reproducing at an alarming rate. With the same people, more money and more pressure to build grandiose projects, there is little hope for lasting benefit from the megas. So, let’s see, non-white elephant…BRT Transoeste? Unfortunately, people keep getting killed by the new buses as they use the bus lane for cycling and walking with children in strollers. It’s impossible to make things like this up.
What are your main concerns about Rio's preparations for the mega-events that could negatively impact the city?
I’m concerned about everything! Public transportation, militarization, privatization, cost of living, criminalization of basic civic acts, elimination of democratic institutions, the control of the public purse by parallel governments, the branding and marketing of everything in the city, the environmental degradation, traffic, access to sport and leisure, lack of transparency, short-term planning for long-term profit, exposure to unnecessary and avoidable risk, landslides, housing, education, health care, air quality, access to water, long term urban planning, etc.. All of these will be negatively impacted by the mega-events.
What's your take on the city's pacification strategy in the lead-up to the mega-events?
I recently published an article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs about this and will have another article on security coming out in 2013. It’s insanely complicated and contradictory. What we can assert, without question, is that the pacification is explicitly and exclusively related to “securing the Olympic city”, that is, the Zona Sul, Barra, and the transportation lines for the Olympics. It’s about real-estate opportunities, making places and people transparent from the perspective of capital and control, re-asserting authority over territory, managing local populations to free urban space for the International Overlords of FIFA and the Olympic Family [sic]. While the UPPs have brought some very real improvements, they are not complete solutions. Rio’s very real problems of violence and oppression continue, but out of sight out of mind. People are very willing to be fooled by appearances when we know that the deep structural cleavages in Brazilian society will take generations to close. How could they not? My concern is that we aren’t changing the definition of security. To me, guns and boots and tanks are evidence of less-secure places. A Texan once told me, “Guns don’t kill people, they kill everything.”
What needs to be done to ensure Rio's mega-events have a constructive legacy for the city?
The word legacy needs to be erased from our vocabularies as quickly as it was introduced. Slavery is a legacy, is it not? These are impacts of varying intensity and duration. Taking the question literally a “constructive legacy” could be considered all of the concrete being poured on public projects right now. The Transcarioca project needs to be stopped as does the Transolimpica. The Metro project also needs to be stopped and the transportation plan for Rio 2016 completely and immediately re-evaluated by independent professionals. This can only happen with a change of government. Then we can start to change the very idea of who these projects are meant to benefit. Without immediate, massive social action at the voting booth and on the streets, there is almost no way to ensure that the tens of billions spent on these investments will have social, economic, environmental, urban or cultural returns.
Based on your research, how do many cities ultimately fare after hosting large-scale sporting events?
Poorly. Beijing might be the best case example as they put through massive public transportation systems. They also forcibly displaced 2,000,000. London 2012 seems to have accomplished some interesting objectives. Barcelona fine, whatever, good luck to the working class and nice going on a sterilized waterfront and Olympic Stadium Elephant. Hosting mega-events is about selling what the local to an international audience while finding ways to keep the people who actually live there docile and off the streets during the event. The analysis of these events can get pretty dogmatic, academics talking past each other and a world of media-government-business-international sport federations. The cheerleaders are so cheerfully harmonious that a modicum of critical thinking reveals deep fractures in the joyous hullabaloo. Pointing out the obvious should happen before these projects get approved, not after they are revealed as public planning documents. It’s an easy solution but not as profitable in the short term. “Stronger, Higher, Faster” should not be the mantra of urban planners.
Read more from Christopher at Hunting White Elephants.