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Accumulation by Forced Removal: The Thinning of Rio de Janeiro's Favelas in Preparation for the Games

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2016


In this article we argue that the pacification of strategic Rio de Janeiro favelas is a case of what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, allowing for capital accumulation at multiple scales. Drawing on multi-year participant observation, we seek to show the particular form that this process takes as it works through Rio's social and spatial structures. Unlike the mass removals of the 1960s and 1970s, favela families have more recently been displaced through a process of thinning, in the context of a neoliberal development programme centred on a series of mega-events. Removal is carried out through a combination of threats, promises, disinformation, and the intentional generation of insecurity that together constitute a form of psychological terror.

Spanish abstract

En este artículo argumentamos que la pacificación de las estratégicas favelas de Río de Janeiro es un caso de lo que David Harvey llama acumulación por desposesión, permitiendo la acumulación de capital en varios niveles. Basándonos en una práctica de varios años de observación participante, buscamos mostrar la forma particular que el proceso toma en la medida que avanza a través de las estructuras sociales y espaciales de Río. Al contrario de evicciones masivas de los años 1960s y 1970s, las familias de las favelas han sido desplazadas más recientemente a través de un proceso de adelgazamiento, en el contexto de un programa de desarrollo neoliberal centrado en una serie de mega-eventos. Las evicciones son llevadas a cabo a través de una combinación de amenazas, promesas, desinformación y la generación intencional de inseguridad, lo que junto constituye una forma de terror psicológico.

Portuguese abstract

Defendemos neste artigo que a pacificação de favelas estratégicas do Rio de Janeiro é um exemplo do que David Harvey chamou de acumulação por espoliação, que permite uma acumulação de capital em escalas múltiplas. A partir da observação participante em anos diversos, buscamos demonstrar a forma particular que este processo assume na medida em que avança através de estruturas sociais e espaciais do Rio de Janeiro. Ao contrário das remoções em massa das décadas de 1960 e 1970, as famílias que vivem nas favelas têm recentemente sido desalojadas através de um processo de raleamento, no contexto de um programa neoliberal de desenvolvimento centrado em uma série de megaeventos. O despejo é realizado através de uma combinação de ameaças, promessas, desinformação, e a geração intencional de insegurança que juntas constituem uma forma de terror psicológico.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Interview with Francicleide da Costa, president, residents’ association Favela do Metrô , 23 July 2012.

2 Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights: Opportunities for the Olympic Movement and Others (Geneva, 2007) available at; Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, One World, Whose Dream? Housing Rights Violations and the Beijing Olympic Games (Geneva, 2008) available at

3 Housing and Land Rights Network, Planned Dispossession: Forced Evictions and the 2010 Commonwealth Games (Fact-finding Mission Report, vol. 14, New Delhi, 2011).

4 See Comité Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas do Rio de Janeiro, Olimpíada Rio 2016, O Jogos da exclusão. Megaeventos e Violações dos Direitos Humanos no Rio de Janeiro, Dossiê do Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas do Rio de Janeiro (2015 November), p. 20. Faulhaber and Azevedo put the number at 20,299 families between January 2009 and December 2014, citing SMH sources. See Faulhaber, Lucas and Azevedo, Lena, SMH 2016: remoções no Rio de Janeiro Olímpico (Rio de Janeiro: Mórula, 2015), p. 16 Google Scholar.

5 Harvey, David, The Limits to Capital (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982)Google Scholar. Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991)Google Scholar; Walker, Richard, ‘A Theory of Suburbanisation: Capitalism and the Construction of Urban Space in the United States’, in Dear, M. J. and Scott, Allen John, Urbanization and Urban Planning in Capitalist Society (London: New York: Methuen, 1981), pp. 383429 Google Scholar.

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8 Gonçalves, Rafael Soares, Favelas do Rio de Janeiro: história e direito (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2013)Google Scholar; Perlman, Janice E., The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976)Google Scholar; Valladares, Licia do Prado, Passa-se uma casa: análise do programa de remoção de favelas do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1978)Google Scholar.

9 Favelas in the Centre, South Zone, Tijuca Basin, near event sites and along key event transportation corridors have been particularly targeted by the interventions discussed in this article. Not all displacement associated with the games are in favelas, nor are most favela removals directly attributable to the games. But the bulk of removals are occurring in Rio's favelas and we argue that the games are an important context for these removals.

10 Cable-car is our translation of teleferico, ski-lift style pods suspended from over-head cables. Funicular is our translation of plano inclinado, a train-style wagon that hugs the steep slopes of some of Rio's favelas.

11 This article focuses on the removals process; it is beyond the scope of this article to analyse resistance in detail.

12 For a discussion of critical ethnography, see Brotherton, David C., Youth Street Gangs: A Critical Appraisal (New York: Routledge, 2015)Google Scholar, chap. 4. for a discussion of critical ethnography.

13 While most of these interviews were with favela residents, we also interviewed numerous government officials (at city, state and federal levels), technical experts (such as geotechnical engineers, urban planners, and architects), local specialists on favelas, housing and relevant public policies, urban legal scholars and public defenders, and police officials. For Freeman this article is part of ongoing research on the consequences of mega-events, and particularly Police Pacification Units, for Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Since 2010 Freeman has conducted approximately 260 interviews with residents of 18 pacified and soon to be pacified favelas. For Burgos this article is based on dissertation field work that involved living in Rocinha for over nine years between 2001 and 2016. See Marcos David Burgos, ‘Development, Security and Displacement: An Ethnographic Case Study of Rocinha and other Key Favelas in Rio de Janeiro’, unpubl. PhD diss., City University of New York, 2016. Our account of the Laboriaux removal attempt is based on Burgos’ participant observation, including the experience of having his home marked for eviction following the April 2010 rains. Research on Rocinha alone included approximately 145 interviews with 130 informants. Fieldwork and interviews in Metrô were conducted between 2010 and 2013. Interviews in Providência were conducted each summer between 2010 and 2015. We have not given the names of most favela residents interviewed, and in some cases we have changed identifying information to protect vulnerable informants.

14 Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I (New York: Vintage, 1976 [1867])Google Scholar.

15 Harvey, David, ‘The “New” Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession’, The Socialist Register, 2004 (2003), pp. 6387 Google Scholar; Harvey, David, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

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17 McCarthy, James and Prudham, Scott, ‘Neoliberal Nature and the Nature of Neoliberalism’, Geoforum, 35 (2004), pp. 275–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Heynen, Nik and Robbins, Paul, ‘The Neoliberalization of Nature: Governance, Privatization, Enclosure and Valuation’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16 (2005), pp. 58 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mansfield, Becky, ‘Privatization: Property and the Remaking of Nature–Society Relations. Introduction to the Special Issue’, Antipode, 39 (2007), pp. 393405 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Glassman, ‘Primitive Accumulation’, pp. 608–25; Hart, Gillian, ‘Denaturalizing Dispossession: Critical Ethnography in the Age of Resurgent Imperialism’, Antipode, 38 (2006), pp. 9771004 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walker, Richard, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York, 2004)Google Scholar.

19 Harvey, The Limits to Capital.

20 Marx, Capital, pp. 781–802. See also the discussion of the see-saw movement of capital in Smith, Neil, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

21 de Quieroz Ribeiro, Luiz Cesar and Telles, Edward E., ‘Rio de Janeiro: Emerging Dualization in a Historically Unequal City’, in Marcuse, Peter and Kempen, Ronald Van (eds.), Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order? (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 78Google Scholar.

22 Freeman, James, ‘Neoliberal Accumulation Strategies and the Visible Hand of Police Pacification in Rio De Janeiro’, REU, Sorocaba, SP, 38 (2012), pp. 95126 Google Scholar. For further discussion of the UPP programme see also Freeman, James, ‘Raising the Flag over Rio de Janeiro's Favelas: Citizenship and Social Control in the Olympic City’, Journal of Latin American Geography, 30 (2014), pp. 529–56Google Scholar; Gaffney, Christopher, ‘Securing the Olympic City’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 13 (2012), pp. 7582 Google Scholar; Oliveira, Nelma Gusmão de, O poder dos jogos e os jogos de poder: interesses em campo na produção da cidade para o espetáculo esportivo (Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ, 2015)Google Scholar; Saborio, Sebastian, ‘The Pacification of the Favelas: Mega Events, Global Competitiveness, and the Neutralization of Marginality’, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 9 (2013), pp. 130–45Google Scholar.

23 Most of these firms have also been implicated in the lava-jato corruption scandal.

24 Bautès, Nicolas and Gonçalves, Rafael Soares, ‘Improving Security in Poor Areas Public Security and Spatial Justice in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro’, Spatial Justice, N4 December 2011 (2011), p. 2 Google Scholar, available at; Freeman, ‘Neoliberal Accumulation Strategies’, p. 106.

25 Faulhaber, SMH 2016; Freeman, ‘Neoliberal Accumulation Strategies’, pp. 95–126.

26 Ibid., 95–126.

27 Rio's Military Police, for example, of which UPPs are a part, are such an institution. See Holloway, Thomas H., Policing Rio de Janeiro: Repression and Resistance in a 19th-Century City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Zaluar, Alba, ‘Democratização inacabada: fracasso da segurança pública’, Estudos Avançados, 21 (2007), pp. 3149 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Carlos Vainer and Helena Galiza, ‘Morro da Providência, habitação e patrimônio: relatório final’, unpublished research report. Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano e Regional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (2013).

29 Perlman, Janice E., Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 278Google Scholar.

30 Cabral Marques Gomes, Maria de Fátima and Motta, Thaiany Silva da, ‘Empresariamento urbano e direito à cidade: considerações sobre os programas favela-bairro e morar carioca no Morro da Providência’, Revista Libertas, 13, (2013), p. 10 Google Scholar.

31 Prefeitura do Rio, ‘Explicando a política de habitação da prefeitura do Rio’, 6 August 2015, p. 6. Available at:ção-da-prefeitura.

33 See also Adriano Belisário, ‘Concremat: de “braço auxiliary” das remoções à queda da ciclovia’, A Publica (2016), Available at:

34 Gonçalves, Favelas do Rio de Janeiro, p. 263.

35 CREA-Rio is the Regional Council of Engineering and Agronomy of Rio de Janeiro.

36 Interview with Maurício Campos dos Santos, mechanical and civil engineer at CREA-RJ , June 2010.

37 UN-Habitat, Scaling-up Affordable Housing Supply in Brazil: The ‘My House My Life’ Programme (Nairobi: UN Habitat, 2013), p. 31 Google Scholar.

38 Ibid. The US dollar was equivalent to R$ 1.60 in 2010 and has since risen to R$ 4. We use the Jan. 2016 rate throughout this article for convenience.

39 This legal regime has been further elaborated in state and municipal law. Article 234 of the Rio de Janeiro state constitution (1989) specifies that the state and municipalities must undertake upgrading schemes, land use regulation and property title programmes in favelas without removing their inhabitants, except when life-threatening conditions leave no other choices. Article 429 of Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Organic Law (Lei Orgâncio) reinforces the state constitution by likewise specifying that urban development policy focus on rehabilitation and the regularisation of favelas. Article 429 also clearly bans the removal of favelas except when the physical conditions place the lives of residents at risk. The same article states that cases of risk must be verified by an official study conducted by a competent municipal agency and that the affected population must participate in the entire process. If residents have to be relocated it must be to a location near their residence of origin or workplace. Most recently Federal Law No. 12.608, (10 April 2012) establishes the new National Policy on Protection and Civil Defence (PNPDEC), which requires municipalities to take all possible measures to reduce whatever physical risks exist. Only when no other option exists should houses be removed or residents relocated. See Magalhães, Alex Ferreira, O Direito das Favelas (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Letra Capital, 2013)Google Scholar; Gonçalves, Rafael Soares, ‘Porto Maravilha, renovação urbana e o uso da noção de risco: uma confluência perversa no Morro da Providência’, Revista Libertas, 13. 2 (2013), p. 191 Google Scholar.

40 Decreto 34522, 3 Oct. 2011.

41 See Caldeira, Theresa and Holston, James, ‘State and Urban Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions’, in Ong, Aihwa and Collier, Stephen J. (eds.), Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 393416 Google Scholar; Rolnik, Raquel, ‘Democracy on the Edge: Limits and Possibilities in the Implementation of an Urban Reform Agenda in Brazil’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35. 2 (2011), pp. 232–55Google Scholar.

42 See for example Fischer, Brodwyn, The Poverty of Law: Rio de Janeiro, 1930–1964 (Boston, MA: Harvard University, 1999)Google Scholar.

43 Personal communication with Freeman, 27 Aug. 2013.

44 Decreto 34522, 3 Oct. 2011.

45 Ibid.

46 Interview with Elisa Brandão, the President of Morro das Prazeres's residents’ association, 9 June 2010.

47 Interview with Mario Sá, 16 July 2015; see also Decreto 34522 3 Oct. 2011.

48 Leitão, Gerônimo, Dos barracos de madeira aos Prédios de quitinete: uma análise do processo de produção de moradia na favela da Rocinha, Zona Sul da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, entre 1930 e 1990 (Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFF, 2009), p. 167 Google Scholar; Gonçalves, Favelas do Rio, pp. 244–7.

49 Despite significant inflation, the nominal aluguel social amount has not changed since 2010.

50 Interview with Mario Sá, director, PAC project Cantagalo, 16 July 2015.

51 Faulhaber, SMH2016, p. 16.

52 Comité, Megaeventos (2013), pp. 32–3.

53 Gonçalves, ‘Porto Maravilha’, p. 180.

54 Faulhaber, SMH2016, p. 16.

55 Perlman, The Myth of Marginality; Valladares, Passa-se uma casa.

56 Almeida Abreu, Mauricio de, Evolução urbana do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: IPLAN, 1997)Google Scholar.

57 Interview with resident of PMCMV project, Santa Cruz, 10 May 2014.

58 Interview with Francicleide da Costa, 23 July 2012. Bolsa Familia is Brazil's conditional cash transfer programme.

59 Comité, Megaeventos (2013), p. 24.

60 Interview with Francicleide da Costa, 23 July 2012.

61 Comité, Megaeventos, (2013), p. 24.

62 Interview with auto-shop leader, 17 July 2013.

63 Gonçalves, ‘Porto Maravilha’, p. 197.

64 Gonçalves, ‘Porto Maravilha’, pp. 175–207; Vainer, Morro da Providência.

65 Gonçalves, ‘Porto Maravilha’, pp. 175–207.

66 Harvey, ‘From Managerialism’, pp. 3–17.

67 Certificados de Potencial Construtivo Adicional. See Freeman, ‘Neoliberal’, pp. 95–126; Pedro Jorgensen, ‘Tentando entender a Operação Urbana Porto do Rio.’, A beira do urbanismo. Available at:

68 Ibid.

69 Vainer, Morro da Providência, p. 21.

70 Ibid.

71 Gonçalves, ‘Porto Maravilha’, pp. 175–207.

72 Interview by with Maurício Hora, director, Casa Amarela, 19 July 2012.

73 Population estimates for Rocinha vary widely. Jorge Collaro, director of Rio de Janeiro's XXVII Administrative Region in Rocinha from 2008 to 2015, estimates 150,000 residents.

74 Figures from Rodrigo Dalvi Santana, infrastructure specialist for the Federal Ministry of Cities, presented at a meeting of Rocinha sem Fronteiras on 21 September 2013; interview with Rodrigo Dalvi Santana, 8 October 2013.

75 Complexo da Rocinha. Rio de Janeiro. Relatório Final. Censo Domiciliar. December 2009.

76 Residents partially blame the city for the deaths because a few weeks before the rains a large water pipe began leaking into a slope near the end of Rua Maria do Carmo. CEDAE was notified, but nothing was done. The already damp soil soon gave way and an avalanche of earth and trees slid down the hill crushing a house 30 metres below the leaky pipe, killing two women, Maria do Carmo and her daughter Jacqueline.

77 ‘Prefeito Eduardo Paes anuncia remoção imediata de moradores de comunidades do Rio’, O Globo (11 April 2010).

78 Leitão, Dos barracos, pp. 97–8.

79 Conversation with residents as recorded in Burgos’ field notes. The official wished to remain anonymous.

80 ‘Chuvas no Rio reavivam debate sobre remoção de favelas na cidade’, O Estadão (7 April 2010).

81 Interview with José Ricardo, president, Laboriaux residents’ association, April 2013.

82 Bautes, Nicolas, Fernandes, Lenise and Burgos, Marcos, ‘Entre confrontos e desafios na construção da legitimidade popular: algumas perspectivas sobre os movimentos de resistências em favelas do Rio de Janeiro’, Revista Libertas, 13 (2013), pp. 1819 Google Scholar.

83 According to Rodrigo Dalvi Santana, infrastructure specialist for the Federal Ministry of Cities, who mentioned that ‘Rocinha is the Ministry of Cities’ model for all favela-upgrading schemes in Brazil.’

84 Cable-car estimate from Dalvi Santana. Dalvi Santana works on both PAC 1 and PAC 2 in Rocinha and presented these figure to residents at a meeting of Rocinha sem Fronteiras in September 2013.

85 Interview with state government official, 16 January 2013.

86 Interview with Laboriaux resident, February 2014.

87 Ibid.

88 Valladares, Passe-se uma casa.

89 Marx, Capital; Harvey, Limits to Capital; The New Imperialism; Smith, Uneven Development.