Brazil forcibly displaced thousands of people to make way for the World Cup

June 18

Like millions of people around the world, I am enjoying watching the World Cup. Unfortunately, this otherwise great sports event has a terrible dark side: In order to construct the necessary facilities, the Brazilian government forcibly displaced thousands of people. This recent article by Brazilian-based architect Anthony Ling cites estimates indicating that some 250,000 people have been evicted from their homes:

Who would ever think that something as beautiful as a soccer championship could be destructive? The World Cup has become a social and public policy disaster for Brazil….

The attempt to produce a “legacy” does not only have a financial cost, but also an invaluable social cost, possibly the largest loss of all generated by the World Cup. Research done by NGOs such as ANCOP and Conectas estimates that around 250 thousand people will be evicted from their homes because of new public works related to the event.

A January 25 article in the Washington Post notes that the figure of 250,000 is disputed. But there is little doubt that victims at least number in the thousands:

Where there was once a soccer field in this city in southern Brazil, there is a highway.

And where there were once shanty homes, there are piles of timber, bricks and the debris of those who used to live there.

The reason is the World Cup. The mega-event that will play out this summer in a dozen Brazilian cities is driving a frenzy of road construction, airport renovations and other projects.

The impact is being felt most strongly among the poorest citizens, including residents of Porto Alegre’s largest favela, or slum, who have come to regard the soccer championship as synonymous with evictions, removals and demolition….

“Brazil is by far and away the champion of forced removals,” said Christopher Gaffney, a visiting geography professor at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. “This is clearly the most impactful World Cup ever, with a lot of ambitious projects.”

As both articles point out, many of the people evicted are poor and politically weak. Although many have lived in these neighborhoods, their property rights are not recognized by the official legal system, which makes it easy to evict them with little or no compensation. This is a common problem in much of the Third World, as documented in a famous book by Peruvian libertarian economist Hernando de Soto.

In fairness to Brazil, the country is not actually “far and away the champion of forced removals” for a sports event. Brazil’s World Cup-related evictions affect far fewer people than China’s expulsion of some 1.25 million people to make way for the 2008 Olympics.But that hardly justifies Brazil’s behavior. It may sometimes be justifiable to use eminent domain to build roads and infrastructure that provide major longterm benefits to society. But it makes no sense to evict people to build costly facilities that are likely to fall into disuse after a two or three week long sports event ends.

Reasonable people can disagree about the case for boycotting sports events to protest human rights violations by the host government that are unrelated to the event itself. But we should at least be able to reach a consensus that sports events should not themselves be the cause of massive rights violations that victimize poor and vulnerable communities. In the future, organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee should only award events to hosts that guarantee they can provide the necessary facilities without forcibly displacing people from their homes.

Claims that this is impossible are simply false. Virtually all of the great sports stadiums built in the United States up through the 1950s were constructed without the use of eminent domain or other similar tools of government coercion – including such iconic facilities as Fenway Park and the original Yankee Stadium. The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were successfully held with very little government funding of any kind, much less government-sponsored expulsions of city residents. It may sometimes be justifiable to use eminent domain to build roads and infrastructure that provide major longterm benefits. But

International sports events like the World Cup and the Olympics are great fun to watch. But we should be able to admire the athletes’ amazing feats without forcibly evicting thousands of people from their homes in the process.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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