The Media Village at the Rio Olympics Is Built on a Mass Grave of Slaves

As Brazil looks forward to an Olympic future, it buries its past

Rio Olympics
An artist's rendition of the Rio Olympics facilities for the 2016 Summer Games. Some of the media accommodations were apparently built on top of remnants of Brazil's slave history. Rio Olympics

When journalists show up en masse in Rio de Janeiro to cover the Summer Olympics next month, many will stay in the Barra Media Villages, a self-described group of “over 1,500 spacious and modern apartments” complete with kitchens, 24/7 food access, along with a huge pool. But, write Daniel Gross and Jonathan Watts for The Guardian, that luxury comes at a price: Part of the village was constructed on top of a mass grave for slaves.

Gross and Watts report that part of a Brazilian quilombo, a community of people whose ancestors were runaway slaves, was torn down to make the village. Residents say that developers did away with “sacred” archaeological remnants of African slaves by building over them. In contention is a colonial-era sugar mill that Camorim Quilombo residents claim was razed without an archaeological survey—and, given that a huge mass grave of slaves was found nearby 16 years ago, they claim that the village is built over the graves of their ancestors.

Quilombos hold special status in Brazil, which had a long and particularly brutal slave trade. The country had up to 10 times the number of slaves the United States did, relied on slave labor to build its cities and infrastructure, and was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. But the end of slavery didn’t mean the end of its influence in Brazil—or the end of forced labor in some rural areas, which continued through the 20th century. Today, people of color constitute 50.7 percent of the country’s population, and Afro-Brazilians are a critical part of Brazilian culture despite ongoing racial disparities.

People who live in quilombos communities that are said to have been founded by runaway slaves have a constitutional right to that land, Roque Planas writes for The Huffington Post. Gross and Watts add that today, though there are over 3,500 quilombos in Brazil, many face threats from developers who want to use the land for purposes other than those designated by their rightful residents. In this case, residents had filed for the rights to the land in question, but it was bought up by a developer before their claim could be finalized. Gentrification and forcible removal of the residents of poor areas designated as Olympic sites has been rampant during the leadup to this year's Summer Games.

Camorim Quilombo has a long history of resisting development, writes Stephanie Reist for Rio on Watch. From the remnants of the hideouts used by escaping slaves to environmental resources like a state park, Camorim is home to people who refuse to abandon their past. But rather than memorialize that backstory, for now Brazil seems content to point to a lavish future, covering up poverty and history for the sake of presenting a sanitized face to the world.

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