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From slave market to Olympic venue: variations of capitalist accumulation in the port of Rio de Janeiro

There is a repeated primitive accumulation throughout the history of capitalism required by capitalist expansion itself, which must commodify not yet commodified spaces in order to develop.

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A view of the port from the Museum of Tomorrow at Praca Maua, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April, 2016. Silvia Izquierdo /Press Association. All rights reserved.The port district of Rio de Janeiro is one of the areas most affected by urban interventions connected to the August 2016 Olympics. Until very recently, business groups, politicians, investors and the mainstream media saw the port district as a devalued and degraded space, isolated from the rest of the city. In fact, the entire region had low market value and was of little interest for real estate investments, commercial transactions and services. Even the port itself was of little significance when compared to other Brazilian ports. Therefore, the region was located “outside” the process of capitalist accumulation.

This situation changed completely in November 2009. About a month after Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the Olympics, the Porto Maravilha project became public. This project catalyzed actions and economic, political and cultural expectations, restructuring the entire port district in order to create value.

Contrary to appearances, this phenomenon is not new. It is a new venue for a history that repeats itself. In its various stages, the port of Rio de Janeiro was marked by different landmarks of capitalist dynamic that both repelled and attracted spaces, processes and market relations, according to the needs of accumulation. This is a history marked by actors, forces and social pressures alternating in a continuous movement of commodification, decommodification and re-commodification – of people, goods and activities.

Since Rosa Luxemburg, in fact, Marxist political economists have realized that the accumulation of capital is not limited to a purely economic process between capitalists and workers in the production of surplus value. Seeing as only a relative portion of the surplus value can be appropriated in this internal transit, the system must make use of a non-capitalist “outside” to completely appropriate it.

Accordingly, the system makes use of explicit non-economic violence, including colonial or imperial policies, dispossessions, bloody legislation etc. There is, in other words, a repeated primitive accumulation throughout the history of capitalism. This repetition is required by capitalist expansion itself, which must commodify not yet commodified spaces in order to develop.

The various historical stages of this phenomenon are evident in the port district of Rio de Janeiro, as this space is incorporated in and uncoupled from a process that transforms socially constructed spaces into merchandise.

Primitive accumulation and slavery in the port

Mercado de escravos da rua do Valongo, Rio de Janeiro século 19. Wikicommons/ Jean Baptiste Debret. Some rights reserved.

From its creation until the nineteenth century, the port took part in the classical patterns of primitive accumulation by integrating Brazil into world capitalism through the outflow of sugar, then gold and coffee, in addition to the inflow of manufactured goods and a contingent of about two million Africans that were kidnapped, enslaved and traded. This port received the highest number of enslaved Africans in the entire American continent. The right to provide such service was restricted to a private contractor: the Governor’s brother.

However, since its beginnings, the physical space of the port was itself integrated into various forms of accumulation. The first major traffic increase took place in the early seventeenth century and was connected to the outflow of sugar. In 1618, this traffic led Governor Rui Vaz Pinto to publish a legal decree establishing the use of black slaves to load and unload ships. It was clearly a mechanism meant to take over the space to create value, as only slaveholders were able to load goods in the port. This decree also represented the beginning of regular stevedoring services and established their legal system, namely the privilege or monopoly, since the right to provide such service was restricted to a private contractor: the Governor’s brother.

Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the discovery of gold reserves and absorption of Minas Gerais by mercantile capital increased the importance of both the port and the city of Rio de Janeiro. As Rio’s port became the main commercial junction with the metropolis, the city expanded economically, physically and demographically, becoming the capital of the colony in 1763.

Among the transformations generated by the port-city confluence of Rio de Janeiro, the most important was a decree from the Second Marquis of Lavradio establishing that the slave market should be moved from Rua Direita to Valongo. As a result, the slave dealers, all private entrepreneurs, moved to the perimeter of the port.[1] These techniques to repress and discipline the black population were primarily justified on grounds of health surveillance and public health.

Parallel to the economic dynamism of the port district, there were a multitude of techniques to repress and discipline the black population that came to be the (slave) workforce used to accumulate capital.[2] These techniques were primarily justified on grounds of health surveillance and public health.

After the slave market was moved, another decree from the Marquis of Lavradio called for the transfer of the Cemetery of “New Blacks” to Valongo.[3] The cemetery ran from 1772 to 1830 and served for the burial of African women, men and children who perished between entering the Guanabara Bay and being sold on the market. The crown handed the administration of the cemetery to the Church. Recent excavations in the Valongo pier estimate that the cemetery received over 20,000 bodies.[4] This entire process, based on abuse, physical and moral torture, was managed by a major Public-Private Partnership.

Close to the cemetery, the Portuguese crown determined that the slave hospital (Lazareto do Valongo) should be built by three of the leading slave dealers in Brazil. According to the same decree, these dealers owned the Lazaretto and were granted the land for a price established upon inspection.[5] All sick blacks arriving in the port of Rio should be quarantined there. To make use of the services, other dealers should pay 400 réis per slave, an amount that would serve as a compensation for the costs of the land purchase and the construction of the Lazaretto, according to the Chief Health Provider.

The porous boundaries between private actors and the State confirm that public-private partnerships in the broad sense were crucial to the evictions analyzed here. Since a dispossession process relates to the formation of unequal relations of production and depends on disciplining the workforce, the port complex was a key place in the long line of slave labor subordination, which began with capture and forced immigration. This entire process, based on abuse, physical and moral torture, was managed by a major Public-Private Partnership.

“Little Africa” vs. “New Paris”

The Whip revolt. Some rights reserved.

Nevertheless, the practices described gradually led to the economic degradation of the port district, as the city grew to areas distant from the port and from the city center. The economic devaluation of the port space was consolidated after the abolition of the slave trade, as both the slave market and the cemetery shut down. Along with the economic slowdown, emancipated and later freed blacks increasingly took over the port district. Known as “Little Africa”, the region became the center of the Afro-descendant population and culture, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards, with the blossoming of samba.[6] It was in “Little Africa” that the major popular uprisings of the early twentieth century emerged in Brazil.

It was in “Little Africa” that the major popular uprisings of the early twentieth century emerged in Brazil: the Vaccine Revolt and the Whip Revolt. The first was a milestone in the fight against hygienist policies that led to the destruction of public housing (slums) and the expulsion of the poor and black population from the central areas.[7] The second symbolized the struggle against the slavery mentality that persisted even after abolition, as made evident by the physical punishment of black sailors by naval officers.[8] These revolts were accompanied and followed by the struggles of stevedores and the protection of Afro-descendant culture.

In fact, the port district became a space of sociability, conviviality and resistance of the poor and black population.[9] There they lived in shacks, slums and shantytowns; worked in loading and unloading in the port; professed their customs, dances and religions; and gathered in stevedoring workers’ associations. This environment expressed the link between the practices of African descent, the workplace and the political organization of its residents. Thus, the homes of African religious cults served simultaneously as the residence of stevedores and as the venue for their parties. Likewise, major labor organizations, such as the Society for the Resistance of Coffee Pier Workers, massively composed of blacks, demonstrated in carnival blocks. Samba emerged from this movement of demonstrations and popular demands. Samba emerged from this movement of demonstrations and popular demands.

However, from the point of view of capital accumulation, at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century this space was sufficiently detached from the market to be a stock of potential assets to be (re)integrated into the process of value creation. At this time, the port district took part in the new phase of capital expansion, as required under the terms of the global demand of industrial capitalism. To this end, two public interventions were crucial, one promoted by the Brazilian President, Rodrigues Alves, and the other by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Pereira Passos. The first intervention sought to modernize port services and to expand outflow capacity in order to facilitate the inflow of industrial goods from Europe and the US as well as to attract foreign labor to the coffee plantations after the abolition of slavery.[10] Meanwhile, the intervention of Pereira Passos was intended to revalue the property and land of the region in the context of an urban renewal of Rio de Janeiro that adopted Paris as its model. This reform imposed health and urban planning measures, which were presented as a concretization of the European civilizatory ideal.[11]

Both reforms had one aspect in common: they employed a repressive and hygienist logic against the local population, which was mostly of African descent. Their political organizations, the unionist struggle of the stevedores and the demonstrations linked to black culture were harshly criminalized, being identified as obstacles to the expansion of accumulation and the imagined civilization. This entire process led to the expulsion of the former residents in the name of the beautification of the area and the modernization of the port. Both reforms employed a repressive and hygienist logic against the local population, which was mostly of African descent.

In the course of the twentieth century, Brazil’s developmentalist policy and its emphasis on import substitution industrialization demanded another type of port structure to handle increasing volumes of imported capital goods and the still fundamental export of raw materials and agricultural products. The expansion of traditional ports like Rio de Janeiro was limited by new functions and urban designs. In their place, new city-ports, located next to the industrial parks, became almost an extension of the assembly line, enabling rapid transit from import to production to export. Thus, the port of Rio de Janeiro yielded its place of importance to other Brazilian ports.

As the port of Rio became unattractive to capitalist investors, no longer linked the Brazilian economy to the world economy and ceased to be a space of production of value through the provision of port services, its surroundings began to experience a long stage of devaluation. By the 1990s, the region was considered precarious and degraded, and there was even an attempt to erase the vitality of the existing political and cultural production.

Financialization of the port district: the Porto Maravilha project

Museum of Tomorrow, Rio, December 2015. Wikicommons/ Caio Costa Ribeiro. Some rights reserved.

The loss of interest in the port zone for capitalist accumulation has been reversed in the last two decades, for various reasons. One is the rediscovery of the local cultural demonstrations by rich youth residing in the southern part of the city who are integrating the port district more and more into their own leisure space. The perspectives opened by the World Cup in 2014 were also important in that they revealed the tourist potential of a “revitalized” historical center of the city. Equally important is the accumulated dissatisfaction with the model of urbanization which brought the rich population to live in gated communities in areas very far from the city center. This created the favorable context for the implementation of a new program of urban restructuring of the entire port district, the Porto Maravilha project. This “demographic vacuum”, however, is not only densely populated, but has historically been marked by political demonstrations of collective resistance which are still highly active today.

This project includes intervention in an area of five million square meters and 70 kilometers of roads and expressways. The area is located in the center of the city and encompasses the historical neighborhoods of Santo Cristo, Gamboa and Saúde, contiguous with the port district. When the project was approved, the region had 22 thousand inhabitants.

The Porto Maravilha project follows a global tendency, already highlighted by David Harvey, of using mega sporting events as vectors to remodel urban spaces for the creation of value. In this case, the sporting event justifies a series of programs and works capable of restructuring the urban spaces of host cities by enabling mass international tourism, opening up a new construction cycle and valorizing land in order to attract real estate investments.

According to the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, the Porto Maravilha project aims to “recuperate the residential calling of the Port”, a “central area of the city”, that had become “a demographic vacuum” after “decades of degradation”. This “demographic vacuum”, however, is not only densely populated, but has historically been marked by political demonstrations of collective resistance which are still highly active today.

Similar to the demonstrations of “Little Africa”, such forms of resistance seek to reinforce a link between culture, labor and politics, expressing this link in collective actions to produce public spaces. Following this perspective, diverse cultural collectives and urban occupations have marked the port district. The squares and streets of the region are regularly taken by samba circles (Pedra do Sal and Samba da Lei) and carnival blocks (Escravos da Mauá and Afro Filhos de Gandhi-RJ) that, despite the presence of frequenters from the upper class, are characterized by gratuity, the confluence of different social groups and an open and free atmosphere. In the slums of Providência and Conceição, cultural collectives (like the Instituto Favelarte and the Projeto Mauá) become poles of promotion for local artists. The entire port district has passed through a process of intense financial valorization.

Additionally, the port district has had different collective experiences of occupation of abandoned real estate, such as the occupations of Quilombo das Guerreiras, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Zumbi dos Palmares, Flor do Asfalto and Machado de Assis. On the basis of another perspective of the city, all of these actions have been confronted with phases and interventions of the Porto Maravilha project.[12]

The project Porto Maravilha is concerned with the construction of infrastructure and buildings financed by a public-private partnership that issues certificates for potential additional construction (Certificados de Potencial Adicional de Construção, Cepacs), titles negotiated on the stock market. Thus it is a system of earmarked fundraising, that is, the city hall can only apply the obtained resources in the works foreseen for the port district. By contrast, the purchasers of the titles, according to the stock market's page, acquire “the right to build beyond the normal limit in areas that will receive extended urban infrastructure”.

The entire port district has passed through a process of intense financial valorization. According to the Association of Directors of Real Estate Companies of Rio de Janeiro (ADEMI - RJ), the expectations regarding the completion of the Porto Maravilha project alone will bring about an appreciation of 300% per square meter of the real estate in the respective area. Such expectations are reinforced by the role the region will play during the Olympics. The city hall of Rio de Janeiro decided to transform the location into “Boulevard Olímpico”, a stretch of one square kilometer that will have big screens for the broadcast of the competitions, diverse stages designed for musical attractions and many other spaces for expositions. It is hoped that 80 million people (principally tourists) will pass through the region during the Games. It is hoped that 80 million people (principally tourists) will pass through “Boulevard Olímpico” during the Games.

This complex of expectations has guaranteed a gigantic volume of investments for the urban interventions in the port district, the total cost of which is estimated at R$ 8 billion (close to 2.34 billion dollars). Of this amount, R$ 400 million (close to 117 million dollars) are being administrated by a company linked to the city hall of Rio de Janeiro which is responsible for the management of Porto Maravilha (the Regional Urban Development company of the port of Rio de Janeiro, Cdurp), whereas R$ 7.6 billion (close to 2.2 billion dollars) come from the Public-Private Partnership and were obtained in the sale of the Cepacs. These certificates, in turn, were bought for R$ 3.5 billion (close to 1.02 billion dollars) during the auction of a single and indivisible lot by the Real Estate Investment Fund of Porto Maravilha (FIIPM), created by the Fund for the Guarantee of Service Time (FGTS)[13] and administrated by the Federal Savings Bank (Caixa Econômica Federal).

The FIIPM is obligated to pay the costs of the Public-Private Partnership and, at the same time, repay the amount invested by the FGTS with the expectation of appreciation of the Cepacs. In this sense, the dynamic of the implementation of the Porto Maravilha project confirms one of the tendencies of financial capitalism, that is, the utilization of workers’ provisions and guarantees for speculative aims. In other words, we are dealing with a mechanism of transferring risks and stakes to the working classes, who are in a situation of inequality in the financial operation and outside of it.

In 2012, the climate was still euphoric among the top-level managers of the Federal Savings Bank, who celebrated the doubling of the unitary value of the Cepacs.[14] The volume of business and interventions of this type of enterprise, however, attracts a range of private actors and pressure groups who are oriented toward the maximization of their own interests. It is interesting that the Porto Maravilha project became one of the focal points of the recent accusations of corruption which led to the removal of the deputy Eduardo Cunha from the presidency of the House of Representatives in the context of the current political crisis in Brazil. Cunha was accused of receiving bribes from contractors in exchange for clearing FGTS Infrastructure Funds to pay for the completion of the projects in the port district. It is still unknown what impact these accusations will have on the value of the Cepacs. The risks for the workers’ funds, however, are high. These risks derive not only from the stake of profitability of the titles, but also from the possibility of diversion and illicit practices.

Their degree of exposure is particularly high due to the fact that the FIIPM negotiates directly with the real estate market because of its preference for the purchase of real estate expropriated by the city hall. Indeed, the remodeling process of the port zone has implied multiple evictions of former residents, affecting the population of the slum of Providencia, the oldest favela of Rio de Janeiro that housed the soldiers returning from the War of Canudos.[15] In this context, the Porto Maravilha project has already evicted the occupations Zumbi dos Palmares, Flor do Asfalto and Machado de Assis.

It should be noted that these practices of primitive accumulation are renewed in terms of financial capitalism. The movement observed here is twofold. Firstly, on the level of discursive-symbolism and urban dynamics itself, a geographic area that is central – yet peripheral from the point of view of accumulation – is politically constructed as a demographic vacuum and isolated from the capitalist city. At the same time, the capitalist occupation of this supposed exterior, disconnected from accumulation, demands investments in infrastructure. The investors will be the only ones able to appropriate the new value created in the reoccupied space. The negotiated titles are the materialization of this twofold movement to the extent that they permit the state to remodel the non-capitalist space in order to integrate it into the process of accumulation and, at the same time, guarantee a monopoly over the exploration of new space of accumulation to a select group of investors.

The effect of the Porto Maravilha project has thus been the removal/expulsion of the poor population, privatization of public areas, elimination of local commerce, and the expunging of memory. On the one hand, real estate speculation took the port district. On the other hand, in this same region, marked by the history of slavery, the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) was erected, “conceived and realized jointly with the Roberto Marinho Foundation, an institution linked to the Grupo Globo, with the Banco Santander as its leading sponsor”, according to information on the museum’s website. Thus, to the extent that the local population who occupied the port district from the middle of the 19th century on is being removed, the space is being redesigned for the accumulation of capital in various spheres: in the exploration of new tourist and cultural activities, construction and sale of lofty real estate, and financial profits with the speculation of the right to build.

Community Forum of the Port

Starting in 2011, residents of the region began discussing and organizing possibilities of mobilization and resistance to the Porto Maravilha project. Together with universities, collectives and some parliamentarians, they formed the Community Forum of the Port (Fórum Comunitário do Porto). This forum organizes against the unequal development policies of the port district, the expropriation of land and homes, and privatizations of public space. Additionally, there are popular movements, such as the Popular Committee of the Cup and Olympics of Rio de Janeiro (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olímpiada do Rio de Janeiro), which seek to confront the exclusive and entrepreneurial city model catalyzed by the mega sporting events. All of these mobilizations constitute a set of resistances and alternatives to this new phase of reincorporation of the port district into capitalist accumulation. Their chances at success remain open.

* The authors thank Lena Lavinas for valuable comments as well as the Network desiguALdades.net for supporting this research.


[1] C. de P. Honorato. Valongo: o mercado de escravos do Rio de Janeiro, 1758-1831. Master’s thesis, Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2008, pp. 64ff.

[2] R. B. Tavares. Cemitério dos Pretos Novos, Rio de Janeiro, século XIX: uma tentativa de delimitação espacial. Mestrado, Rio de Janeiro: Museu Nacional, 2012, p. 42.

[3] J. C. M. da S. Pereira. À flor da terra: o cemitério dos pretos novos no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: IPHAN, 2007.

[4] C. Haag. “Os ossos que falam”. Revista Pesquisa FAPESP, 190, pp. 24-29, 2011.

[5] Honorato, Valongo: o mercado de escravos do Rio de Janeiro, 1758-1831. op. cit., pp. 105ff; Pereira, À flor da terra: o cemitério dos pretos novos no Rio de Janeiro, op. cit., pp. 106ff.

[6] R. Moura. Tia Ciata e a Pequena África no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Secretária Municipal de Cultura, 1995.

[7] S. Chalhoub. Cidade febril: cortiços e epidemias na Corte Imperial. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996.

[8] A. P. do Nascimento. Cidadania, Cor e Disciplina na Revolta dos Marinheiros de 1910. Rio de Janeiro, Mauad, 2008.

[9] Moura, Tia Ciata e a Pequena África no Rio de Janeiro. op. cit., p. 69ff.

[10] A. I. F. Pinheiro e N. M. C. Rabha. Porto do Rio de Janeiro: Construindo a Modernidade. Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jacobsson Estúdio, 2004, p. 65.

[11] A. N. Azevedo. “A reforma Pereira Passos: uma tentativa de integração urbana”. Revista Rio de Janeiro, 10, pp. 33-79, 2003.

[12] F. D. L. Passos. “Entre Cantos, Batuques e Grafias: Vivências Culturais nos Espaços Públicos da Zona Portuária do Rio de Janeiro”. In: Anais Encontros Nacionais da ANPUR, Recife, v. 15, 2015.

[13] The FGTS is a fund constituted by contributions paid by the employer, who is obligated to pay 8% of the employee’s salary into an account in the Federal Savings Bank. Its goal is to support workers in case of dismissal.

[14] Cf. also interview with the National Manager of Real Estate Funds of the Federal Savings Bank in http://www.portomaravilha.com.br/noticiasdetalhe/3981

[15] The War of Canudos was a Messianic peasant revolt in the hinterland of Bahia at the end of the 19th century that was made universally known by the book by Euclides da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1944.

How to cite:
Gonçalves G.L and Costa S.(2016) From slave market to Olympic venue: variations of capitalist accumulation in the port of Rio de Janeiro, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,12 August. https://opendemocracy.net/guilherme-leite-gon-alves-s-rgio-costa/from-slave-market-to-olympic-venue-variations-of-capitalist-a
About the authors

Guilherme Leite Gonçalves is Professor of Sociology of Law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

Sérgio Costa is Professor of Sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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