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Rio de Janeiro: This land is our land

The battle to gain housing rights on the city's public lands


What do you do if you’re living on public land, in a house that your great-grandparents built in an era before strict housing regulations, and the government suddenly decides to evict you? This dilemma afflicts several informal settlements known as favelas, along with other occupations of public land by traditional communities. With a political landscape increasingly intolerant of these communities, all are under threat of eviction. In response, community activists have been organizing to prevent further removals. Ostensibly, federal law 11.977/09 that created the Minha Casa, Minha Vida public housing program and the 2001 City Statute law protect the housing rights of lower-income Brazilians in cities, particularly those living in informal settlements without housing titles. Furthermore, federal law recognizes squatters’ rights which, in theory, grant property titles to individuals inhabiting a parcel of privately-owned land for at least five years. Unfortunately, the government routinely ignores these laws and the judiciary only sporadically implements them. Besides this, communities of self-built housing located on public land—typically owned by the state or federal government—can’t, under current law, obtain property titles; they can ever only hope for “usage” rights, or the right to remain. So, what are the options for these communities on public land to avoid eviction?

Cutting off the power

One option is for community activists to bring their grievances to local politicians and request their support. This tactic is perhaps not so widely used since there exists a substantial mistrust of politicians, regarded by most ordinary Brazilians as corrupt. In Rio, there are exceptions such as city councillor Reimont (Workers’ Party) and city councillor Renato Cinco (Socialism and Liberty Party) who are often involved in the housing rights movement for irregular settlements and land occupations. For example, city councilor Reimont has championed the cause of Hípica, a small settlement of three families within Tijuca National Park. Until three years ago, houses had access to the Park’s electrical grid but were cut off after improvements were made to the grid. Now, these families rely on an electrical generator when they can afford to use it. Hípica is effectively experiencing a passive eviction since Tijuca Park refuses to re-establish electricity. Aside from assistance from politicians, communities have likewise sought support from within the federal government and from lawyers specializing in property law. The ultimate goal of reaching out these officials and professionals is to make those with political influence aware of the challenges facing these communities and to get an accurate assessment of what legal measures exist to ensure their right to stay.  
Partially demolished house in Hípica, a small settlement in Tijuca National Park. Photo: Jennifer Chisholm

Areas of Special Interest

A popular legal instrument is the “Area of Special Interest”, codified in the City Statute law. One beneficiary of this program is Quilombo Sacopã, a traditional community of descendants of escaped slaves, in the affluent Lagoa neighborhood of Rio. Quilombo Sacopã, located in what was once hinterland a century ago, had been threatened with eviction for years because of real estate speculation but was successful in securing the designation of their land as an Area of Special Cultural Interest (AEIC) after proving that, as a traditional quilombo community, their unique way of life deserves to be protected. There also exists the option of designating Areas of Special Social Interest (AEIS) for communities that can’t claim cultural uniqueness. AEIS are designed to assist irregular settlements on both private and public land in improving infrastructure and providing basic social services like waste collection, electricity, and running water with the understanding that these communities will not be evicted after receiving improvements. Well-known favelas that have received the AEIS designation include Complexo do Alemão, Rocinha, and Pavao-Pavaozinho . Applying for AEIS status is an arduous process, as communities must provide documentation to prove that they are lower-income, and that they don’t already possess urban or rural property titles. They are also subject to a scientific study to assess the topography of the area—normally to determine whether they are located in an area of geological risk.

Resistance: life no matter what

Taking the legal route can be time-consuming and, given the dysfunctionality of Brazilian bureaucracy, may not lead to tangible results for many years, if ever. While these communities wait for the legal process to take its course, their leaders, lacking confidence in the Brazilian legal system, often turn to resistance outside of the law. This form of resistance has taken the form of a housing rights social movement, supported by similar movements such as the Movimento Nacional de Luta pela Moradia (National Movement for the Right to Housing) and the Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement)—whose representatives often accompany favela housing rights protests. Perhaps the most active supporter of these communities in Rio de Janeiro has been the Pastoral de Favelas, a social justice organization tied to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro whose motto is “vida apesar de tudo” (life no matter what). The forty-year old Pastoral de Favelas’ mission is to champion favela rights. In practice, they often provide a meeting space for organizational meetings, regularly attend protests, and act as a mediator between communities and the government.
2 December 2017 Housing rights protest outside of Mayor Crivella’s condominium. Photo: Jennifer Chisholm.

Sustainable favelas

This latest wave of mobilization around favela housing rights has been spurred by recent policy directives of the newly-elected municipal administration, headed by the polarizing Mayor Marcelo Crivella. His government has proposed mass evictions of favelas located close to or within environmentally-protected reserves around Rio’s expansive Tijuca Forest. These are alleged to be in designated “areas of risk” that could possibly lead to environmental damage or harm to residents on hillsides or near rivers. Or their removal is declared to be necessary in order to make way for public parks. Leaders of communities under threat or that have already experienced evictions based on this ecological preservation pretext have endeavored to disseminate a counterargument in their dealings with journalists and researchers and through public protest. Some communities have gone further by promoting themselves as sustainable favelas. A potential third possibility has arisen with a new, comprehensive Federal Land Regularization Law that, among other things, enables the federal government to sell public land off to private ownership. This could potentially lead to the creation of community land trusts in favelas where a favela collectively holds the land title and which could theoretically prevent eviction and real estate speculation. While this model appears to be a working solution in the United States, questions arise when considering a possible implementation in Brazil: would land intended for the community land trust need to be purchased from the federal government? If so, would the price be prohibitively high? Finally, is land privatization the best course of action to prevent eviction of housing settlements on public land? It is certainly a neoliberal solution. The right to housing, whether in the city or in the countryside, is a human right. Unfortunately, the road to achieving it tries the tenacity of even the most stalwart activists. Some communities have lived under the threat of eviction for decades while others have recently begun organizing in response to the environmental policies of Rio’s Crivella government. Considerable persistence and the creative use of all available options are undoubtedly required.

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