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SOS Rádio Sonda: Community Faces Eviction Threat Despite 60-Year History on Ilha do Governador

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On Tuesday, July 17, five families received a federal eviction order in Rádio Sonda, a community of 103 families located near Rio’s International Airport on Ilha do Governador in the North ZoneMilitary authorities proceeded to enter the community on Monday, July 23, photographing the houses, residents, and their possessions, reportedly for the purpose of registering the five families subject to eviction. In response, the community—alongside public defenders, members of the Popular Council, and state representative Glauber Braga—came together the following evening to debrief and brainstorm ways to combat the situation. 

Exacerbated by the recent prospect of land privatization, this recent threat comes in the context of the community’s long history of fighting evictions issued by the neighboring Galeão Air Force Base. If evicted, these families—who have been embroiled in legal disputes since 1998—would be forced to leave without the expectation of compensation or housing alternatives.

20 Years of Fighting Evictions

Sharing a similar struggle with the neighboring favela Maracajás, residents trace back Rádio Sonda’s humble beginnings to nearly 60 years ago when they divided up the land on which a Benedictine monastery once stoodThe military has been historically present in the region since the government repossessed properties to establish the Naval Aviation Center of Rio de Janeiro in 1923. Under the administration of President Getúlio Vargas, the center was then transformed into the Galeão Air Force Base in 1941 with the creation of the federal Ministry of Aeronautics and the Brazilian Air Force as its military branch. Many people involved in the military began to settle in the area to be closer to their workplace, leading to the establishment of various offices. Eventually, this expansion came to infringe upon the community of Rádio Sonda.

According to residents, military personnel began making periodic visits to Rádio Sonda in 1998 in an effort to register people living in the community. Residents also became subject to increasingly strict rules surrounding authorization by the Air Force. For example, if residents wished to renovate their houses, bring in large pieces of furniture, or make repairs, they were required to contact the Air Force for an assessment and receive authorization for their request, which was rarely granted.

Soon thereafter, the community received news that the Air Force had initiated legal proceedings to evict the community. With each ensuing visit from military staff, residents became increasingly anxious, as each day was filled with the uncertainty of whether or not they would be evicted. Fearing that declaring their home renovations would attract unwanted attention from the Air Force and increase the chances of eviction, residents began transporting construction materials to the community via an obscure route or hiding the materials in their cars. As noted by one resident, “We just didn’t know the future.” To this day, some Rádio Sonda residents live in unfinished homes.

In response to these eviction threats, the community of Rádio Sonda began working with lawyers and public defenders in court, arguing that the land on which Rádio Sonda was located did not belong to the military. For the years that followed, the Air Force was unable to displace the community.

In 2007, the Air Force began demarcating lands belonging to the military. In the process, the neighboring favela Vila Joaniza was declared as no longer pertaining to the Galeão Air Force Base. Free from their long-standing legal battle against repossession—as the Air Force was no longer able to evict those residents—Vila Joaniza grew rapidly. However, following demarcation, the Air Force began to privatize its lands and build walls, encircling Rádio Sonda. To this day, Rádio Sonda is unsearchable on engines such as Google Maps as it was cut off from the community to which it previously pertained. With significantly fewer people resisting eviction, residents feared that it had become easier for the military to make arrangements or employ eviction strategies to displace the community. Once again, the community was thrown into a state of constant worry.

In 2014, a group of residents banded together to create the Rádio Sonda Residents’ Association. The Association held monthly meetings seeking to strengthen the community’s resistance efforts. As one resident noted, through the Residents’ Association, “we can become stronger, defend ourselves from the Air Force, and fight together.” However, in April 2015, the Air Force filed a specialized lawsuit against one of the founding members of the Residents’ Association. Soon thereafter, the suit was extended to include four other families occupying the same area, ordering them to leave their homes within thirty days. Despite the community having hired legal representation to contest the Air Force, the Air Force lawyer was uncooperative and did not work with the community members and ultimately the Air Force won the right to evict them.

On July 30, 2015, various military officials entered the community in a large truck. A current resident recalled the experience starkly: “They began evicting a family that has a child with special needs and started throwing their things away, into the truck. Everybody gathered on the streets to watch. It was a horrible day for us. The boy was crying because his beautiful house was being destroyed and we couldn’t do anything about it.” Perhaps the worst consequence of the eviction process was that these families received no entitlement to compensation or alternative housing of any kind. The families lost their homes and had nowhere to go.

After the first bout of evictions finally occurred, after many years of resistance, the Residents’ Association sought to find an alternative way of resisting. In the same year, they were introduced to a lawyer at the Catholic Church’s Pastoral das Favelas set up to support favela movements, and the Popular Council, a favela activist group consisting of members from various favela communities, public defenders, and a variety of other supporters. At the Popular Council group meetings, the remaining residents of Rádio Sonda’s Residents’ Association shared what was happening in their community and began learning about their right to housing. Eventually, the Popular Council helped organize two large demonstrations in the streets of Rádio Sonda to raise awareness about what was happening inside the secluded walls of the military base.

Rádio Sonda’s resistance efforts continued to blossom until July 2017, when another resident leader of Rádio Sonda’s Residents’ Association received an eviction order from the Air Force asking them to leave their property in 30 days. Despite working with a public defender, they too were evicted. Seeing how the targeted eviction of community leaders was no mistake, the Resident’s Association decided to disband. One current resident noted, “Who has the courage to stay on the front lines when they could be next?” 

After the two losses, the community’s morale decreased significantly. Many residents struggled with mental health issues and were medicated for stress-related issues. Many did not have the strength to fight and highly distrusted the legal process. However, members of the Popular Council continued to encourage the community to fight. Once again, the community eventually revived its efforts and began a partnership with the public defenders that eventually took Radio Sonda’s case to court. Since then, Rádio Sonda and other communities that comprise the Popular Council have held various demonstrations, asserting their right to adequate housing and basic public services. Residents of Rádio Sonda, alongside residents of other favelas located on federal lands such as Horto, Araçatiba, and Vila Hípica, spoke at a public hearing in Brasília to make federal officials aware of their situations and find solutions to the problems.

Struggles that Continue to This Day

If the federal eviction order issued on July 17 is carried out, the five families would be displaced with no compensation and find themselves lacking housing alternatives, with their homes and properties entirely repossessed by the Air Force. In addition to this urgent threat, residents of Rádio Sonda continue to face several issues on a daily basis. Residents struggle to receive basic services such as waste management, street cleaning services, and other public utilities because the Air Force has effectively barred outsiders (even City workers) from entering on spontaneous visits. As a result, the City is rarely able to provide public services in the area.

Furthermore, the struggle for authorization has barred the community from receiving important resources. All visitors and residents must have a special pass in order to enter the military compound. Community members must ask the Air Force for clearance and authorization in all cases, making it difficult for deliveries and visitors to the community to freely pass through. As observed in communities across Rio, these limitations placed on residents’ daily lives constitute tactics strategically employed by authorities to facilitate evictions. In the face of significant hardships experienced in Rádio Sonda over the years, the community’s persistence and efforts to mobilize continually offer lessons about the strength of solidarity and collective support.