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A Life in Harmonia

The backhoe had already worked its way well into Vila Harmonia by the time we arrived, chewing through brick and concrete like it was chalk. There was about the community an air of surreal slowness, with the police, municipal guard, demolition crew and bulldozer sitting in the sun, while only the backhoe worked.

Harmonia is a tiny community at the end of Recreio dos Bandeirantes in the west zone. Squeezed in between an embankment, a field and a canal, it is anchored at one end by the compound of an extended family, who form the heart of the community and minister the Umbanda Terreiro (Afro Brazilian spiritual house).

As we entered the community we were welcomed and offered a lunch of fried fish, rice, beans, plums and bananas. We sat snacking in a 1 table café as the backhoe continued demolition just 10 metres away.

Over lunch we heard more of the same stories we had been hearing in other communities. Some residents have accepted money and allowed their houses to be demolished, however this is not quite as benign as it sounds. Often the residents are put under extreme pressure to sell off, subjected to threats and intimidation, night visits and a reverse negotiation process in which they are offered less and less money the longer they resist.

This has resulted in absurd situations such as a 3 story apartment block at the entrance to the community where the ground floor resident has sold off, holes knocked in the lower walls and the interior stripped while the upper floors remain intact and inhabited.

One elderly resident was not able to provide proof of title in time so was placed in a nursing home and received no compensation when his house was demolished. The community are still fighting for him.

Businesses are not entitled to compensation and apart from tearing down functional workplaces this stipulation is being used to avoid compensating any house that has a hint of a home office.

The money which is being offered is a pittance, in Vila Harmonia it averaged R$9000 ($5000 US) – R$15000 ($8800 US). To put this into perspective the price of one of the neighbouring apartments is around R$200-300,000. A decent house in another comfortable favela is typically R$20-40,000. PAC social housing is also being offered but these are very far away or unbuilt and there is a serious lack of case studies on the quality of the program.

The community’s hospitality continued after lunch with china cups and fresh passionfruit juice as we sat on a rooftop of one of the few houses left aground in a sea of rubble. The residents of Harmonia displayed an overwhelming civility offering coffee and snacks to the demolition workers even as their houses were being torn down.

The remaining residents were afraid of a night attack on the few resisting houses and the Terreiro so requested we stay in case the Prefeitura tried to sneak back in at night. Thus it was with a newly acquired familiarity and expanding stomachs that we continued on to a dinner of stroganoff, beer, aged whisky and samba. At the end of the evening our new friends invited us to return to the Terreiro for a service where Umbanda, Catholicism, Hare Krishna, Kardecism, Judaism and Rastafari would all be represented; colour, class and faith blended.

It is not entirely clear why this community is being demolished. The general line given by the city is that the community is in the way of a road upgrade. However a preliminary analysis of the site suggests this is unlikely as Harmonia sits at the bottom of a steep embankment, well below road level. Major infill and shoring work would have to be done to bring the ground level up to the level of the road leading onto the bridge. Furthermore, the land on the far side of the road, opposite to the community side, is already close to grade and already features some preliminary civil works.

It is more likely that Harmonia is a victim of real estate speculation dealings, viewed as an impediment to price growth, a fearsome blight and eyesore for the middle class residents living close by. Just a few hundred metres away is yet another set of high rise apartments with a new building going up just a stones throw from where the remains of Harmonia lie.

This analysis might be considered nitpicking an argument and does nothing but point to what everybody already knows: that there is a lack of transparency, legal process and financial double dealing in Brazil.

However these apparently small details are consequential, though typically ignored by those arguing from a middle class perspective in Rio. A perspective that allows a general blanket to be thrown over poor communities. Such blanket arguments, which some describe as the ‘big picture’, typically call up a range of planning issues: real estate, traffic, inflation, the need for transport infrastructure development and the false belief that squatters have no rights to occupy unused land either public or private, as justifications for the removals.

Big picture arguments are essential but they must have a clear, solid and undeniable foundation. Human rights trump all other concerns. This is a very simple premise. A faster commute, a wider road, even personal security are utterly meaningless if they come at the cost of the peace and dignity of our neighbours. The rule of law goes hand in hand. UN Treatise, the Federal Constitution, State legislation and the Organic Law of Rio de Janeiro all recognise and protect squatting, housing and civil rights in communities like Vila Harmonia and detail how they should be treated. These laws are being broken during the demolition and removal of communities across the city. This is not a reactionary or radical statement, it is clear and present for anybody with a mind and a heart to see.

With the added leverage of international scrutiny surrounding the upcoming mega events, the people of Rio de Janeiro have a unique opportunity to call for change. The law must be vigorously defended by all classes, especially the middle class who hold increasing economic ‘market’ power and should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the poor demanding honest, transparent and humane governance.

This must be done if Brazil truly desires to transcend its current third world state and become a mature, recognised, international, first world democracy.

This is the only way to a life in Harmonia.

Sam Faigen, B.Arch, M.Arch (Australia)