Click here for original article, in Portuguese, by Silvana Bahia* for BBC Brasil.
The Morro da Providência community, between the Port Region and Central Station, holds an important place in the history of Rio de Janeiro. The city’s oldest favela, it was settled in 1897 by soldiers returning from the War of Canudos.
The community, which will celebrate its 115th anniversary on November 15th, is going through one of the saddest periods in its history as the city evicts many residents from their homes. The sadness affects even those who will not suffer eviction.
The favela is located in an area slated for three upgrading projects connected with the city’s preparations for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016: “Marvelous Port,” the “Olympic Port,” and the “Morar Carioca” upgrading project.
Morar Carioca affects the community most directly because it includes, among other things, an cable car that will connect one part of the hill – the Ladeira do Barroso – with the Central Station, and also with Samba City, where many samba schools’ floats and costumes are created and stored.
The Ladeira do Barroso is at the halfway point on the hill, which has raised questions from residents who feel that the tramway would be more useful if it ran to Cruzeiro, Providência’s highest point. The city government alleges the decision was made by engineers working on the project, and was based on technical criteria.
According to city officials, the investment of nearly R$131 million includes infrastructure, social facilities, and accessibility, and is meant to improve residents’ quality of life.
Click here for the city’s summary of its project for the Morro da Providência (in Portuguese).
One of the oldest public spaces in the community, the recently demolished Américo Brum Square was the only recreation area in the favela and was part of the affective memory of generations of residents. Today, the square is a giant work site, with construction equipment running every day, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
Retiree Márcia Regina de Deus, 53, resident of Providência for 52 years, is one of the people resisting removal. The apartment building she has lived in for 20 years – built in 1938 – is the only one left in the area where the tramway will be built. Of the 9 families that used to live in the building at 235 Ladeira do Barroso, only 4 remain.
“They want to tear down my building to put up another one, but they won’t let me live in the new one,” said Márcia, who has become a symbol of residents’ resistance. She said that the apartments to be built where her home now stands will not be used to house displaced residents.
“All of the community’s parties were at Américo Brum Square. We celebrated November 15th, Saint John’s Day, Children’s Day, Saint George’s Day. Now all that’s finished. Streets were closed without consulting residents. They don’t care if there are handicapped people in the community. They came in here and they don’t care about anything,” she fumed.
“Peacefully or by force”
Residents are resisting the city’s plans in part because they have been left in the dark about their fate after the removal of their homes. Some assert that no one from the city has spoken to them about the project, which is supposed to benefit residents. They claim they were not informed of the purpose of the project, nor told when the work would begin, according to Sidney Ferreira, 38, resident of Providência and member of the Commission in Defense of Housing. Click here to read the group’s manifesto, in Portuguese.
“They said, ‘You can leave peacefully, or by force. The tractors are coming either way.’ One resident went to live with family in Nova Iguaçu. No one can afford to pay rent downtown in this real estate market, when the city’s rent subsidy is only R$400 per month. This is social and ethnic cleansing,” added Sidney.
After much pressure to leave her home, cook Maria das Vitórias Ribeiro Silva, 37, finally gave in.
“The representative from City Hall came to my house in person a few times, on top of several formal orders to appear at the administrative center,” said the cook.
Maria das Vitórias opted for assisted purchase, whereby the city buys a property chosen by the displaced party within a given price range, and oversees the transaction from start to finish.
In Maria’s case, the problem is that the money was not paid to the actual owner. The woman who supposedly owned the apartment on Rua do Monte – Jacilete dos Santos Fagundes – participated in the entire process and took the city’s check of R$41,600 for the purchase of the property.
After the purchase, Maria learned the truth from neighbors: in fact, Jacilete had been a squatter, who had broken into the house and lived there for years. At City Hall, the apartment’s property taxes are listed under the name of Adriano Afonso de Souza.
The irregularity was only discovered after Maria das Vitórias hired a lawyer. Asked about the situation, a city spokesperson said that she should come to the administrative center, which Maria says she has already done several times.
“I trusted the city. I went through all the paperwork with the woman who claimed to be the owner. They paid her 41 thousand reais for the property and afterward I found out that the owner was someone else,” said the cook, who is afraid of being evicted from the home she thought was hers.
The city’s arguments
Most of the families who have lost their homes (so far) were on Ladeira do Farias. Close to 50 families are receiving the rent subsidy – a provisional benefit of R$400 allocated by the city to residents whose homes have been demolished, which they receive until their new housing is built.
The rental homes’ contracts are expiring and rents will increase. “We are desperate. Rent has gone up and the houses the city promised are not ready,” vented one resident, who preferred not to be identified.
According to a secretary from the Municipal Department of Housing, 196 families have been relocated. The secretary explained that the rent subsidy would not expire and that the “plan for new housing in and around the community is for 860 units, of which 170 are currently being built. Of the 170 being built, 122 are nearly finished on Nabuco de Freitas Street, and should be ready for residents to move in at the beginning of 2013.”
* Silvana Bahia, 27, is a journalist and resident of the Morro da Providência. She works with the organization Observatório de Favelas (Favela Observatory).