In 2013, the lights were shut off in Vila Hípica, a community settled high in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca National Park in Alto da Boa Vista. Approximately five years later, residents are still without electricity. In what can be considered a strategy to “passively” evict the remaining families in the community, electricity is currently provided to facilities and restaurants in the park but selectively denied to residents of Vila Hípica. In an act of resistance, one resident, Maria Haydée Alves da Silva Teruz, who goes by Haydée, recently traveled to Brasília with a delegation from Rio’s Popular Council to plead her case to federal authorities. She was promised electricity, but it has yet to be delivered.
The story of Vila Hípica predates the official establishment of the Tijuca National Park. The Alto da Boa Vista region was settled by farmers in the 1800s; today, visitors can tour the “Slave Route“—a guided visit of plantation ruins where coffee was cultivated with slave labor. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the name Hípica (meaning “horseback riding”) came into use; the Brazilian Equestrian Society started using the area and the association’s employees gradually moved nearby to be closer to their workplace. Haydée remembers moving to Hípica in the 1940s when her father worked with horses. “When I came here, I was two years old.” There was even a public school near Hípica, now located on federal land, that children in the region attended. “I studied here, me and my neighbors, everybody.”
The story of the Tijuca National Park is complicated. According to the Park’s website, it is one of the oldest national parks in the world. Emperor Dom Pedro II declared the Tijuca Forest a protected area in 1861—even prior to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in the United States (in 1872). However, the land was not officially demarcated at the time and as such, development by farmers and workers continued unabated. While large- and small-scale reforestation efforts were undertaken during this time, the Tijuca National Park wasn’t officially created until 1961—a full century later. Over the years, the park has shifted between municipal, state, and federal control, with different agencies responsible for its protection—the Brazilian Institute of Forest Development (IBDF) gave way to Brazilian Institute of the Environment (Ibama), and today jurisdiction belongs to the Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute (ICMBio), a branch of the federal Ministry of the Environment. Over the decades, while park management and conservation policies have changed, the descendents of Vila Hípica’s first residents have remained.
“There wasn’t a school anymore after IBDF came, the school shut down. We continued studying, working, walking down, walking up—we continued living. After, you could no longer have domestic animals, so they took away the horses. My father stayed here working. Once my father died, my brother continued working. When the Park [authorities] arrived, they didn’t understand the area. They asked us for help, to do volunteer work. We did all of this. They didn’t even know the area.”
Like other communities across Rio, residents of Vila Hípica have been stigmatized as invaders and polluters. To the contrary, through decades of life in the forest, residents have cultivated unmatched knowledge of sustainable practices. When the land was eventually handed over to the federal government, new regulations were put in place—including the prohibition of individual residences, since national parks are classified as areas of public domain and Full Protection Conservation Units.
This was when the situation became complicated. After decades of living in the forest, officials now wanted the residents of Vila Hípica out. In 2013, in what Haydée referred to as an attempt at “passive” eviction, Park officials cut off access to electricity. “In 2013, underground electricity cables were installed, and we couldn’t use electricity anymore. They simply didn’t want to give us electricity.” Residents of Vila Hípica were suddenly cut off from the grid, despite having duly paid for electricity for decades. To make matters worse, electric cables and generators supplying power to nearby establishments are visible from Vila Hípica, but the families are not allowed to access them.
Life without electricity is difficult. The community, once composed of ten families, has dwindled down to three. Elderly residents’ health conditions have been drastically impacted; one resident blames the lack of electricity for her father’s premature death. Now barred from transporting building materials to the community, houses in Vila Hípica have slowly deteriorated. Left with only generators to run gas-powered appliances, residents pay high gas bills and say that they are further polluting the very environment with which they have lived in harmony for so many years. Haydée’s mother fell several years ago in the darkness of her home, permanently injuring herself. Now with Alzheimer’s, she is bedridden with deteriorating health.
Haydéee describes the challenges that residents face: “There was a type of massage pillow for circulation that my mother couldn’t use anymore. All of the machines that she is supposed to use with electricity, she can’t use. The nebulizer, she can’t use. Our daily routine is complicated, especially for her because she is elderly and needs a refrigerator, a heater, refrigerated medicine, and machines to help with circulation and physical therapy. It’s hard to take care [of children]. Eight years old without electricity, how is that for a child? They can’t watch TV, they can’t watch anything. It’s really hard, really hard. You can’t even clean in the dark. We can make some food with gas, but we don’t have a refrigerator. Our situation is really sad. In the 21st century, what world are we living in?”
Over the past several years, with help from the Pastoral de Favelas and the Popular Council, the community has hosted protests and held meetings with public officials. A meeting with Park officials in March of 2017 led to little other than frustration. According to residents, one ICMBio official was cited saying that he was just waiting for Haydée’s mother to die so he could evict them. No alternative housing options have been put on the table, and residents are scared they will be moved far away from Vila Hípica if evicted; confirming these fears, one evicted resident was displaced to a favela in Jacarepaguá, in the West Zone.
Haydée, however, has not been silent. She recently traveled to meet with federal officials in Brasília, where an ICMBio representative promised to turn the electricity back on. However, nothing has yet been done. “Right now it’s really hard to resolve the situation. Actually, when we went to Brasília, it was mentioned that they would turn the electricity back on—the coordinator of ICMBio said they would turn it on. After, he said he was trying but didn’t succeed.” Authorities then proposed turning the lights back on—but only if the residents would agree to eventually leave their homes. “We didn’t accept their idea, nobody will accept it. We will see what happens. Everybody lives in suspense. How can you live in a situation like ours?” Haydée asked.
While residents of Vila Hípica continue living in uncertainty, we should ask ourselves: might evicting them go against the very purpose of protecting the park and preserving the region’s history? Wouldn’t ensuring their land rights make sense for the community and the forest? Once guardians of the forest, these families are now relegated to the darkness, forced to forgo electricity. Their story and the park’s history is being systematically erased. “The Park didn’t ‘grow’—to the contrary, the people left. We all have a story,” says Haydée. While Vila Hípica’s case is tied up in federal courts, there is hope that the recent actions taken by the Popular Council will help. As for now, residents of Vila Hípica remain in the dark.