Four Core Criticisms at the Public Hearing on ‘Settlements Occupying Federal Land’

Officials composing the panel at the public hearing about communities located on federal land, hosted by the Federal Public Defender's Office

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On Thursday, September 27, the Federal Public Defender’s Office hosted an important public hearing to address the situation of favelas located on federal land that are facing eviction or threats of eviction. Representatives of many communities that take part in the Popular Council were present, including (but not limited to) Horto, Vila Hípica, Indiana, Barrinha, Rio das Pedras, Rádio Sonda, Maracajás, Araçatiba, Providência, Vila Autódromo, and Vila Laboriaux in Rocinha. The event was also live-streamed on Facebook.

There was significant participation at this hearing by representatives from public entities willing to engage with and answer questions from the audience: the Federal Public Defender’s Office (DPU), the Land and Housing Nucleus of the State Public Defender’s Office (NUTH), the Secretary of Federal Patrimony (SPU), the Federal Attorney General’s Office (AGU), the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (PGR), the State Institute of the Environment (INEA), and the Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute (ICMBio). Many of the government representatives in attendance were from internal environmental protection departments of their respective agencies, including a federal public prosecutor who specifically represents the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens Research Institute. The following are four core criticisms that surfaced at the public hearing.

1. Evictions in Rio violate international human rights law

Throughout the hearing, many attendees debated the case of Horto—a community that has existed for over 200 years. Both Horto’s lawyer and the federal prosecutor representing the Botanical Gardens were present and made statements supporting their respective legal arguments. However, it was Horto resident and community leader Emilia de Souza who drove the message home, defending Horto’s right to permanence. Near the end of the hearing, Souza addressed the table of officials to announce exciting news: residents had recently received word of a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed to the Brazilian government in support of the community’s cause. A summarized excerpt from the letter follows:

Serious concern is expressed at the imminent threat of further forced evictions of the residents of Horto, which would have a deleterious impact on their right to adequate housing and on their right to participate in cultural life and their right to enjoy and access their cultural heritage. We are further concerned that the decision of eviction was taken without any prior consultation and that it seems to have a disproportionate impact on people from African descent. We would like to remind your Excellency’s Government of its obligations to ensure the right to an adequate standard of living and housing, and the right to take part in cultural life, as guaranteed by various international human rights instruments to which Brazil has adhered.

The eight-page document gives the Brazilian government sixty days to answer several questions pertaining to the case. While the letter was drafted in April, Horto residents only recently learned of its existence. Until the UN receives a response from the Brazilian government, it demands a halt to all further actions in Horto—a demand that seemingly has not been observed. Nonetheless, this letter seriously calls into question the de facto policy of eviction that has been prevalent in Rio over the past decade, creating further inequality in an already dramatically unequal city.

2. There is systemic ineptitude and inaction on the part of the government

Several cases raised during the hearing called attention to the failure of government entities responsible for accompanying land regularization processes to fulfill their duties. Araçatiba is an clear case of government inaction and miscommunication. Nearly all of the government representatives who discussed Araçatiba mentioned the complexity of the situation, which involves multiple federal and local public entities. Earlier this year, Araçatiba experienced an SOS moment when federal police officers showed up in the area. Residents claim that federal police have questioned the community’s legal status, despite the fact that the federal government completed a registry of residents in 2012 to begin the land titling process. The Secretary of Federal Patrimony (SPU) also spent several months in discussions with a man who claimed to be the president of the local residents’ association—even though such an association hasn’t existed for the past ten years. One resident questioned: “Why would the federal government call a person who claimed to be the president of an association to a meeting to discuss the future of sixty families if this association hasn’t existed for ten years? Why would they conduct a closed-door meeting with a person who doesn’t represent Araçatiba?”

Representatives of the SPU and the State Institute of the Environment (INEA) apologized to the three residents of Araçatiba present at the hearing. Additionally, a federal attorney apologized for the incidents involving federal police forces, which he explained was the result of confusion due to the illegal sale of public land in nearby areas in the Guaratiba region, where Araçatiba is located. However, many questions remain unanswered. Why have federal police forces questioned residents about the community’s legal status when the community—which has existed for over forty years—is currently in the process of land regularization and titling? Why did the responsible government agencies fail to verify with whom they were speaking prior to inviting this individual to make important decisions regarding the entire community’s future? Why haven’t recognized community leaders been contacted?

Residents of Vila Laboriaux in Rocinha and Vila Autódromo also voiced complaints about government inaction. One resident of Vila Laboriaux mentioned that following evictions in one part of the community, nothing was done with the deserted area. The vacant lot has since been occupied by individuals who are not from the community—and still, the government has not taken action.

Maria da Penha from Vila Autódromo also noted that the community’s collectively-negotiated rehousing agreement with the City has not been respected. The agreement—which was reached following a long struggle ending in the eviction of the vast majority of residents—included the promise of official documentation to prove ownership and further upgrades for the remaining residents. “We, Vila Autódromo, have an agreement with the City—that they will give us titles. To this day, nothing has been done. I have been living for over two years without these documents and without the second round of upgrades. What we really need to do is fight and say that we have the right to stay. Favelas are part of the city. They are where we live and where we are happy. We don’t need to be removed. Favelas need to be upgraded and respected. The right to housing is for everyone, not just for a minority.”

3. Residents expect broken promises

Another case discussed was that of Vila Hípica, where electricity has been shut off for years without explanation. The Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute (ICMBio), which manages the Tijuca National Forest, is directly responsible in this case. The representative present at the hearing promised that he would turn the electricity back on and work with the community, stating: “We will resolve it.” He also noted that no one can live without electricity. However, this is not the first time that a representative from ICMBio has promised to fix the situation in Vila Hípica. Following the meeting, residents remain skeptical that anything will change, despite the official’s on-the-record promise.

4. Mayor Crivella’s Strategic Plan still looms large

The looming threat of Crivella’s Strategic Plan was mentioned by many residents and by the NUTH representative. The Plan contains two specific goals related to evictions, the first of which calls for studies on the “urban requalification” and verticalization of Rio das Pedras—which would involve the disruption and likely removal of significant portions of the large community. The second foresees the removal of 14,000 houses in the region of the Tijuca Massif due to environmental “risk.” Residents of Rio das Pedras were present at the hearing and stated that eviction remains a concern, despite the community’s victory in defeating Crivella’s original verticalization proposal last year. This year, municipal electric utility Light has intensely pressured residents. Though a law was approved in April—forcing Light to remove problematic electric meters—residents continue to receive sky-high electricity bills. The community also suffered a deficit of public school teachers at the beginning of the year, hindering the guarantee of children’s constitutional right to public education.

Furthermore, some residents believe that Crivella’s project for Rio das Pedras as defined in the Strategic Plan isn’t, in fact, dead at all. Crivella recently traded land with the Rio de Janeiro state government and acquired an area near Rio das Pedras, where he claims he intends to build 10,000 public housing units by 2020. No one knows if this announcement signals the preparation for another eviction attempt in the area, but residents remain committed to resisting such threats. The president of the Rio das Pedras Residents’ Commission had this to say: “The torment of eviction continues. We are going to fight and he won’t be able to do this because we are strong.”

There were also important positive results from the public hearing. Residents voiced their opinions and certain government officials promised to work towards positive solutions. Community members thanked the federal and state public defenders for their dedication and promised to keep marching forward in the fight for their rights.