Four Examples of Resistance

For the original article by Maíra Mathias, Raquel Júnia and Raquel Torres in Portuguese, click here.

There was a community hampering Rio de Janeiro making itself beautiful for tourists coming to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. And still is, thanks to the resistance of hundreds of people, and in spite of the government’s systematic intrusions and tired arguments that you can’t stop progress, that the families will be compensated, that the city will help with the displacements, that a parking lot is more important now, etc. In this interview with Brasil de Fato, people who actively participate in the resistance process discuss the difficulties facing four Rio communities that have been emblematic of the struggle for rights: Aldeia Maracanã, located on the site of the former Museu do Índio (Indigenous Museum), which is threatened with demolition and removal by World Cup construction projects; Vila Autódromo, which for years has been threatened with removal by officials who want to develop the area on the banks of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon; Morro da Providência, with “revitalization” projects that call for the eviction of a third of the community’s residents; and Manguinhos, which has suffered various human rights violations during construction projects of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC).

The group met on a Saturday morning at the former Museu do Índio. At the time of publishing, the state government had retracted its decision to demolish the old museum building, but it remained inflexible about its plans to remove the Aldeia Maracanã community. Read below the interviews from that day with Jane de Oliveira, Social Director of the Residents’ Association of Vila Autódromo; Sidney Ferreira, co-founder of the Providência Housing Rights Commission and member of the Port Community Forum; Urutau Guajajara, better-known as Zé, professor of indigenous languages and one of the leaders of Aldeia Maracanã; and Fernando Soares, coordinator of the Manguinhos Human Rights Laboratory and co-founder of the Community Social Forum.

Brasil de Fato – What is happening in your communities?

Zé Guajajara – Our struggle has become more intense since 2006 when we occupied the old Museu do Índio building which had been abandoned since 1977. Our idea was always to return to indigenous people a historic site that had always been associated with them. In 1865 the Duke of Saxe gave the building to the Brazilian Empire to create a center for the study of native seeds and the indigenous populations that used them. The building later housed the Indian Protection Service, founded by Marshall Rondon, which is now FUNAI (National Indian Foundation). It was transformed into the Museu do Índio in 1953. This historic site has been inseparable from the indigenous people. So in 2004 we organized a multi-ethnic group of indigenous people and attempted to take back the building, but with no success. In 2006, with a larger group of native people and supporters, we occupied it with the goal of revitalization and self-management. In Brazil there is no indigenous historic site created and run by indigenous people. At the end of 2012, Governor Sergio Cabral came and threatened us, saying he had bought the building and was going to tear it down and put anyhing else in its place – a shopping mall, parking lot; even the government doesn’t know.

Sidney Ferreira

Sidney Ferreira – At the end of 2010 somebody who said he was from the Mayor’s office came to Providência and asked residents to let him measure their houses because the city was going to make improvements to the buildings. And who doesn’t want improvements? Of course the community welcomed him and let him take his measurements. But then at the beginning of 2011, Mayor Eduardo Paes came to the community to present his project for Providência. He went as far as to tell residents they should get smart and make money off the gringos – all they had to do was put up a snack shop, say they were serving recipes from their grandmother who was born a slave, and the tourists would love it. He said this, encouraging residents to act falsely, and went away. There was no community meeting, no chance for residents to participate. In other words, the planning completely ignored the needs of residents, and the law. A week later, people from the mayor’s office came back and marked countless houses with the letters “SMH” – Municipal Housing Secretary. The people whose houses were marked would have to leave. To leave our homes, the city offered us either a ridiculously small compensation, a rent subsidy of R$400/month, or an assisted housing purchase, which is a joke. In the official project, 832 families are to be evicted – a third of the community. They also offered some apartments, but only one apartment project has been started, with only 162 units.

The person who first met with residents to “spread on the Vaseline” was the captain of the UPP (Pacifying Police Unit). But at the end of February he showed his true colors, saying, “People, I work for the State, and it’s a hierarchy. If I get the order to remove people, I’m going to throw them out.” From that point, residents started to organize; first in separate groups, then in March all together as the Providência Housing Rights Commission.

Jane de Oliveira – Vila Autódromo is located in a very valuable area. It’s flat, on the banks of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon, and near the beach at Barra. Over the years, the government settled many people there, and many residents received legal titles to their properties. But that land is no longer for the poor, at least in the politicians’ minds. It’s prime real estate, and the big contractors that finance political campaigns are dying to get in there. As such, the community has been harassed with the threat of eviction since the 1990s. Residents remember back when Mayor Eduardo Paes – at that time deputy mayor of the city’s West Zone – showed up driving a tractor to take out their houses. That was a pivotal moment: residents made a human barricade and stopped the demolition. At the time of the Pan American Games, the city tried again to remove Vila Autódromo, and they failed again. The community has also been accused of causing aesthetic damage, and damage to the environment. After that the excuse was that the community had to be removed so a media center could be built for the Olympic Games, then for the TransOlímpica BRT Highway. It has also been reported that the community is located in a risk area, and that it was too close to the security perimeter [for the athletes during the Olympics]. What we’ve seen is that there have been no motives for removal based on public interest.

Fernando Soares – Manguinhos is located at the junction of the city’s major highways. So if you want to go from the airport to Barra da Tijuca, or from the North Zone to the city center, you’re going to pass Manguinhos. This is why they began to realize it was important to include Manguinhos in the city’s planning for the World Cup and Olympics. The community was selected to receive the PAC, in theory an upgrading program, and after the plan was announced, we began to see drastic changes. First, the drug traffickers ordered the presidents of the community’s 13 residents’ associations to resign, creating a political climate more favorable to the construction projects. This is not unusual. There has always been an alliance between the state, contractors, paramilitary groups – either traffickers or militias, and the UPP, to facilitate the eviction of poor people from the center of the city to areas further and further out. Compensation, assisted purchase – that’s unrealistic. People aren’t able to buy houses in the places where they were living before, as dictated by law.

In Manguinhos, on the day the UPP arrived, Sky [satellite TV] also moved in, along with Claro and Tim [cell phone service providers], and Light [electricity], but people’s income didn’t go up. Residents are starting to feel like they have to sell their homes and move far away, where it’s cheaper. And the UPP, installed in February this year, is here to maintain the balance of power – the residents’ associations that were imposed during the traffickers’ coup are still there. People are still afraid to express their political opinions. Some people in Manguinhos have been threatened and are barred from participating in politics.

And how have you articulated your resistance?

Urutau Guajajara, better known as Zé

Zé Guajajara – In 2010 I participated in a meeting about Belo Monte (dam in the Amazon). Students from a variety of academic fields were there and at the end of my talk, some of them came up and asked me, “We know the state government is threatening to remove you. What are you, indigenous people, going to do about that?” I answered their question with a question: “Look, we indigenous people are here, defending our heritage. And what about you? What is the rest of the population going to do for this place?” From that moment the students began to mobilize. And so we began to talk about how this heritage is too heavy a load for the indigenous to carry alone. Everyone needs to join us, and we call on the scientific community, critics from all disciplines, NGOs – all of civil society – to take part in this struggle.

Jane de Oliveira – In 2010, along with the Port Forum, we asked Eduardo Paes to hear our counter-proposal for an upgrading project in the community. We organized a technical team at the beginning of that year when we found a list online of 139 communities threatened with eviction. We went door-to-door, community-to-community, alerting people and passing out flyers. Most of those communities didn’t mobilize – the same ones that have “fallen” [been removed]. When we presented our people’s plan to revitalize the community on August 16, 2012, the mayor’s office said they would respond within 45 days, but we still haven’t heard from them.

Sidney Ferreira – At no point had Jorge Bittar, then Municipal Housing Secretary, visited Providência. Once we started the movement, we started to become visible. I got phone calls offering bribes, giving threats and warnings to be quiet. Finally, in May 2012 the secretary reluctantly came up the hill. We asked to make our arguments, and it all went off. We pointed out a lot of the things that were wrong with the works. One example: that cable car [being built in the community] – who’s it for? Not for us, the people who live there. The cable car stops at Central Station, Américo Brum Square – they destroyed the only open space in the community for children to play ball in, an important spot in Providência’s cultural history – and the City of Samba. But the highest point on the hill is Cruzeiro. So to get up there you have to get off at Américo Brum, go up the hill, and take the stairs. It’s a tourist project. We’re not in any way against improvements, far from it. We’re against all this mess.

Do the difficulties demotivate the community? What would you say is most demotivating?

Jane de Oliveira – Look at the case of [Federal public housing program] Minha Casa, Minha Vida…. Most people think the government has created housing policy. But that isn’t true. The government has created a capitalist policy that favors big contractors. The people who should benefit from that project are those who are still renting, not the ones who have already managed to buy their own houses. When we organize a meeting for residents, and some people don’t come, some of the ones who don’t come are renters. That is demotivating. When city officials go to Vila Autódromo to show off a pretty project, but don’t reveal that they’re going to charge a condominium tax that most people won’t be able to afford, that also negatively affects mobilization. Then there’s the demotivation created by the mainstream media when they only report things that do nothing to undermine the private and government initiatives. They report that a community is in what is considered a risk area, but they don’t report that an engineer working with the social movement proved it is not a risk area. They manage to sell such an image that even those who are being evicted begin to oppose the social movement.

Fernando Soares

Fernando Soares – Our movement resisting the Manguinhos PAC took place in a context in which everything was new. People thought that it was going to be an upgrading project for the favelas. Thinking of all the stigma that the favela carries – as a place of violence, drug trafficking – it was hard to get people’s support to discuss this project. Partly because, and sometimes we have to put our fingers in the sore spot, the NGOs ended up as mediators of the process – they wound up being agents of the government. Agents who weren’t necessarily against Manguinhos, but they didn’t deeply understand it because they weren’t living through the process. If it’s a housing and sanitation project, the beneficiaries should be the residents of the favela. But the residents aren’t asked what kind of project we want. The project is planned behind our backs and the excuses are always the same: “We’re changing the tire while the car’s running. Either you take this now, and before long you’ll get used to it, or you won’t get anything.” You won’t get anything…? At the time, that was the paradox of Manguinhos. In some ways it was hard to get society’s support. Forget the media, which has always been on the side of hegemonic procedures. And there’s the old “coronelismo.” You have the same political coronels in charge. If they tell you to, you have to keep quiet. So there are many procedures. One is to tell you that this is going to be good for you, and another is plain coercion.

There are powers that are truly threatening and that make it impossible to get anything done politically, because survival is more important. Sometimes people even prefer to leave their houses. I had to leave my house. The police were on my roof, they broke through the ceiling, and rocks fell on my head. If I had been alone, I would have resisted, but I have two children. I decided to leave. I didn’t abandon the struggle, just that house. But symbolically, they are winning, making progress. Here, in the case of the Museu do Índio, that “noble savage” thing is in play and there’s a lot of popular support. But getting over the stigma of living in a favela is still very difficult.

Since you touched on the subject of media coverage, how is your relationship with the press?

Jane de Oliveira

Jane de Oliveira – O Globo [newspaper] went to interview Altair Guimarães [President of the Vila Autdrómo Residents’ Association], and they got everything wrong. Everyone knows Altair’s position. But they said that Altair didn’t want Vila Autodrómo to be part of Minha Casa, Minha Vida because it would mean mixing with people from Cidade de Deus, Santa Cruz, and Morro dos Macacos. We made them retract it. Another time, Band wanted to do an interview, and I told them we’d do it on one condition: that they first interview Mayor Eduardo Paes, and then the Public Defender, because the three sides have the right to speak, and the people have the right to hear from each side to draw their own conclusions.

Zé Guajajara – It’s the same for us. It’s obvious who the mainstream media is working for. Sometimes it seems like a good piece comes out, but we have to read between the lines. For example, they never show the cultural part, the intangible part. It’s always just a conflict between the indigenous and the politicians. Despite the fact that the president of CREA [Regional Engineering and Architecture Council] came and said that the building’s structure is completely sound and restorable even though it’s been abandoned for 30 years, the mainstream media keeps saying the building is falling apart and has to come down.

Sidney Ferreira – The press comes into our homes without permission and does whatever it wants. I took part in a few articles at the beginning, innocently, but when they were published I realized that they had cut out what we had said. This was in Globo and Record.

What do you learn from each other’s struggles, and how do you see the future?

Zé Guajajara – The only difference between us is that our friends’ struggles are specifically about housing. In our case, we know what we want for the former Museu do Índio. We’re fighting for five things. One is housing, yes, why not? But above all we’re fighting for cultural, educational, spiritual, and religious designations.

Sidney Ferreira – I’ve learned that we have to integrate. The general population has to get involved in social struggles, whether it’s in Providência, Vila Autódromo, Aldeia Maracanã, etc. And although the struggle is difficult, we’ll win one victory at a time. And while we’re winning, we can’t let down our guard. If we win an injunction stopping construction, the developers immediately step in and the judge allows construction to proceed. They say we didn’t get anywhere, but we did. Only those who are in the struggle know how much work it is to get to an injunction. No matter what, we’ll be retaliated against, and suffer all kinds of pressures, but we can’t give up.

Jane de Oliveira – I’ve learned that the mafia is very well organized. While we organize ourselves among two or three communities, to talk and work out new strategies, big business organizes with the government. That’s the real dictatorship. Whenever a lawyer or a doctor is working with the poor, solving problems, pretty soon he’s transferred, taken out because he’s getting in the way of the other side’s progress, the side that doesn’t want to see us evolve. I have also learned a lot about egos in the struggle. There can be egos in the Aldeia Maracanã, Vila Autódromo, Providência, Manguinhos. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of the social movements, and of people who are suffering, to promote themselves. Finally, I’ve learned that a struggle isn’t fought alone. Ever since we got together with other communities, Vila Autódromo has started to have a broader vision.

Fernando Soares – In this process of struggle, we get very worn out. When we begin to see someone else’s struggle in our own, we begin to have hope again, and to realize that Manguinhos’ struggle is not only about Manguinhos. It’s a struggle against one of the city’s projects. In short, we have new hope today. The fact that we’re doing this interview today is symbolic, and shows that it’s possible to form an alliance between groups that are suffering with this vision of a global city. More than failure or victory, losing or winning, the struggle has value in itself. We could be defeated, this could all come down one day, Manguinhos could be leveled — could be…. But the fact that we haven’t surrendered, that I have met Guajajara, Sidney, and Jane – that’s what’s important.