The Right to the City and Forced Evictions

"We want fair compensation payments" this notice says in the neighbourhood of Campinho in the North of Rio de Janeiro
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"We want fair compensation payments" this notice says in the neighbourhood of Campinho in the North of Rio de Janeiro

In this interview with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, professor Orlando Alves dos Santos Júnior (Research Institute of Urban and Regional Planning of Rio de Janeiro University; former rapporteur of the Brazillian Platform for Human, Economic, Social and Environment on the Rapporteur Commitee for the Human Right to the City) talks about the violations against citizen's rights that are happening in Brazil. From 2010 to 2011, he investigated complaints of violations in different Brazilian states concerning the rights of citizens to their cities. In Rio de Janeiro, he observed removal processes resulting from the construction works in preparation for the World Cup mega-events.

This interview was conducted shortly after the conference of Jornadas de Junho – a wave of demonstrations initiated in 2012 across Brazil.

Lately, several violations of the collective right to the city have been reported. What is this right?

Orlando Alves dos Santos Júnior: One of the focuses of the right to the city dates back to Henri Lafebvre, a French philosopher and the first person who developed and formulated the idea of the right to the city. Afterwards, many other social movements and intellectuals worked with this idea.

I think Lafebvre's idea refers to a double dimension. The first dimension is the right to adequate social reproduction of the city: housing, sanitation, transport, mobility, education, and health. I would say, from this point of view, the right to the city is a necessity; it concerns social reproduction itself. Thus, this adequate social reproduction can't be subordinated to the market, it should be guaranteed to everyone. When people say that something is a social right, we are saying that, independently of each one's financial conditions, a certain basic quality condition must be guaranteed. This is the first dimension, but there is a second.

The way the city is organized and how we organize life in the city influence the way we come and go, our way of thinking, our way of existing. So, everybody has something to say about the way the city is organized, or everyone has something to say about the way they wish the city was organized. Thus, there is a dimension related to everyone's rights to participate in decisions concerning the city and how the citizen wants the city to be organized. Therefore, this dimension claims democracy and has a democratic radicalism – participation – for making decisions about the city. This dimension is also implicit in the idea of the right to the city.

On this right to the city perspective, how do you see the removal processes today in Rio de Janeiro? The information from the Dossiê do Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas do Rio de 2013 is that 3,000 families have already lost their houses, and that this number could reach 11,000. Is this data current?

Totally current, but those are underestimated numbers because we can say there is a disinformation policy. Therefore, there is no information available about the detailed projects in the areas where these projects will go through. All this prevents communities from organizing themselves beforehand. When we visited the communities, people were lost (referring to the communities threatened with removal). No one knows (if they'll have to leave their houses or not). The government first sends demands: "Look, you'll have to leave." When the company that does the construction work arrives, the rumors start. No one sits, no one talks, no plans, nothing. This harassment is part of the duress that the population suffers during the removal process.

This harassment is part of the government strategy to enforce removals?

Sure. Because they have to weaken the negotiation terms with the locals and must weaken the resident so he accepts the proposal. This is harassment. I mean, you intimidate the residents and make them scared and insecure. Insecurity is part of this. The government incorporates in its intervention a weakening of the citizens' rights. Another fundamental question is to never bargain collectively. The government never negotiates collectively and does not recognize the community organizations. The negotiations occur individually, and that is a fundamental pattern. There are threats, also: "If you do not accept it, it will be worse for you" (this is what the state representatives say to threaten people). In all the serious complaints regarding human rights that we follow, they occur when the citizen attempts to find recourse through justice. "If you appeal to the law, if you seek your rights, you will be penalized." There is also evidence of removal with zero time (no time to prepare to leave the houses). We witnessed night removals. There are many violations resulting from revoked court injunctions.

But it is obvious that there is resistance. Even in this situation, there are those who are organized, who mobilize. Obviously, there are changes in this negotiation pattern with the government, arising from this mobilization. If these lawsuits began with claims of R$6,000.00, nowadays there is a decree of the prefecture that says the maximum indemnity payment is up to R$80,000.00 – not that every owner receives this amount. Even though the gains on these interventions are still small, there are changes, in my view, that are significant and illustrate the achievements of the Comitê Popular da Copa and the popular movements organized in this process.

The calculations for these damages is always based on the house and never for ownership of the property?

In the decree there is already a location tax (but no compensation for the possession). Actually, the city's statute already allowed for the recognition of ownership. Of course, this would mean the executive would pick a fight with the attorney's office with the federal court of accounts. The government does not indemnify the possession, does not recognize what is written in the city's statute.

And there is a formalized, institutional channel of the municipality for consulting the public about the removals and the construction work?

Not a channel. There is a serious mistake in understanding. There are some views that do not grasp the depth of what is happening in host cities. The impact of the mega-events is not limited to the involved communities. I am saying that the mega-events will affect you as a citizen of Rio de Janeiro, as well as me and any other Rio citizen. Therefore, in my view, participation regarding issues related to the World Cup and the Olympics should not only include those directly affected. I would say, there is no opportunity for participation for society in general, nor for the communities that are directly affected. It contradicts what was determined by the city statute. Any urban project in the city should incorporate the community that is directly involved (according to the statute). It is explicitly stated. We do not have to invent anything, but the municipality simply ignores the city statute.

The case of the community of Campinho (in Madureira, north of Rio) is one of the emblematic cases related to irregularities in the removal process. How are these irregularities calculated after the community is extinct? Are people making some kind of progress in receiving compensation?

Well, that depends on the mobilization and the performed negotiation. In Campinho's case, we closely followed the negotiations with the last residents that resisted removal. Some residents were removed to the west, or to "Minha Casa, MInha Vida"; others resisted and participated in negotiations, which was less evil because they earned the right to receive compensation. They received assistance with their purchases. This way, they managed to acquire properties near their former living area. But only after much suffering.

Campinho is about 60 kilometers from Cosmo (one of the places with Minha Casa, MInha Vida houses)?

Exactly. There were cases of residents who had their houses taken down by mistake, without a court order. At the time, I was the rapporteur at the DHESCA Platform and we were doing our mission. We had scheduled the hearing with the city's Department of Housing on the next day to negotiate (the night before the hearing) – that was very common. I do not remember if it was Thursday or Friday, but the tax employees were already prepared for removal at 6 a.m. There was chaos all night to revoke the order of removal, which was in complete disregard of the bargaining process that was underway, that is, the public hearing, the hearing to be held with the department the next day.

One can also see a clear disconnection between the bodies of the municipality. The Secretary of Housing wanted to wait and negotiate, whereas the Department of Public Works and the attorney's office wanted to ruin everything. Therefore, it is correct, in my view, to look at the government as a monolithic institution.

You have procedures, differentiated positions, although we identify a pattern of intervention by the executive. Nevertheless, there are contradictions and sometimes different orientations within the municipal government itself.

What about women? Are they the ones most affected by the removals?

I think they are the ones who suffer the most. Actually, it is not because the removals especially affect women, but because they affect families. Because this male dominance in society is unfounded in the separation between the private and public, and productive and reproductive spheres. As they are responsible for the reproductive sphere, women suffer the most when there is a removal, which is exactly the sphere of reproduction that will be destroyed in the removal process.

We're talking about transferring families to places far away, where the schooling conditions for children are completely altered; lack of access to public facilities completely alters the safety of mobility. Many of those areas are dominated by militias.

Is that the role that women occupy in this system?

Exactly. In this case, obviously, they are the most affected. Just to tell you something: I think it is our responsibility not to have a reductionist and Manichean discourse about what is happening. I guess we cannot assume that families are being removed in homogeneous communities. They are not in homogeneous communities. I think this is often reductionism…

Is this dangerous?

Dangerous, and in my view it has hindered the articulation itself of these communities when you assume that they are homogeneous. I mean, actually, in the communities we are watching, you realize a multiplicity, a diversity of situations, where we could, in a cartoonish fashion, say there are integrated families in that place, embedded in social networks; social reproduction has therefore some stability. You have social and economic participation that ensures the social reproduction of those families.

You also have families in precarious situations where inclusion in social networks is not strong, for example links with the job market. You have a situation of much greater vulnerability. There are families that actually live in an excluded situation where those links are almost nonexistent, so social reproduction is very difficult.

Then there are people who are not the majority of the cases, who live in shacks made of metal or wood. We think that slums are only composed of houses of brick that are in precarious situations. There are families who wish to go (to a housing complex), because they have nothing to lose, no ties to that place. The government takes advantage of this multiplicity of situations in these individual negotiations.

In my view, there is a challenge for the communities that wish to stay. They need to have an agenda that also incorporates negotiations with the ones who wish to leave so that the negotiation is more favorable, even for those who want to leave. For those, going to a brick house 40 or 60 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro could represent important social mobility, the hope of social inclusion, finally, in new social conditions. This does not eliminate the complaint about the procedure, the negotiations, and the disrespect for those families in pseudo-citizen situations. The government treats those families like pseudo-citizens, but we do not need to create a speech that all families have their life conditions worsened. This does not correspond to reality, in my view. The fact that they had their lives improved does not mean that the procedures are not irregular.

What impact did the demonstrations have on the situation?

I think the demonstrations that happened in Brazil just in time for the Confederations Cup opened the gates. There was a complete change in the international media agenda, the international press. They were here to cover the Confederations Cup but all of them were covering the demonstrations. I think this has much to do with the allegations made with what was built. As much as the press, and perhaps all of us, are perplexed by everything that is happening in Brazil, I think it is a mistake to look at these events and think they came out of nowhere.

Then, there was a process of mobilization, reporting, and registration on the international level, much coming from the committees. Do these protests, besides offering more visibility, make a difference in the daily struggle to ensure the rights of populations affected?

It is hard to see it this way, but I think so. The government is now being forced to change its agenda. I believe it is a question of how much this will change. Will it change radically? Will it open up a little bit?

So the protests are important achievements.

Exactly. For me, it is a misconception to look at this process and not see the achievements, even on the edge. The number of people demonstrating with placards overwhelmingly listed the poor conditions in healthcare, education, and transport, which is all related to the investments for the World Cup. It was not marginal. I think it is impossible not to change something. We should not make a mistake about the strength of FIFA.

A German newspaper "Die Zeit" published: "Thank you, Brazil", because Brazil had the courage to demonstrate and the Germans did not. We had the courage to mobilize against FIFA, against this corrupt company scandal. This is what the facts show. First, I think this has an effect; second, how much of an effect that will make is hard to assess because the power of these institutions is huge. The power of the coalitions they built is very powerful. It involves large international and national economic interests.

The same day you have the announcement of a dialog, you have the police in Rio de Janeiro going to Maré and making a demonstration that should be denounced by everyone, because it is a scandal (referring to the deaths of nine people in the Maré community after a police raid in June 2013). That shows that this retreat is still quite inadequate in expressing a change of attitude by the government – especially the way they treat the population and the city.

Translated by Fal de Azevedo and Marli Tolosa.