Photo of Jorge Santos courtesy of Oluap Miranda
By Luiza Cilente
Jorge Santos was not present when his house was demolished by bulldozers. When he arrived at the Vila Recreio II community in western Rio de Janeiro, only rubble remained along with some overturned furniture and appliances that were still inside the house. Santos had not been living there for some time. He had moved as soon as the rumors started circulating among neighbors that construction for a new highway would be built through the community.
The forced eviction and demolition took place in August 2011. Santos and other residents had been offered compensation of only R$12,000 (just over US $5,400) for each of their homes, or the option to be relocated to a new government housing development which was 40 kilometers away. He did not agreed to sign papers provided by municipal government agents accepting the relocation. The eviction went ahead anyway and Santos’ home was destroyed with everything inside. A total of about 94 families who lived in the community were evicted between 2010 and 2011.
A video produced by WITNESS’ Priscila Neri featuring Jorge Santos discussing his experience facing forced eviction. The video is part of a four-part series.
At great personal cost, Santos decided to rebuild his home in a nearby community called Vila Taboinha, rather than accept the government housing so far from his relatives and work.
The government’s justification for the evictions was the construction of the Transoeste busway, a highway for use by regional bus lines linking the suburbs of Santa Cruz and Campo Grande to Rio. This urban mobility project is part of Brazil’s preparation for sporting mega-events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Three years later, however, the land remains undeveloped with only remnants from the evictions and grass filling the places where homes once stood.
When passing by his old community, Santos says the World Cup and the Olympics has nothing to do with the highway construction project. “It’s just an excuse. The games will take place far away from here. They wanted to take the slum out to build more shops and restaurants near the venue to ‘enhance’ the area,” he says.
Santos and his wife came to live in Rio 24 years ago. He established himself as a garden designer and caretaker for private homeowners and luxury condominium communities. The couple and their two sons moved to the Vila Recreio II community 16 years ago. Santos almost immediately became acquainted with activists in the housing rights movement through meetings with neighborhood associations. He credits these activists in supporting his effort to keep his home years later.
In 1991, municipal lawmakers passed an article which was meant to prevent forced evictions and allowed them to be employed only as a last ditch effort. Evictions would require the participation and agreement by residents and resettlement of residents would be, at most, seven kilometers from their original housing.
In the case of the Vila Recreio II community, beginning in 2010 most families were transferred to condominiums in a federal housing program called Minha Casa Minha Vida. This development is about 40 km away, clearly a violation of the 1991 article.
The material value of losing one’s home is troubling on its own. However, Santos points out that sometimes the more deeply felt losses are the incalculable values of relationships. He cites the shifting dynamics of “a family that is used to living with relatives and neighbors and suddenly is living in another community where they know nobody.”
Another challenge many relocated people face is infrastructure. Families who were transferred to Minha Casa report that it is far from markets and they have to walk 40 minutes to buy basic necessities at the nearest gas station.
For Jorge Santos, there was tremendous loss coupled with some gains. “Most people lose a lot [through forced evictions] and in my case, I lost everything I had,” he says. “I won in relation to knowledge. It was an opportunity to wake up and realize that there is much beyond what they say on TV and in the newspapers.”
Despite everything, Santos remains optimistic, and can often be found with a smile on his face. Recently he participated in public discussions on the impacts of mega sporting events and also remains involved with social movements for housing rights. He insists that he wants to continue fighting for human rights and social justice, regardless of where his home is.
Luiza Cilente is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.