They came unannounced and marked the houses they wanted gone.
With white spray paint they wrote ‘SMH’ on thousands of houses without explanation or warning. A whole community was caught by surprise. The letters meant ‘Secretaria Municipal de Habitação’ but the residents of Morro da Providência say it means ‘Saia Morador Hoje’ (Residents Leave Today).
Famous for being the first favela in the whole of Latin America, Morro da Providência is located in the Port Zone of Rio de Janeiro. The project “Porto Maravilha” (Port Marvelous) is an ongoing bid to reinvigorate the area, preparing it for the thousands coming to the city for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
The historical slum, formed in 1897, is home to five thousand people and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2012. Its inhabitants have lived there for generations and it overlooks the site where the African slaves first entered Brazil. It is not just a home to people but a home to history and heritage.
A resident of the slum for 30 years, Marcia Regina de Deus, 36, is in danger of being removed from her own home. One day Marcia found ‘SMH’ branded on her apartment building with no warning.
“The project includes our removal so they can knock down this building. We don’t know what the actual project is. In reality they first told us they were going to build twenty habitational spaces. When they came we didn’t know what they were doing. They were truculent agents and we were caught by surprise.”
The communications between residents and city hall have produced contradictory and deceiving information. Marcia said residents accepted the changes at first but that it slowly dawned on them that the intentions of the local government weren’t exactly what they seemed to be.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and they arrived saying there would be a remodel. We embraced the cause of course. The owner of the building disappeared so legalizing our situation seemed good. In the end that had nothing to do with their plans.”
Marcia and eight other inhabitants of the building got an invitation from the city hall to get ‘social rent’ which means moving out and receiving R$400 to pay rent elsewhere.
Mayor Eduardo Paes has promised that all removals are for the safety of the residents. He said to O Globo: "We won't stand by seeing houses fall apart.That's why you can call me names but whoever lives in a area of rick in Rio will have to leave their home. We will give them a dignified alternative. No one will be sent too far away from their neighbourhood."
Lucia was one of the people who accepted this alternative or you could call it - government’s compromise. And now, she now lives in a tiny cubicle. “She keeps asking, where is my house? Where is my house?” said Marcia.
Ney Ferreira, a resident who fought tooth and nail against his removal and succeeded in staying put, has no doubt he would find himself in the same position. “If I had been removed I would be going through the same difficulties [as those who were]. We’d have difficulties of finding where to live and if I had accepted the money that they offered me living here would be out of the question.
“I wouldn’t be able to pay even half the rent. The cheapest rent you find here is of R$600.”
Those who took the government’s cheques had to move far away from the place they had called home for years. And those who didn’t suffer with the possibility of being removed any time.
One of the promises made to the removed people was that new accommodation would be built and given to those who lost their homes. But these apartments are far from being habitable. Even if they were ready, Marcia says the space is of 40m2, which is significantly smaller than where she is now.
“I have an ample apartment, with bathroom, bedrooms, kitchen. I don’t want to leave and go to 40m2 where I can’t even take all the stuff in my house that I bought with much sacrifice.”
Despite contradicting statements from authorities, one of the main plans for the favela is to build a cable car system from the bottom of the hill to the top. However according to Ney this would have no practical use for the residents and the construction has been at a standstill for quite some time.
“Everything is stopped and there aren’t even cable cars. Staff have told me some one stole the two cars they had. I don’t even know how that could happen.”
Much has been said about the pacification of the favelas and the establishment of Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) in communities previously neglected by authorities but Ney thinks this work isn’t being done to protect the people, but to promote the interests of the projects that might make the people homeless.
He said: “The UPPs exist to support the projects. I don’t only think but I am sure that they are not here to protect the population. And even after pacification everything is the same, nothing has changed.”