By Milli Legrain, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The long-running dispute over the evictions facing 520 families housed in the area adjacent to the Botanical Gardens in Zona Sul (South Zone) has reached yet another milestone. On Wednesday October 2nd, the case will go before the Chamber of Deputies in Brasília.
The controversy was reignited by the Botanical Gardens’ decision to expand their area of research into neighbouring Horto and federal land at the foot of the Tijuca forest. In May 2013, Environment Minister Isabella Teixeira redefined the limits of the Gardens based on a non-binding recommendation by the Federal Accountability Office (TCU), provoking the resignation of Listz Vieira, the Gardens’ President.
Many of the houses in the disputed area have existed since the early 1900s. In addition, among those facing eviction are descendants of public servants who worked for the Gardens and were originally summoned by the Jardim Botânico authorities to build their houses there.
“My father was a gardener. We lived on the other side of the city and were invited to live in a house nearby. We moved in when I was three years old and my brothers were born here,” said Emília de Souza, President of the Horto Residents Association.
“More importantly,” said Ubiratan de Souza, a Professor at the Architecture and Urban Planning Faculty at Rio´s Federal University (UFRJ), “Article 183 of the Constitution clearly states that five years’ of occupancy grants the right of possession.”
According to a statement from the Federal Heritage (SPU) branch of the Ministry of Planning, “The decision was taken in consideration of the interests of the Botanical Garden´s Research Institute.” Some, however, believe that the environmental argument is a fallacy. “There are many perverse interests at stake,” said Miguel Baldez, lawyer for the Horto Residents Association.
His feelings are echoed by Moacyr Paiva, a local resident. “It’s about real estate interests. Numerous government buildings are located in this same area. There is even a car park.”
But in an exclusive interview with The Rio Times, Luiz Antônio Correa de Carvalho, special adviser to the Minister for the Environment, confirmed that, “With the exception of the local Julia Kubitschek primary school, the Electoral Tribunal and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Institute (EMBRAPA), all buildings unrelated to the Botanical Gardens will have to go.”
The luxury Canto e Mello condominium is also in the disputed area. “But they paid a fine and were allowed to stay,” remarked Emília de Souza. According to the Environment Ministry, “The part of the condominium that is within the newly defined perimeter will also have to be demolished but at the owners’ expense.”
Throughout much of the case, Horto residents have been painted as “invaders” and the area branded a “favela”. However, a joint UFRJ project with the SPU branch of the Ministry of Planning would have granted the right to possession, guaranteeing the community´s payment of the IPTU property tax, but it was turned down by the Federal Government in May 2013.
Since then, in an effort to re-house some of the families within the neighborhood, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that he was purchasing 3,600 square-meters of land just outside the disputed area from private company Toalheiro Brasil. “This proves that this is not an effort to socially cleanse. We are not trying to turn the Jardim Botânico neighborhood into Leblon,” said the Environment Ministry adviser.
The Horto Residents Association has filed an appeal before the Supreme Court but remain hopeful that next week’s hearing, requested by three members of parliament, will help their cause.
“The decision has been made,” insisted the Environment Ministry adviser. “But we want to do this calmly, respecting everybody’s rights. People will be re-housed within the Jardim Botânico neighborhood or within the city center.”
The case highlights, too, the severe lack of adequate housing opportunities in Rio de Janeiro. In an area where property prices are among the highest in the country, conflicting interests are often leaving the poorest elements of the population at the mercy of land-owners and development with little hope of having their cases heard.