Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Founded over 200 years ago, Rio’s Botanical Gardens are an integral part of Rio’s cultural and horticultural diversity. Almost 100 years ago, Gardens administrators decided that certain employees could build houses in one place inside the grounds and live there with their families. Later, another administrator of the Gardens permitted employee families occupy other parts of the grounds.

The Curmudgeon, also known as Michael Royster
The Curmudgeon, also known as Michael Royster.

There are now nineteen separate conglomerations, at last count totaling 621 dwellings, located in four noncontiguous areas of the Gardens. Some of them are right on top of Rio dos Macacos, a stream that irrigates the Gardens on its way to the Lagoa. Some of them are in the arboretum, meaning that part of the Gardens destined for cultivation of plants and visits by tourists.

Rus in urbe is how the Latins define rural enclaves in urban areas and the phrase fits. There’s no drug traffic, no serious crime, and some of the residential areas have gates manned by security guards, ironically hired by the Gardens. One person who lives there owns a car worth R$130K — he claims his father and grandfather both worked for the Gardens and lived there, and he inherited it. That’s hardly the profile of a “squatter”.

A decade or so ago SPU, the federal government agency that controls land owned by the federal government, filed numerous lawsuits to evict the occupants. In 2010 a federal judge ordered the eviction. But SPU, under political pressure from allies of Federal Deputy Edson Santos (PT), abruptly changed its mind and decided not to enforce the judgment. It is often noted that Mr. Santos’s sister lives in the Gardens.

PT leaders and those of other left-leaning parties (e.g. the Greens and PSOL) are split right down the middle as to whether all ought to be removed, or only those in the “risk area” (near the river).

Everyone agrees on two points: first, the dwellers who are evicted should be indemnified; and second, they should be relocated somewhere near where they are. Sadly, however, nobody agrees on the value of the indemnity — what’s the going market value of rus in urbe when no one has the right to buy or sell that land.

Moreover, nobody agrees on where the relocation site(s) should be. There are at least 3 proposals, one of which is still inside the Gardens. The other areas are just outside the Gardens but most of them are leafy forest and not suitable for housing without ripping up a few trees.

TCU (Brazil’s equivalent to the US Government Accountability Office) brought matters to a head this month by ordering SPU to enforce its judgment and evict everyone within 390 days. The order was conditioned, of course, upon relocation and indemnification. Back to square one?

Enter Mr. Liszt Vieira, President of the Botanical Gardens since 2003 and a dedicated member of PT with certified green credentials. After the decision he came down firmly on the side of evicting everyone, and relocating them all outside the boundaries of the Gardens, threatening to resign if his superiors disagreed.

His reasoning is that the Gardens need more space to preserve and protect biodiversity, by planting seeds and increasing its laboratories, not to mention creating a proper museum. His most quotable phrase was: “In another 200 years we’ll all be dead, but the Gardens will still be here.”

In the words Voltaire put in the mouth of Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 35 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)



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