By Anna Kaiser, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Torrential rains tore across Rio de Janeiro state late last week, taking two lives, displacing 3,000 families and leaving a path of destruction. The government has announced plans to relocate families from high-risk areas across the state, which also brings controversial hardships to many irregular housing and favela communities.
The state government did an assessment of damages in Xerém last Thursday, the hardest hit by this most recent storm. In attendance were political figures including Rio state’s Governor, Sergio Cabral, the Minister of National Integration, Fernando Bezerra, and the mayor of Duque Caxias, Alexandre Cardoso.
Mayor Cardoso stated, “through a study by the Secretary of the Environment, there will be a program for rehabilitation of the river banks and a relocation of the people who live there. The Governor also approved a payment extension for the damaged areas.”
The State Geological Survey, a branch of the Secretary of Environment recently concluded a study indicating a serious need for change across Rio state (excluding the city of Rio, which has separate geological services Geo-Rio).
Recognizing that heavy rains like those of last week are inevitable, the State Geological Survey identified that 67 of Rio’s 92 municipalities have areas at risk for landslides. Of those, 49 exhibit points of imminent risk and have over 36,000 inhabitants.
President of the State Geological Survey, Flávio Erthal told o Globo that for the study, they “flew [over] all these areas to map the points of imminent risk. The situation is alarming. But it is not a problem that started today, but sixty years ago, with the migration of much of the population from the countryside to the cities, occupying areas without adequate prior planning.”
However, relocating thousands of people from their homes, communities, and places of livelihood is not that simple. “I can not abandon my heritage,” one resident told Globo in response to the recent announcement that forced evictions would continue in Xerém.
This recent storm is far from Rio’s first encounter with heavy, landslide inducing rains, tropical storms where inches of water per hour pound down throughout the state are not uncommon occurrences. With several similar instances in recent years, an increase in scrutiny of zoning and building practices has become a topic of debate.
Two years ago two hundred families from the favela Morro do Borel in Tijuca were ordered to relocate. Their houses, in case of heavy rains, were located in a high-risk area for potential landslides and so the families had been offered new housing in the Zona Oeste (West Zone).
While some experts argue that many homes in favelas reside in areas of risk and lack the infrastructure to protect against landslides and other natural disasters, many critics are skeptical that this is only a convenient excuse in the city government’s mission to evacuate favela communities from desirable property.
Rocinha resident and operator of Favela Adventures tours, Zezinho, shared, “I think there are definitely areas in some favelas where there is potential danger of houses being destroyed because of poor building quality. But I have spoken to people who live in Vidigal who feel that they are being displaced with claims by government that they need to be removed (because of potential danger) but its being done to satisfy some big business people who want to build hotels and other things for tourists.”
Yet now, as afer April 2010’s flooding that wreaked havoc in Rio with the heaviest rains in fifty years, which left a death toll at around 250 people, and 4,000 homeless from a huge landslide in Morro do Bumba, most agree something must be done.