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Living in a Brazilian ghost town

A neighborhood sits on dangerous methane-filled ground. Half the residents left. The others have refused.

About 60 unfinished houses have become an overgrown ghost town. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Construction on this working-class neighborhood stopped before doors and windows were installed in the concrete block houses, but not before the city put up bright blue street signs. The signs — and the silence in a crowded, turbulent 11 million person city — recall a ghost town in the Old West. The only thing missing is tumbleweeds.

That’s what you get, it turns out, when you build housing for about 60 first-time homeowners on a former garbage dump that wasn’t thoroughly tested for methane gas levels. The would-be homeowners provided 20 hours of weekly labor and a monthly payment to help with construction overseen by the city, with the expectation of home ownership at the end. Instead they are still living in rented homes.

Just outside the fences, dozens more families live in houses that were completed before the methane level was discovered. They have refused orders to move, despite warnings that released methane can lead to devastating explosions, much like those that occur in coal mines.

Many continue to live atop the methane deposits, hoping that will pressure the government to settle with them.
(Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

The state environmental authority first documented the methane levels in Vila Nova Cachoerinha in 2001. Families were ordered to leave in 2006; 23 did, to have their rent paid for by the city. But about 45 stayed. Those families, along with those that would have moved into the ghost town, meet every Saturday in the same community center where they gathered to report for work when the houses were under construction. (The sign explaining the 20-hour work rules is still up.)

They are edging — painfully slowly, say the families — toward a solution with the government that might include making parcels of unoccupied land a few kilometers away available to them.

The situation in Vila Nova Cachoerinha attracted attention after last month’s tragedy in Niteroi, outside Rio de Janeiro. There a shantytown built on the methane-filled grounds of a former garbage dump collapsed in a heavy rain storm, killing dozens.

In some ways, the Niteroi favela couldn’t be more different from this corner of Sao Paulo. The former was a classic favela illegally and shabbily built on pitched ground, the classic recipe for tragedy whenever heavy rains hit Brazil; the latter was a government-supervised construction project where land was evened out and construction appears to have followed building codes.

But both involve communities living on top of land that should have never been built upon, examples of Brazil's massive urban housing problems and the government's failure to monitor land use and take quick action when citizens are living in areas of known risk.