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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.

The would-be ghost-town owners include Iraci Pereira da Silva, a 60-year-old woman who has worked for decades as a housekeeper. She already imagined one of the houses as her own, one at the far end of what would have been Santa Rosa do Sul Street, looking off into the hills to the north. “I imagined this all prettied up,” she said. “Everyone worked together for so long on it.”

The very thing that makes the joint effort between residents and the government appealing — families contributing sweat equity to the construction of their own homes — has made it more difficult to get them to leave. Many families at the Saturday meeting recounted how men and women, young and old, unloaded trucks, carted concrete blocks and did whatever they were assigned to do in 10-hour shifts, mostly on Saturdays and Sundays when they were off work.

“The work was enough to make us anti-social,” said Raimundo Souza, the coordinator of the local residents association. “We missed lunches with family, we skipped trips to the beach. We’d get out of there completely exhausted, arrive at home, eat something and fall asleep.”

Souza said the families want to leave, for their own health. But not until they receive a just settlement. “We only want to leave with a well-defined solution,” he said, preferably one that includes vacant land and a plan to rebuild their neighborhood. “We don’t want to go back to paying rent.”

Meanwhile, they stay despite the danger of explosions, hoping that puts additional pressure on the government officials who would undoubtedly be blamed if an accident were to occur.

The press office for Cetesb, the state’s environmental agency, prepared a timeline for GlobalPost showing that it constantly urged the city to remove the families from the area and that it had measured “the presence of flammable gas in high concentrations” in various parts of the area as recently as 2008.

Whether the families who got their houses but may lose them have it better or worse than those who never moved in at all is unclear. “We’re staying here to see if there will be another solution,” said Quiteria Alves Araujo, who lives just down the block from the ghost town with her mother and three daughters. “I’m scared, but we can’t just run away.”

Meanwhile, a certain sense of fatalism has set in among the would-be home owners, who still trek to the weekly meetings from wherever they have found affordable rentals. Forty-six year-old Veronica Barbosa de Barros is typical. “I guess that I wasn’t born to have a house of my own,” she said.

Editor's note: The subheadline to this story was updated.