Living in a Brazilian ghost town

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.

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.