Brazil's floods force urban planning rethink
Brazil's deadliest mudslides on record provided impetus for the government to start enforcing stricter housing regulations and for low-income favela residents to accept relocation.
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The answer to that question is coming in the form of government subsidies. Rio State is allotting about $300 monthly for up to a year to evictees. Ronaldo da Silva Leandro is using it to rent a room here in Alto da Floresta, after the Civil Defense agency condemned his house because it's too close to the one in front of it and could create a domino effect in future floods.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Brazil floods
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"I don't accept it, but they said they will demolish the house," the bricklayer said recently, removing his home's glass windows before it was demolished the following day. While the government says it is building 3,000 new homes for those relocated, Mr. da Silva Leandro and Gomes de Santa both say they're not counting on it. Still, Gomes de Santa's wife says she is ready to use the subsidy to rent a new home on safer land for the time being. "It's just like a cemetery there," says Edna Martins, surrounded by her grandchildren – though she adds that she would have resisted the Civil Defense's orders before the tragedy.
Indeed, favela residents have long opposed relocation plans, and government officials have long chosen to ignore the problem in exchange for voter support from favela residents, says Flavia Bartoly, who spent six years as an engineer assessing high-risk areas with the Civil Defense of Teresópolis. She recalls the difficulty of coaxing residents to leave their homes despite promised rent assistance, as with one woman who couldn't even balance a cup on her table because her house was at such a steep pitch.
The woman told her she did not want to disorient her visually impaired son and, moreover, "I've already lived here a long time."
Planting trees where favelas once stood
But should authorities have pushed harder for evictions? In the political blame game that followed the floods, national and state authorities accused municipalities of allowing citizens to build in insecure areas, while the federal government itself came under scrutiny for having recently slashed its natural-disaster budget. Many favela residents themselves were blamed for refusing past eviction attempts.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, which is preparing to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, announced that hazardous settlements would henceforth be more difficult to construct by emphasizing protection of city forests – a retreat from interpreting Brazil's Constitution with a generous view of squatters' rights. Governments say they will reforest these areas to prevent evictees from moving back.
Julio Wasserman, a professor at Rio's Federal Fluminense University and coordinator of its environment and sustainable development network, sees a shift in thinking among favela residents now willing to accept relocation. But the issue may yet turn political, he says, and evictees may attempt to return if proposed new housing units don't come to fruition when the rent assistance funds run out.
"The people forget," says Professor Wasserman, "and as they forget, it's going to be a lot more difficult."
IN PICTURES: Brazil floods