In the center of one of Brazil’s most expensive neighborhoods is a small favela where residents have been fighting and often losing the battle against eviction for 10 years. Ilha do Destino, or Isle of Destiny, was created in the early 1950s in Boa Viagem, the wealthiest neighborhood in the city of Recife, located in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.
It is in this neighborhood that Carmen has lived since she was a little girl, and where she grew up, married and raised her children. In 1952, Carmen’s family lived in Pernambuco’s countryside in an area known for grave drought periods and minimal work opportunities. Suffering with hunger and unable to find work, Carmen’s mother and father moved the family to Recife, Pernambuco’s capital, in hopes of finding better job opportunities. Carmen’s parents did not have money to buy or rent a house and, like thousands of families in Brazil, the only solution they found was to build their own home on an abandoned piece of land.
“Our entire family ended up living here,” Carmen says. “Once we all grew up, myself and all of my siblings built our houses surrounding my parents’ house. Poor families need to help each other and having my mother and my sisters close by meant that we could help each other with whatever we needed. My mother took care of her grandchildren so that we could work. Whenever we had financial problems our family was always nearby to help.”
After a lot of hard work and perseverance, all the siblings eventually built their houses and made sure their children finished school.
In the early 2000s, the city underwent a construction industry boom and real estate entrepreneurs began an intense search for areas on which to build luxury estates. Recife is the smallest state capital in Brazil with an area of about 84 square miles. It was during this time that evictions began to appear more frequently. Informal communities that had existed for over 50 years were legally removed. Families received almost no support from the Pernambuco government and with no other options to guarantee their housing rights, moved on to find other areas where they could rebuild their homes. Ilha do Destino was first threatened during this time and 500 families were evicted from the area to make room for four luxury apartment buildings.
Fifteen years later, the community continues to receive threats of eviction from both the municipal and state governments.
Habitat for Humanity Brazil first got notice of Ilha do Destino’s issue in 2016 while mapping communities suffering with land conflicts as part of an advocacy project with the Open Society Foundation. This research found nearly 90 communities currently facing eviction throughout Pernambuco. Most are in Recife and in extremely valuable areas, such as the Boa Viagem neighborhood.
Historically, low-income families reside in these areas and do not have their right to housing secured by the public power. Over 240,000 families in the state do not have houses to live in and, like Carmen, find their own solutions in vacant or abandoned plots of land, generally owned by the state.
“One of the main issues we have to deal with when we’re working with communities who do not have secure land tenure and are facing eviction is the complete lack of support from the Brazilian judiciary system,” says Ronaldo Coelho, legal advisor and advocacy coordinator for Habitat Brazil. “Laws and legal tools that should be used in land conflicts cases are very subjective and it’s very common for a land tenure case to take over 20 years to be processed and often they are ruled in favor of a supposed proprietor of the plot of land.”
Finding mechanisms to improve the judiciary’s activities was one of the main challenges in Habitat Brazil’s advocacy strategy. In 2015, through an advocacy project sponsored by DFID/UKAID and in partnership with several civil society organizations, Habitat successfully approved a statewide public policy recommending the creation of a department within the Public Defender’s office to help mediate and prevent urban land conflicts.
In 2017, the Department for Land and Housing was created and has the potential of directly serving over 4 million people in Pernambuco. It is currently aiding 23 communities facing threats of eviction.
“The Department was created to help communities like Carmen’s who are actively organizing themselves to face the public power’s threats of eviction, but do not know where to resort and do not have the means to hire a private attorney,” says José Fernando Debli, the public defender responsible for coordinating the department and overseeing cases.
The department does not work with individual family cases but rather entire communities in need of support to guarantee their rights to housing and land tenure. This is because of Brazil’s overall high housing deficit, which stands at 7.7 million units. That number represents approximately 30 million people, or around 15 percent of the country’s population.
“The housing deficit in Brazil is incredibly high and it has actually grown in the past 10 years because the population is growing, adding to that the economic difficulties that the country has faced,” says Socorro Leite, Habitat Brazil’s national executive director. “We need strong and effective public policies to guarantee the right to social interest housing for these families and we need to act on several different fronts.”
Since 1992, Habitat Brazil has actively worked with low-income families to build new houses and renovate houses that are in bad condition. Habitat also works to provide water access to families living in extreme poverty in the country’s rural areas. For the past 10 years, however, advocacy has been a key strategy in Habitat Brazil’s work.
“You can’t provide adequate housing for a family if they are in constant threat of being removed from their house,” Leite says. “Land and property rights are a fundamental part of right to housing and this is something that needs to be guaranteed by the public power.
“We work in network with several civil society organizations to create, advocate and approve public policies and legal tools that serve families in risk of eviction.”
That is why in 2015, when Habitat for Humanity International launched Solid Ground, a global advocacy campaign calling for secure land rights, Habitat Brazil promptly decided to participate.
Since then, Habitat Brazil has worked to raise public awareness on the issue and gather data on empty and abandoned buildings that can be converted into social interest housing to serve communities at risk of eviction or that have been removed. All these strategies are key efforts to strengthen the rights of millions of Brazilian families like Carmen’s and to work towards a country where all people understand that having a decent place to live is a human right acknowledged in Brazil’s Constitution.