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forced evictions in são paulo: housing rights and wrongs In late August 2009, some 250 riot police entered the Olga Benário encampment in the southern suburbs of São Paulo. Armed with a court order calling for the eviction of the 800 families living there, the police were reportedly quick to deploy violent tactics to remove some 3,000 people from the property. Eyewitnesses claim that police fired rubber bullets and released tear gas against unarmed residents, while police helicopters circled overhead. By the end of the operation, the homes not consumed by fire had been bulldozed by police, and 500 of the evicted families, many having lost all of their belongings, had been left homeless, consigned to sleeping rough on a muddy patch of ground opposite the site. The images of the police operation in Olga Benário may be visually reminiscent of large-scale, violent evictions in urban settings elsewhere in the world — from Operation Murambatsvina, the mass eviction programme in Zimbabwe in 2005, to repeated incidents of evictions in Jakarta, Indonesia — but the details of the case are very different, reflecting the complexities relating to land tenure and housing rights in São Paulo. The families inhabiting Olga Benário were squatting on private land, and the landowner had gained the right of ‘Reintegração de Posse’ by court order to recover his own property. While forced evictions do repeatedly occur in São Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil, there are also established legal processes and civil society movements working to regularise informal settlements and guarantee security of land tenure. Yet, ongoing forced evictions belie the problems inherent in the tolerant ‘inclusive city’ narrative São Paulo is seeking to adopt. Since Brazil is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), evictions can only be deployed as a last resort, following genuine consultation with the targeted communities. The authorities must ensure the well-being and safety of all evictees. Accounts of many evictions, however, as in June 2009 when some 300 families were removed from a disused federal building in central São Paulo, suggest that they are often unexpected and that excessive force is used. An evicted mother of five told the newspaper O Globo after the June 2009 operation, ‘The police came and started throwing tear gas bombs. There was only time to take the children and run away. I lost everything’. According to Professor Elisabete França, director of São Paulo’s Municipal Housing Secretariat (SEHAB), the Olga Benário eviction occurred only after a judge unexpectedly ruled in favour of the owner of the site, despite efforts by SEHAB to seek a positive solution for the residents. ‘Nobody expected this decision’, explained França. ‘The judge determined the presence of the police to ensure the action’. França also told UN-HABITAT that SEHAB had worked to support the displaced families, the municipality agreeing to cover two months’ rent while determining a longer-term solution. But critics, including non-governmental organisations such as CAFOD and Amnesty International, have claimed that on occasion, municipal authorities fail to identify permanent housing alternatives for evictees. In the case of Olga Benário, the municipality did not propose ‘adequate solutions to address the needs of the families’, despite two years of negotiations. Amnesty added that the ‘best offers made … provided only short-term accommodation’. São Paulo has been working to develop an inclusive and pro-poor housing policy, a clear directional change after the municipality filed more than 100 lawsuits against families squatting on public land through the 1990s. In 2001, the incoming Suplicy administration took the unprecedented decision to cease all forced evictions, employing tools such as the 1988 Constitution — which permits the government to seize disused land for social housing — and the 2001 City Statute, which provides guidelines for public land and housing. Mayor Suplicy’s administration, carried into office in part by organised social movements pressing for secure housing for the urban poor, sought to institute programmes regularising land tenure in the city.In power until 2004, it also repealed historic repossession lawsuits against families squatting on public land. SEHAB has continued to act as a mediator between private landowners and settled families, in theory better protecting those communities squatting on private land from forced eviction. Such efforts to deal with informal settlements in São Paulo have been internationally applauded, with the Cities Alliance noting in 2004 that SEHAB had succeeded in ensuring land regularisation for more than 150,000 families. In a municipality where, in 2000, around 11 per cent of its 10.4 million-strong population lived in favelas and 15 per

Profile for UN-Habitat

Sao Paulo; A tale of two cities  

UN-HABITAT’s new Cities and Citizens series examines urban inequality in the developing world through in-depth analysis of intracity data de...

Sao Paulo; A tale of two cities  

UN-HABITAT’s new Cities and Citizens series examines urban inequality in the developing world through in-depth analysis of intracity data de...

Profile for unhabitat
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