Izidora Land Occupation in Protest: 30,000 Threatened With Eviction in Brazil

The refusal of City Hall and a developer to negotiate with Izidro residents could cause a mega-eviction and the destruction of hundreds of houses in an area that is seven times larger than the Pinheirinho occupation, from which residents were violently evicted and massacred in 2012.

The refusal of City Hall and a developer to negotiate with Izidro residents could cause a mega-eviction and the destruction of hundreds of houses. The area is seven times larger than Pinheirinho.

Photo: The Izidoro forest, in the northern part of metropolitan Belo Horizonte, shelters three land occupations that together have earned the name Izidora (Photos by Frederico Haikal for Hoje em Dia).

Amid a plot that involves City Hall, the state government, the federal government and a private developer, Belo Horizonte is the stage for one of the largest urban territorial conflicts in Brazil: nearly 30 thousand people could be evicted and have their houses destroyed. The repossession claim, requested by City Hall and authorized by the Minas Gerais Court of Justice, has been suspended by an injunction issued by the Superior Court of Justice (STJ) on June 29. The judicial decision is not definitive. If the injunction were thrown out by the STJ, the eviction could occur at any time.

Designated Izidora by its inhabitants, the occupation in Minas Gerais is made up of three interconnected villages (Esperança, Rosa Leão and Vitória–aptly named Hope, Pink Lion and Victory) and has nearly 30 thousand inhabitants, most of whom live in brick houses.

The enormous area of the Izidoro Forest, in the northern region of the capital city of Minas Gerais, is seven times larger than the Pinheirinho land occupation, located in São José dos Campos in the interior of São Paulo state and vacated in 2012 during a violent campaign by the Military Police (PM). Pinheirinho had an area of 4.3 million square feet, while Izidoro has an area of 31.2 million square feet. The Minas Gerais occupation also has more than 20 thousand additional inhabitants than Pinheirinho had.

Photo: Mayor Márcio Lacerda halted negotiations with the inhabitants. (Photos by Frederico Haikal for Hoje em Dia).

Mayor Márcio Lacerda, of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), intends to construct 13 thousand modest apartments in the area with funds from the My House My Life Program. The majority of the apartments would have two bedrooms and 140 ft ². The construction work would be in the hands of the Brazilian company Direcional Engenharia, and the Werneck family–the former landowners–would receive dividend payouts from the construction company.

In the path of the real estate venture, however, stand people like the mason’s apprentice Silvana Vitória da Silva. Without a fixed contract, she earns approximately minimum wage, and in moving to the occupation, she saw an escape from rent. “Everybody knows everybody. I created a new family and I don’t want to leave it.”

After nearly a year of tense–and in the end, failed–negotiations between the municipal government, the inhabitants, and the construction company, with the intervention of the state government, the repossession suit arrived in the hands of the Military Police on June 18. With the imminent destruction of their houses, the occupants have appealed to Governor Fernando Pimentel.

They are attempting to encourage the Worker’s Party (PT) administration to emulate the gesture of Itamar Franco, who during his administration (1999-2002) impeded the PM from carrying out evictions of poor populations. It seems improbable. “The acceptance of the movement’s position, which is to maintain and to urbanize the occupation, doesn’t depend on the state government. For some change to happen, the municipal government and the developer have to give in,” asserts Claudius Vinícius Leite Pereira, one of the mediators in the negotiation and president of the Companhia Estadual de Habitação–the state housing authority tasked with building low-income housing.

According to one of the coordinators of the Movement Izidoro Resists, Leonardo Péricles, the municipal government is responsible for the situation and never showed any interest in negotiating. “They campaign against the occupations, [they] criminalize the movement.”

Through the press office, City Hall has announced that it has halted negotiations and doesn’t intend to withdraw the repossession claim. According to Lacerda, the Rosa Leão, Esperança and Vitória occupations are coordinated by radical political groups that defend habitations acquired “at any price.”

“They are advised by misguided people, from religious vocations, from the university, and I think that the state government is on the right track by fulfilling the repossession,” argues Lacerda.

For the time being, the only concrete proposal on the table is to relocate the families into the buildings to be constructed in the region. The idea would be to reallocate the inhabitants of the Vitória Occupation to the area where Esperança is installed, which would allow the implementation of the first stage of construction. During the period between the eviction and the construction of the buildings, the occupants themselves would construct temporary housing subsidized by the state government.

The families oppose this plan. The community, affirms Péricles, agrees that to accept an apartment from the program would be a step backward. “The Statute of the Cities ensures that any relocation must be to a site with equal or superior construction to the prior one, and this is not what will happen. Moreover, some inhabitants don’t fit within the program’s profile. This is the case for people who live alone. We want to consider everyone.”

Photo: Inhabitants and supporters of the occupation hold a protest on July 1, 2015, on the grounds of the occupation. (Photos by Frederico Haikal for Hoje em Dia).

In a statement, Direcional Engenharia asserted that the buildings planned for where the families would be taken are infinitely superior to the current occupations. “We will have all the necessary infrastructure there, like sewer and water supply, installation of a drainage system, of public and private electricity and lighting, as well as community services, like schools, health clinics and leisure areas.”

The city planner Roberto Andrés–professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais–criticizes the removal. “There are 8 thousand families and a majority of them don’t have anywhere to go, and they will fight to remain in that location. It is a true social tragedy that the mayor seems to ignore, colluding with the state government and the justice system.”

The families have prepared themselves for the conflict. The occupants have established a 24-hour vigilance scheme to prevent being taken by surprise by the police. Social organizations and movement leaders have mounted an encampment in the area and organized for the collection of provisions and clothing.

The threats of eviction are not a recent occurrence. Over the past year, the PM even mounted an operation. A helicopter released brochures over the occupation with instructions for the departure of the inhabitants. The operation ended up being suspended, perhaps to deal with election season. A tragedy, with dead and wounded, would affect the intensions of the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democrats Party) politicians, then-governor Antônio Anastásia and presidential candidate Aécio Neves. Now the landscape has changed.

(Victor Diniz contributed to this report)

Holly Holmes is a translator, ethnomusicologist, and vocalist who is passionate about sharing stories from Brazil on everything from politics and ecology to music and education.