“I could only save myself and my kids” cried a mother to a national news reporter, as Ash Wednesday provided scenes of tragic irony in São Paulo’s second-largest favela when an unforgiving fire turned at least 50 barraco homes to dust and culminated in a heated property dispute that ran well into the early hours of the morning.
The blaze broke out around 13:45 and required 24 fire engines containing 90 men to be called to the scene in Paraisópolis, translated as Paradise City. While trained professionals attempted to dampen high-rising flames spread by relentless gusts of wind and struggled to navigate the community’s narrow alleys with their trucks, locals could be seen elsewhere hurling buckets of water on top of their corrugated iron roofs and surrounding buildings switched off the mains in fear of their residences similarly catching fire.
As the day progressed, attention then turned to the Social Assistance office near the main avenida. Attempting to calm escalating passions, civil and military police monitored a queue that had stretched round the block while angry residents pushed through the main gate in a bid to register themselves for the right to a new apartment on the already-stretched city council’s tab; a common occurrence in this bustling neighbourhood of 100,000 residents and thus where we tread upon a moral grey area in which it becomes almost impossible to decipher sincere cases where families have genuinely lost their homes and separate them from the chancers turning on the water works as a means of hustling themselves on to the property ladder.
In any event, it has now been five years since 5,000 families had their homes destroyed by City Hall and were similarly placed on a register with the promise of a new apartment. On a monthly basis, they have been awarded a monthly subsidy that now fails to cover rent on even a basic one-room shack, meaning they are now forced to dip into their own pockets to keep a roof over their heads whilst the cost of living continues to rise alongside the price of everyday goods in inflation-hit Brazil.
A city within a city, Paraisópolis rests on former farmland within the confines of the upper class neighbourhood of Morumbi and, due to authoritative neglect as was the case with the formation of Brazil’s thousands of favelas, was allowed to grow bit by bit as migrants arrived from the poor, rural northeast en masse and constructed barracos probably best described as impromptu shanty brick or wooden huts with, as mentioned, corrugated iron roofs. After residents grew restless of the insulting sight of little to no work being done on a huge open space where the aforementioned barracos had been demolished, some took it upon themselves to gather materials and construct new huts across the area and in turn created a favela within a favela in 2015 known to locals as Parque Sanfona.
Whilst opportunists were accused of attempting to register themselves for the right to gain a second apartment – often by filling the property with a few household goods to make it look lived in or by striking a deal with a family member, friend or acquaintance to inhabit the space and give their own name when the city council did the rounds but later transfer the property to them, which in turn has resulted in huge fall outs when the inhabitant tried to claim the new property for themselves or the monthly rent subsidy has not been distributed as arranged – others, most commonly single mothers with children, managed to scrape the money together for the cheapest materials possible and would otherwise have been on the streets in a country where the state fails to provide sufficient council/public housing for the needy – as can be seen in Europe and the US.
Although a heavy-handed police escort in 2016 saw the vast majority of Parque Sanfona dwellers evicted and their barracos – lacking proper sanitation and using siphoned-off electric and gas with loose, hazardous wiring creating a breeding ground for accidents of this nature – were destroyed leaving only the very 50 or so that suffered the same fate this week although this time in far more horrific circumstances.
As police continue to try and identify the cause of the incident, rumblings around the city of a purposely-initiated fire in a bid to be rehoused and registered, which could be true in some of the 44 cases across São Paulo’s favelas in the past couple of years, add insult to injury to a community at its wit’s end – as communicated by a lengthy post on the community’s official social media page.
For many years, Paraisópolis managed to function safely without incident however recent times have brought on a multitude of floods and landslides in addition to a similar blaze in 2016 that resulted in numerous families being forced to sleep in a local sports hall during the height of winter. Occuring around the same time as the levelling of Parque Sanfona, this event was seen as the final nail in the coffin of then-mayor Fernando Haddad’s re-election ambitions as the community’s construction projects and that of a much-needed monorail were simultaneously frozen.
Cockily, Haddad presumed the community and others like it to be PT (Worker’s Party) strongholds due to their predominantly northeastern-descent demographics and that region’s admiration of ex-president Lula Da Silva. Instead, they remembered broken promises made in response to their demands for urbanisation and voted in droves for his successor João Doria; a man Paraisópolis residents now seek answers from and not just photo-op flying visits, as has been the case with countless mayors past.