In world's largest urban rainforest, it's conservation vs. housing rights

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deep among the green trees and winding footpaths of the world’s largest urban rainforest, Brazilian retiree Maria Haydee has found herself in the midst of a simmering conflict between housing rights and environmental protection.

An informally-built home sits just outside of the Tijuca National Park with a view of the broader city in Rio de Janeiro on April 22, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Chris Arsenault

Her pink concrete bungalow sits inside Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca National Park, a protected area of lush hilltops, waterfalls and hiking trails.

Haydee has been living there since 1942, nearly two decades before the 3950 hectare (9760 acre) park was established. She said her late husband worked for the city as a groundskeeper and was allowed to build the house by the local authorities.

But park authorities now want Haydee and dozens of other residents out, saying their presence is illegal and hurting conservation efforts.

The showdown is one of hundreds happening in Brazil’s vast protected areas and underlines the problem of unclear property rights which makes life hard for both residents and environmentalists, campaigners on both sides of the divide say.

“The existence of houses - including their garbage and food waste - impacts the environment,” Ernesto Viveiros de Castro, chief officer of the Tijuca National Park told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In one case, he said researchers had spent nearly a year preparing a monkey for reintroduction into the wild only for it to be domesticated by one of the forest’s residents, undermining conservation work.


Haydee’s home is one of about 60 in the park, said Otavio Alves Barros, a community leader campaigning for the rainforest’s residents to be given formal property title deeds or decent homes elsewhere.

Environmentalists say some are long-term residents with legitimate claims to their homes, but others are squatters who arrived recently and need to be removed.

Despite living in her home for more than 50 years, Haydee never received a title deed for the property, a common problem across Brazil according to government officials and activists.

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“We registered it with a cartorio,” Haydee said, referring to a private land registrar common in Brazil. “That registration was worthless and now they want us to leave.”

Haydee’s home, full of faded family photographs, is dark and stacks of firewood are piled up in the living room. She and her neighbor, Luci Rosi, say their electricity connections have been cut.

“This is my home, I spent my childhood here,” said Rosi, a retired maid and widow who also has a long-standing claim to her well-maintained property. “We want our electricity back.”

Park director Castro said an old electrical network was disconnected because of fire risks and was replaced with underground lines.

Government agencies aren’t able to reconnect residents to the grid as they lack proper ownership papers, Castro said. He denied residents’ claims that park authorities had anything to do with cutting their power off.


The dispute in Tijuca National Park is not an isolated problem, said Carol Lobo, a conservationist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Brazil.

“There is a major, historical problem with land acquisition related to private property in national parks,” Lobo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Our environmental legislation is recognized as some of the best in the world, but mechanisms around land acquisition take too long and are extremely complex.”

Half of Brazil’s properties don’t have full ownership deeds, according to the government.

When conservation groups or the government want to establish a park, it’s often unclear who has a right to be on the land and deserves compensation if ordered to leave, Lobo said.

Insecure tenure is compounded by Brazil’s current economic crisis, the worst on record, which has reduced tax revenue and the government’s ability to fund conservation projects with the budget for protected areas slashed by about half, she said.

Some protected areas, including those in the Amazon rainforest, allow indigenous groups and other communities to live on the land, Lobo said.

But urban parks like Tijuca aren’t supposed to have people living within their boundaries.

However, conservation authorities often don’t have the budget to compensate people with long-standing claims in these areas.


Along with a lack of funds for relocation, the difficulty in finding places for people like Rosi and Haydee to live so that they don’t disturb conservation programs is compounded by seemingly contradictory laws, said land reform activist Barros.

“One law says that people aren’t allowed to reside in parks,” said Barros who runs an eco-tourism outfit on the park’s fringes.

“But another law says that residents can only be removed from their homes if they are in extremely dangerous areas for landslides or other natural disasters.”

Haydee and Rosi aren’t in any immediate danger, and are keen to stay in their homes.

Speaking outside Haydee’s house where a plaque on the front door proclaims “Life starts at 70”, Rosi said she would move if given a comparable home in another part of Rio.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But I don’t know if it will be possible to stay.”