The botanical garden poised to swallow a Brazilian favela

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Inside Rio de Janeiro’s Horto favela, half-paved roads connect scattered homes, as monkeys comb through the trees above, and water streams through aqueducts, built by slaves centuries before.

Scrawled on the wall to its entrance is a mural of a man, made of leaves, with painted flowers spelling out ‘Horto Lives’, alongside another phrase that has come to embody the struggle of this storied community: ‘Horto Stays’.

On Aug. 10, with the Olympic Games underway, a Brazilian federal court ruled that the tract of land where Horto lies would be transferred over to Rio’s Jardim Botânico, the lush botanical garden that sits at the foot of Corcovado Mountain.

For the more than 600 families who live in Horto, the decision meant they would face eviction within 90 days by federal police, reviving a land rights dispute long fought by residents, who argue that the area is rightfully theirs.

In 1808, King João VI invited laborers and slaves to work on the Garden’s grounds, and settle on its outskirts. Although a small percentage of the Horto community still works there today, many residents have ties tracing back years.

“All of my family has a story in Jardim Botânico,” Jacqueline Alves da Silva, 46, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Outside her home, Alves da Silva flipped through old photos of her father, scaling the royal palm trees found at the Garden’s entrance. Her father, who worked as a seed collector there, later died after falling from one of the trees, leaving her mother to raise da Silva and her siblings alone.

Alves Da Silva said her family received their first eviction notice nearly 20 years ago, but were eventually allowed to stay. The fight, she added, has yet to end.

“We want to live here, and be able to continue our roots. You can’t just come and cut them,” she said. “It would be a human deforestation to take us out of here.”


An official report by Rio’s city officials shows that since 2009, approximately 20,000 families, in communities like Vila Autodromo, have been displaced in the state of Rio de Janeiro, largely due to development leading up to the Olympics.

However, the historical dispute over land rights in Horto is complex, and the exact number of residents who could face eviction after the 90 day period passes remains unclear.

In 2013, the Ministry of Environment redefined the Garden’s borders to cover land inhabited by 520 families in Horto, which ignited the current debate.

Sérgio Besserman, the Garden’s president, says the additional space is needed for a research institute, and for visitors. Rather than removal, Besserman says he prefers using the term “resettlement,” and argues that his organization “does not have the necessary tools and authority levels present to act as a housing office”.

“Is there any botanical garden in the world with families living inside of its borders, forcing the institution to pay for all of its property expenses?” he said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet Horto residents say the land, with its vistas of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, is being scouted by real estate developers.

“The Garden and this community can coexist in the same environment,” said Emerson de Souza, 41, the president of the Horto Residents Association. “It’s more of a political will than a technical one, because from a technical standpoint, we’ve already proved we can.”

De Souza told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that only one resident currently faces immediate eviction, as there are more than 200 cases that must each be heard in court.

The process, he says, has been slowed by the recent impeachment of Brazil’s former president, Dilma Rousseff. Residents say her leftist administration supported them, but are not optimistic about her conservative successor, Michel Temer.

Though the Horto Residents Association hopes to negotiate with the Garden in coming weeks, de Souza said a protest is planned for late September.

“I think people on the streets have power,” de Souza said. “We are going to have to make noise in order for our rights to be respected.”


The threat of eviction has loomed over Horto since the 1960s, when the land was first eyed for a condominium and a cemetery. Residents resisted removal then, but tensions persisted.

Naira Iorio da Silva, 66, said her family was confronted with eviction in 2005.

“The police came to take my home. They were all out front,” Iorio da Silva, who moved to Horto over 50 years ago, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It was our luck that all of the community came.”

Nearly 200 residents formed a barricade around her home, da Silva said, ultimately ending in a police stand-down. Although she has yet to receive another eviction notice, she says the fear hasn’t subsided.

“Sometimes I can’t sleep,” she added. “I’m very scared because of this conversation to take us away, and put us on the streets with nowhere to go.”

If evicted, the question of where government officials could relocate residents remains unanswered. An abandoned building in Lapa, a neighborhood close to the city center, and terrain in São Cristóvão, about 3 km (1.9 miles) from Maracanã Stadium, have been proposed.

A spokeswoman for the Secretariat of Federal Heritage (SPU) said the authority regulates the area covered by the botanic garden and registered the property transfer process to the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro (JBRJ).

She said removal of the families was not a SPU responsibility but where such removal was “deemed necessary” the authority could help with “provision of housing projects aimed to benefit such households”.

Yet for Ismael de Souza Mello, 71, who came to work in the Garden as a park ranger in 1967, the prospect of anyone moving away from his community is unimaginable. The community’s slogan, he says, is “history with roots”.

“The entire life of a person is here,” he added. “No one who lives in Horto arrived yesterday.”