“Quando o sonho se realiza” “When the dream comes true”, reads the title of the article. The dream that’s being referred to is one that many Brazilians desire: to have their own home. The article paints a disappointingly inaccurate picture of the Federal Government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento Accelerated Growth Program (better known as PAC), focusing specifically on the Minha Casa Minha Vida My House My Life initiative. Launched in 2009, the nationwide infrastructure program calls for a R$504 billion (~USD$235 billion) investment in building and improving airports, highways, ports, housing, water and sewage systems, and energy projects. Minha Casa Minha Vida is one element of the program directed at building homes for low-mid income families. It essentially involves the construction of identical block house communities where eligible mid-low income families can register in a lottery to win a new home. The floor plans vary depending on the construction company, but the houses are typically around 500 sq. feet and have two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. They additionally come equipped with a water supply and sewage system.
Last week we had a friend drive us to Morada Nova, a district of Marabá on the other side of the Tocantins River. The trip was proposed to offer a visiting journalist a deeper context of the region and our project. We wanted to show her the Minha Casa Minha Vida communities because residents of Cabelo Seco are particularly vulnerable to its appeal. 30% of Cabelo Seco has already been awarded winning lottery tickets and now live in different parts of the city. Dan and Mano correlate the Minha Casa Minha Vida communities to concentration camps. Peering out my window at the reality before my eyes, the term kept coming to mind. We drove through a community called Tira Dentes, which literally means “Pull Teeth”. All the houses were identical, with the exception of the occasional graffiti writing on a wall announcing the sale of beer or ice within that household. There was no greenery. Worst of all, there was almost no one in the street. In the late afternoon when the sun sets here in Cabelo Seco, the most beautiful atmosphere permeates the streets. Children play in the plaza, neighbors chat in doorways and fruit venders push overflowing carts down the street. This strong sense of community is nonexistent in Tira Dentes. The families that make up these communities are compiled from all different parts of Marabá. People come willingly (the Minha Casa Minha Vida program is very well subscribed) and I can understand why it has such a strong appeal for low income residents. I just see it as such a shallow, band aid model of development. The government swoops in with plans to construct a million houses, eradicate the ugly and transform natural environments, and there is a complete failure with respect to social projects.
Here is a clear example:
In 2009, the Federal Government targeted one of the poorer sections of Cabelo Seco as an area ripe for PAC revitalization. It was not a Minha Casa Minha Vida project, but it embodied the same principle. The street of residences sits on the bank of the Itacaiúnas River, only two streets away from where I am currently living, but few people here still refer to it as Cabelo Seco. Instead it has been appropriately renamed “PAC”. Before revitalization, the area was filled with closely constructed wooden houses whose back halves projected out over the river, supported above the water by wooden stilts. These houses had the most incredible backyard. When the project began, families were moved out of their traditional, historical homes and given an allowance to find housing in another area of the city. I wish I could have seen the area before the new houses were built, but I know it would make me even more depressed about the current situation.
What should have taken 1 year to build was eventually completed 5 years later. There are maybe 12 colorful complexes in all, each containing 4 separate apartments. The article I was reading emphasizes what a profound success the revitalization was, quoting residents who were delighted with their new homes. Yet anyone who has dared to venture into PAC or knows people who live there can see this is a gross falsification. I use the word dared because the revitalization project has renewed and intensified a culture of drug related violence in the community. PAC serves as a meeting ground for drug traffickers, creating a variety of conditions for violent confrontations. There is even an area referred to as the “zona vermelha” “red zone” where the highest number of assassinations take place.
The draw of the illegal economy and the prevalence of violence have a direct relationship to the poor living conditions that are also a reality of the revitalization. Residents recognized the serious structural problems with the buildings only two weeks after moving into their new homes. Walls were cracked and heavy rains (remember, this is the Amazon) seeped into the infrastructure, leaving everything constantly damp. Inhabitants worried about the serious health risks and moreover, the safety of living in a structure that appeared on the brink of collapse. If you walk through the complex, many of the windows in the apartments are gone, replaced with black plastic coverings. And another thing: everything is concrete. There are no trees or grass even in the open communal areas. Yesterday we rode the bici-radio through the community and children were chasing kites on an asphalt road, dodging broken bottles, potholes and crumbled pavement. Confined in tight, deteriorating spaces and completely stripped of their traditional riverside culture and roots, it’s not surprising that desperate conditions have encouraged residents to engage in increasingly radical or violent responses. Furthermore, the poor quality of the construction materials used for these houses highlights the strong likelihood of corruption. It’s not like there weren’t adequate funds dedicated to the project. Over time, pieces of the budget were likely siphoned off until there only remained a small amount dedicated to the actual construction. The few times I have entered PAC have left me extremely saddened. Rather than improving quality of life or fulfilling the “Brazilian dream”, the revitalization of this area can be better understood as the transformation of an impoverished community into somewhat of a favela.