Trouble in paradise: Rio's botanical garden becomes battleground

Wednesday, 7 June 2017 18:48:33 PM


RIO DE JANEIRO (June 8): It's their urban Garden of Eden, but residents of Rio de Janeiro's most unusual neighbourhood face the same fate as the inhabitants of the Biblical version: expulsion.

Unknown even to many who call Brazil's second biggest city home, the community of Horto is tucked away in a corner of Rio's lush Botanical Gardens.

Trees are festooned in yellow, pink and white blossoms, seemingly a world away from the nearby noisy, traffic-clogged streets.

Jungle-like vines snake up telegraph poles and green parrots dart overhead. A large monkey leaps from branch to branch and in the humid air the loudest sound is birdsong.

"This is paradise," says Nelia Vasconcelos, 61, one of Horto's 3,000 inhabitants.

But the authorities, backed by the courts, don't see it that way.

For them, Horto is one of Rio's many squats, only more serious than other illegal land occupations because it sits in UNESCO-listed gardens, a piece of the city's most magical real estate and a research centre of international importance.

"What cannot be allowed is people living inside the perimeters," the garden's director, Sergio Besserman, told AFP.

"Sorry, but is there a botanical garden in the world where you have people living inside? Can you imagine someone living inside (London's) Kew Gardens or someone in the Paris botanical garden or in New York?"

With eviction looming, the community's days of innocence appear numbered.

Leading the way down leafy lanes, Vasconcelos points to a jarring sight: piles of hefty logs and dozens of car tires. Similar heaps — rights."

Democracy 'still distant’

In terms of urban planning, however, Rio de Janeiro is a mess.

Nearly a quarter of the population lives in favelas — unplanned, largely unregulated neighbourhoods that vary from dangerous slums to proud working class communities.

Horto, though, is not exactly a favela and at the same time not quite a legal neighbourhood.

The 620 houses are connected to city services, the residents pay utility bills, and, locals say, there is none of the narco-trafficker presence that blights many favelas.

If anything, the solidly built, often pretty houses could be in a well maintained village.

"It's beautiful, a haven from the city," said Moacyr Alves da Fonseca, 76, who was born in Horto.

There are records of people living in the botanical garden throughout its 200 year history, while the current houses are an outgrowth of on-site lodging once reserved for garden workers.

That history, however, doesn't give today's inhabitants the right to stay and expand, Besserman says, arguing that their presence makes it impossible to run the garden as a serious institute and destination for 700,000 visitors a year.

"It's not compatible with a research centre that has so much responsibility," he said.

The standoff has been roiling for decades and while 220 houses are now under court order for repossession, only two families and an area used as a community soccer pitch have been successfully repossessed since 2013.

"Resistance is very strong," Vasconcelos says.

However, the last operation in November 2016 ended in bruising clashes with riot police. Now, locals fear the real showdown is only a matter of time.

Besserman calls for a deal where the botanical garden would get a different slice of Rio woodland in exchange for relinquishing control of half of Horto's territory. That way "everyone loses a little", but avoids a traumatic conflict.

However, compromises like that depend on levels of democracy that "are still distant" in Brazil, he said.

Burning barricades

Besserman says the unresolved issue "threatens the very existence of the botanical garden". But Vasconcelos and her neighbours won't relinquish their slice of paradise without a fight.

Every day, starting at 5.00am, volunteers take positions at the main entrance to Horto, noting everyone who comes in and out, ready to sound the alert.

"If the police come, people will close their windows and let off fireworks," Vasconcelos said. "I'll have the megaphone to call people."

It would take only a few minutes to block the roads with the pre-positioned logs and to set the tires ablaze, sending plumes of dark smoke into the sky.

"Not one house less. Horto will stay!" reads graffiti seen on many walls.

How many would risk confronting Rio's notoriously violent riot police is unclear. But the last incident left bad blood.

"I was born and raised here," said Marlene Miranda, a lively 78-year-old woman, becoming agitated as she recalled the raid. "I saw the police grabbing my son and I fainted. I fell, right in this street."

Contemplating the walls of wild flowers flanking a bright stream, Vasconcelos sighed. She can sound a little like a guerrilla leader when she discusses the dispute, but said she just wants her quiet life back.

"Imagine the logs and burning tires right in front of such beautiful nature," she said. "It's such a paradox."