Excerpt 6: Little Brazilian Venice

The ground sank beneath my feet, I felt the cold touch of fetid water. “Don’t stop, keep walking, but not too fast” warned my guide as he clambered up a short ladder unlocking the chain which held closed the door to a stilted timber shack.

The filthy bedding was suspiciously black with mould and I resolved to sleep sitting up in the opposite corner. My host turned to leave and delivered some parting words of comfort before disappearing into the marsh, “keep the door locked until morning.”

I waited as the night settled, fighting the gnats and mosquitos swarming up from the effluvial blackness beneath the hut and listening to the scratching of fighting Cocks in stacked cages set on floating pallets outside the door. Waiting for a red glow and the smell of gasoline fire.

Taboinha is small community of several hundred residents, settled on the far western limits of Rio de Janeiro city close to Flamengo football club’s rural training ground.

The history of the occupied land is somewhat mired in shadow. Until six years ago it was an empty, un-useable swamp until workers from north east Brazil arrived and started to infill and reclaim the territory. Over the next four years, the hamlet of Taboinha grew as they built brick houses on the reclaimed land and timber huts perched on stilts extending deep into the marsh. That was, until an unknown construction company allied with a group of twelve individuals, rumored to be close to local militia groups, filed a law suit to remove the community and develop the area.

Despite the case being a private matter, the city waded into the affair after a judge ruled in favour of the land owners and issued an eviction order for the occupied lands Lote 1, PAL 31680 Estrada dos Bandeirantes in Recreio dos Bandeirantes. The decision was ratified by the 20th Civil Chamber of the Court of Justice and on the eve of the first weekend of November 2010, the municipal housing subsecretary advised the community via pamphlet, that they had 48 hours to evacuate.

Vila das Taboinhas prepared its resistance. Across the single entry battle lines were drawn with rubble, logs and even furniture laid out in blockades at fifty meter deep intervals. The rallying call went out to the Office of the Public Defender, social action groups and allied communities; Vila Harmonia, Recrio II and Vila Autodromo. The mass media too picked up on the story, drawn out to that insignificant backwater by the sensational stench of militia involvement.

Justice officials, Sandra the bailiff and a crony from the mob arrived on the morning of the 9th of November 2011 to be greeted by three hundred outraged residents clinging to a steel cable strung across the front line. The flames of their ire blew hot, growing in confidence under the comforting Canons of international observers and the press, finding focus on the battered shields of RIOT troops from the Choque battalion who formed an opposing front.

Justice! Justice! Justice!

…We came here five years ago, engineered the terrain, built our houses and we are living. This ground was abandoned 40 years ago and since we got here, no one came to protest our presence. We have nowhere to go. We will stay and resist. If they want to tear down the houses with people inside, then we will be torn down too!

…A proof that the authors of this process never had possession of the land? When they came here earlier with their ‘expert,’ they did not even know which lot they  claimed to own! Now they come with a subpoena on a Friday, saying that we have to leave in 48 hours? All done maliciously to not allow us time to react. This is a scam!!

With banners and placards, they chanted ‘We are not criminals. We are workers’ Some cried that they had nowhere to go. While others wailed that they would only leave in a coffin. One of those residents, hairdresser Agnes Beatrice Prass, 47, said she had spent all her life’s savings in building her home.

…I built my house slowly. First one room, then another and the house is still roughcast. Every month is money I spend to finish my house. It’s a bucket of landfill, it’s a truckload of sand… I remember me here at 2 am, waiting for the landfill truck, filling in the holes with mud, in the darkness, reclaiming my land from the water. We reclaimed everything, we changed everything here, we did the houses, the streets, the lights, everything. Now appear a lot of these cool guys saying that the land is theirs?

It was a stalemate, the resistance was too large and entrenched to physically remove and the mass of cameras kept the Choque troops paralysed. Then, a masterful bluff, the sergeant and the bailiff retired from the scene drawing the mainstream press with them, Choque opened fire at point blank range with tear gas shot straight into the crowd.

The resistance scattered, wounded, tears streaming as they beat a retreat but the cameras of A New Democracy and R7 held point, capturing the madness. The bluff had been called, the obscenity registered for public witness and Choque calmly packed up and left, meanwhile the Public Defenders had negotiated a thirty day stay of execution.

As the day drew to a close, frazzled nerves did not quiet, the community had been shaken, terrified the troops would return under cover of darkness to touch fire to the many wooden shacks, a tactic not unheard of in other parts of the country.

I drew the short straw and earned the unenviable night shift, armed only with a small Canon, hidden in a dark hut amongst the reeds in a favela on the far rural edge of Rio de Janeiro waiting for the assault.

The long night broke cool and calm, I unlocked the door to my hide and saw with horror why the ground had given way in the dark. It was not ground at all but a mass of boards, bits of formwork, old doors, the odd sofa cast onto the water to make a floating carpet of detritus. One had to move nimbly across the surface like a lily wader lest the carpet begin to sink beneath static weight. I snapped off a bull rush and plunged it into the mire, over five feet deep and I could not touch the bottom.

I heard the deep growl of a diesel engine, the soft collapse of clay brick and sprinted across the heaving carpet colliding with a brother from Canada, arrived to take the morning shift. The boys I had met over dominoes the night before also arrived running. A bulldozer had snuck in with the dawn and started demolition but the driver dropped his head in shame and could not reverse fast enough as our small team stepped into view. The Police Militar were also on the scene, dreary pigmen in worn grey onesies ordering we turn off our cameras, demanding passports, threatening federal repercussions and blatantly lying  about our requirement for permission to film.

It was a wondrous moment, a moment of real human magic, power and technology. The community appeared to coalesce out of the air, surrounding us and the police, a circle growing thicker and deeper. Each silently held a phone camera in an outstretched hand, recording this corruption of law.

The cop totally lost his shit, spluttering “Oh god what a mess, we don’t want you to see this, You don’t have permission to be here”

The circle cried out, fortified by the presence of foreign eyes, courageously they overcame their deeply ingrained terror of the Polícia Militar and rallied in support, shouting welcomes, denouncing the intimidation and bearing witness with dozens of camera phones filming the confrontation from every angle. Unable to carry on their charade under such inescapable scrutiny, our documents were returned, we were released back into the embrace of the community and the bulldozer slunk out, defeated for one more day.

Vila das Taboinhas still stands today.

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