We come from a very violent colonization process: slavery-based, racist and patriarchal. We have lived through almost four hundred years of slavery, the longest period in the Americas, and this generated dominant classes that do not admit the working class, women, Blacks, Indigenous people and LGBTQIA+ people into spaces of power. Extremely authoritarian, the slave owners became republicans overnight, making Brazil a Republic out of convenience – just to prevent the population from building a truly independent Republic, focused on the internal market, for the people. Brazil is a very rich country, with very intelligent people, but we have a surrendering ruling class, submissive to rich countries, that grows rich by keeping the country dependent, exporting raw materials. Even though there has been a lot of revolt and a lot of fighting, that fighting has always been repressed. Whenever we got close, violence came, implacable. This contextualizes the cities we have in the country: extremely unequal, organized at the service of these same dominant classes.
Historically and in different ways, almost all territories that we call peripheries or favelas(1) were at some point urban quilombos.(2) That’s why we can say that violence is a central characteristic of our cities. The military and civil police promote an extension of what the Army has done for a long time: guaranteeing the institution of slavery and, subsequently, the domination of the very rich over the rest of the population. Spatially, this always meant repressing quilombos and favelas.
The racial issue is at the basis of the class struggle in Brazil and plays a determining role in the structure of our large cities. It also determines the urban chaos in which we find ourselves. As these cities are designed for the elite, everyday problems are not even considered. There was never any reparation; the people who were taken from Africa to be subjected here to one of the most violent processes in history have never gained access to land, education, or health, and the result is clear-cut when we look at peripheries today. Who is the majority? Why is this majority Black?
The formal city is a farce, because the elites who build, articulate and impose it upon us are not self-sufficient; they do not have a way of life that is independent from the population they make peripheral. The Brazilian city is a point of permanent tension. Its very history begins with expulsions and violence, and it still expels its population, who are forced to go live further away. What was once the periphery is becoming the center, and the periphery is being pushed further and further away. Housing policies have never managed to resolve this issue. Thus, the fight for effective urban reform is extremely urgent. We would need to restructure cities, which were designed for the interests of a minority, in order to meet the interests of the immense majority of the population. That majority are the people who actually build our cities, and who need their structures most – thar is our assessment, both in the Movimento de Luta nos Bairros, Vilas e Favelas (MLB)(3) and in Unidade Popular (UP).(4)
The target of the homeless is not empty apartments. What can the homeless movement do with an empty apartment? Nothing! If we are, for example, three hundred families, one apartment won’t do the trick; a small piece of land won’t do the trick. We want to occupy large properties that do not fulfill their social function. There are millions of them in Brazil. The owners of these properties are very smart, as they create ways to advance their way of thinking within the rest of society and, thus, prevent any progress. That’s why small landowners think that their small property will be the target of occupations.(5) Our enemy is not small, but large property.
An important example is in the numbers presented by the 2022 IBGE Census.(6) It shows that there are 18 million empty homes and 8 million homeless families in Brazil. Through a careful analysis of the numbers, we can see that, among the empty homes, 11 million do not fulfill any social function and are large properties. In other words, it is possible to solve the housing problem – but it is impossible to solve capitalism, which keeps large properties empty for speculation, generating a very high social cost, including for those who already have a home, and believe the issue does not concern them.
The contradiction is that the mentality of most people is closer to the mentality of large property owners than to that of small property owners. TVs, radios, schools, universities and families reproduce and believe in the values of large private property. This contradiction can only be resolved if the people are mobilized – including those who already have a home. They must understand that those who don’t have a place to live make their cost of living much higher. We are talking about a criminal equation: the more landless people there are, the more the price of land rises. The market in Brazil serves a minority. The more homeless people, the more rents rise and the price of properties increases, pushing up other costs. This is what we are experiencing right now. We are fighting to decriminalize our movement, as the more people occupy land and properties and demand urban and agrarian reform, the better the living conditions for the entire population will be, including for those who already have a place to live.
It is impossible to discuss urban reform and the right to the city separately. Housing, a problem that directly affects people, is at the center of that discussion. To solve the housing deficit problem, the common understanding is that we need to build more houses through housing programs, but, in fact, that is not how we see it. The struggle of urban settlements and housing movements is not only (and not mainly) for the construction of houses: it is a struggle for the right to live with dignity. This fight involves taking advantage of what is already available. The IBGE Census data shows that many existing properties could be suitable for living and would solve the housing problem. These are properties that also include access to services such as daycare, quality healthcare, basic sanitation, transport, culture, leisure, and sport. If one is living with no access to transportation or to any of these rights, one is not living with dignity.
This is a broader discussion, which involves how the city is planned, built, and organized to exclude a part of the population. We have parks and daycare centers in Brazilian cities, but in practice access to them is restricted. We experience several barriers, as if the city wasn’t built for us. Palácio das Artes,(7) in the city of Belo Horizonte, for example, is located in the city center and offers several attractions for free, but the restrictions start at the spatial level: people who live far from the center are unable to pay for transportation to get there. On the other hand, people who live in the center and could easily walk there, such as the people at settlement Carolina Maria de Jesus, don’t go either. It is a place that does not belong to these people. They imagine that they will have to pay, or that if they go, they will be sent away.
Recently we gathered the kids from that settlement to go to the movies and watch Black Panther. The security guard stopped the kids, and wanted to know what they were doing, even though all of them had the money to pay for their ticket! That kind of place is not designed for poor people; they cause strangeness. They say that the mall is a public space and that anyone can enter a food court… can they really? Can any human being walk through the Palácio das Artes? Can any human being have access to Mangabeiras Park?(8) Are these spaces really prepared to welcome everyone?
The debate about what is important for each person in a city still needs to take place. Having a home does not grant us the right to the city; a roof doesn’t solve our problems. Brazilian cities are set up to fail, at least for the majority of the population. The other part will be granted access to it, and little criticism will arise. But for us, the city was set up to not work.
We live in the Eliana Silva settlement, on a dirt road, and our water supply is cut at least twice or three times a week. We don’t have good electricity supply (we frequently suffer power outages) and our electricity bills, which we struggle to get, are much more expensive than in the rest of the city, as the supplier claims they are charging us for the bills we haven’t paid in the past. Our daily lives, after ten years in the settlement, is very different from that of the first year, when we spent 24 hours a day afraid of the police and evictions. The risk of eviction still exists – there is not a single occupation in Minas Gerais today that is not at risk of being reinstated – but it is becoming less present in everyday life. We continue focusing, each day, on building what is most urgent.
As much as each urban settlement has its own characteristics, they are very similar, and go through stages. The first stage is to occupy: to enter and to resist. At that moment we just want and need to be there. Then comes the time to build and consolidate. For that, another way of organizing families and daily life takes place. We don’t pause one stage and start another, they fluidly change. The construction process does not stop: just like a one-year settlement, a ten-year settlement is also under construction. Over time, struggles for rights begin: land regularization, sanitation, and access to the formal city that surrounds us and its services. These are struggles for recognition and survival, as we begin to understand that having a home is the main objective, but it is not enough.
At the beginning of a settlement, there are a lot of people around. In a way, they drop everything to be there. At that moment, the organization of daily life is very collective: we set up community work shifts for security and a communal kitchen. We are all resisting the city and its prejudices, and in such a context, individual resistance is not a possibility. Perhaps this is the most beautiful thing about an occupation: the collective work of construction. In the first few months, everyone is very close together. If the police arrive, they will not be faced by one person alone, but by the entire settlement. If we have a lack of food in the communal kitchen, the whole community will go after food, not one person alone.
In addition to the communal kitchen, at first we set up a daycare center, which helps to provide basic conditions so that women can also be in spaces of visibility. Occupations are collective and concrete organizations, where contradictions appear. If we are not attentive to this, women will tend to end up in the kitchen, cleaning, or in spaces considered secondary, while men will place themselves in spaces of negotiation, reception and structure organization, with more visibility. The MLB seeks to ensure that women will, in fact, go out to negotiations, fulfill reception schedules, work in structure organization and place themselves in spaces of “power”.
When we start building the houses, the internal organization changes. We try to maintain a collective spirit during all construction efforts, but this work tends to have a more individual feature. Whoever gets the building material, counts on help or masters construction techniques builds their house first, and the pace begins to vary from one resident to another. Construction cannot take place without resistance, guard shifts, or a communal kitchen, but we begin to see traces of individualism. It’s a great challenge to try and deconstruct it and to maintain the collectivism of the beginning.
The third stage is the fight for rights, when we already have houses, but we lack basic sanitation and the clandestine electricity supply we created at the beginning is no longer sufficient. We start working on securing rights, so that people don’t just settle for a house, thinking: “I had nothing; now I have a lot”. The movement begins a process of questioning. “You have the right to much more, and we can organize for it.” At this moment, the daily collective life in the settlement is more dispersed, because many people who had left their jobs to fight for their homes have now returned to the labor market. During the day, the settlement is now emptier.
Each person starts spending more time at work, in order to bring food home, or building their own houses, so the fight for collective rights – for sanitation, for transport, for so many other rights – ends up becoming secondary. When there is no community daycare, many women return to household chores, caring for their children and their husbands. By guaranteeing a daycare, we were able to maintain a flow of care for the collective. Meanwhile, the collective space of the street is very alive among children and teenagers. While the adults are out working, they play in the streets, and the fact that the roads are made of dirt is very good, because cars need to pass by slowly; sometimes they won’t even pass.
In the formal city there are those who command and those who obey; it’s very hard to question the imposed model. Those in charge are often disconnected from the reality of the community, and that is why clashes occur – such as when, for example, a health center is built in a space where people want a soccer field.
In our settlements, the entire organization takes place through assemblies. Assemblies are spaces of power because they give people the opportunity to decide what they want and to actually build a place. Direct democracy is not simple, but we want to work so that the representative democracy we currently have becomes a little more direct every day, with more people participating in the decisions about their own lives. Regardless of the Judiciary, Executive or Legislative powers, in assemblies people decide what to do. It doesn’t matter if that decision is not on paper: people will do it. The very act of occupying is about this: an insurgency, the non-acceptance of the order established by a minority. It’s the majority setting the tone.
The urbanization of settlements needs to take place as decided in the assemblies, according to the will of the people. We don’t see this in housing programs: planners design them, and that’s it, we cannot question them. There might be no room for your dog, or for your push cart; there will be no room for you to raise your chickens. That is why occupation assemblies are a space for collective urban construction. No matter how brilliant a person’s ideas are, they will be worthless if they are not recognized and built on by local residents.
In the Eliana Silva settlement, everything was decided in assemblies – the name of each street, what collective spaces would be built, the size of the lots. We have a great feeling of belonging. We don’t see people questioning why we have a daycare center in the community and not a cafeteria, for example. When we try to do things without debating them in assembly, it doesn’t work. Once we decided to build a library. The MLB had received a lot of books, donated by several supporters. We transformed an empty space into a library, but soon realized that it wouldn’t work, a people did not understand and embrace that choice. They hadn’t help build it, they hadn’t help think about it, they didn’t get involved. When a city is designed by its people, it works better. Now, ten years later, we are reviving the idea differently: the library was discussed in the assembly; the residents got involved, and we are soon going to build it.
Children have questioned the street space. “This street is a play field,” they said. And people responded: “No, this is a street, you should not be playing soccer here”. Such discussions went to the assembly, and we came to the understanding that the use should be mixed. Children can play, and residents must drive slowly and be respectful. If it were in the formal city, the street would already have been be paved and gotten a 60 km/h sign, and that would be it. We accept this kind of challenge. The city council came to us with an asphalt urbanization project, but we don’t want asphalt, we want green paving. We are not in paradise; we live within the formal city and sometimes we are framed by its way of functioning.
Occupation settlements have several different realities and daily lives, but they also have characteristics that are universal – and which often apply to all peripheries. A strong characteristic is solidarity. We always say that Brazilians don’t care, but in the peripheries, we see people helping each other. There is hunger, but there will always be something to eat, as most people will share what little they have. Solidarity networks are a dialectical continuity of the process of popular empowerment, also because they bring people together. After the pandemic, it became clear that, as we only get crumbs from the State, such networks will have to become permanent. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the MLB worked on creating and enhancing solidarity networks. We carry out campaigns for food distribution and we also have food banks in the settlements. If someone receives a package of rice and doesn’t need it, they pass it on, or sometimes exchange it for detergent. The most interesting thing is that, even though we don’t have money, we never ran out of food.
When a person joins a settlement for a need as basic as having a roof over their heads, they are not usually aware that not having a home is a problem that mainly affects women. When they gain the right to a roof of their own and a daycare center in which to leave their children, women begin to understand, in practice, the oppression under which they had previously lived. The way patriarchy is structured, and how it works, defines what a woman’s life will be like.
When we occupied this land, several women separated from their partners. People say: “There is a curse in this settlement! Everyone gets divorced, everyone leaves everyone!” At Eliana Silva, every other week a woman would get divorced, and that intrigued the coordination. We spoke to these women and discovered that the reason was that they no longer needed a man in order to have a home. Several relationships only existed because women were economically dependent on their husbands. In the settlement, each house is registered in the woman’s name; it belongs to the woman. Thus, we begin to mark out a path for her. Women will only stay with their husbands if they want to. The occupation tells women that they can do anything, including building the place where they live, planning their own houses and choosing where the bathroom or the kitchen will be, because no one else will do it for them.
The city is managed by men, conceived of by men, planned by men. However, it is the women who will stay at home when there is no daycare. When there is no preventive healthcare, it is them who will spend nights with their children in the hospital. They are the ones who will subject themselves to abusive relationships if they do not have a place to live. That is why the fight for the right to the city is a feminist fight. We can discuss feminism in different spheres, and they are all important, but from the perspective of the right to the city we address many things at the same time: the right to employment, the right to transport, access to daycare centers, schools, and the health system.
All settlement leaders are women; exceptions are rare. In the MLB, the state coordination elected a board made up of an overwhelming majority of women, without the need for quotas. They are the ones at the forefront, so there is nothing fairer than having them in coordination roles. This is a central problem in the formal city: women are at the forefront of the city as a whole, but when we elect our representatives, we don’t think about them, as that place has not been given to them. Social movements break this dynamic and make it possible for people to do things differently. This is one of the roles of the social movement for housing.
At the back of Eliana Silva there is a beautiful river spring. Since we came here, we have dreamed of an Occupation Park. We are in a valley with six other occupation settlements, each established in a different year, and with different organizational formats. While one is fighting for sanitation, another one is fighting eviction. One has existed for 35 years and is struggling to be formally recognized, while another one has just been created, and yet another has been here for six years. Each settlement is different, and what we call the Occupation Park is a green area that runs through them all. A satellite survey carried out by research groups from the School of Architecture at the Federal University of Minas Gerais shows what the evolution of that green stripe has been like. There was a large green area before the settlements were established. With our arrival, it decreased and almost disappeared, but it is currently increasing again, and is already larger than it was before.
Who doesn’t want to live near a forested area with a water spring? The residents here had never thought about this possibility. They have an average age of 35 to 40 years. Forty years ago, the in the city of Belo Horizonte were already very polluted; that is, these people have been living with polluted rivers for as long as they can remember. They couldn’t even imagine that it would be possible to live close to a clean spring, or that they could have an orchard at the back of their houses, because that doesn’t exist in the city. If someone plants a guava tree, they will build a wall twice as high so that no one can get to the guavas. Nobody is used to having an open-air orchard. “Ah, but when the bananas are ripe, everyone will want the bananas.” Yes! It can be like this. Just because I’m planting, it doesn’t mean the fruits have to be mine; they can belong to everyone.
We live a hundred or two hundred meters away from the water source, so we cannot see it from our houses. How to convince people who live two hundred meters away from a spring that it is important? From that question came the idea that the Park should invade the settlements: between 2014 and 2015, we started planting in the streets, bringing the green area inside. People were already planting in their homes; they all have a little yard in which they plant herbs, spices… and so we told them that this was also part of our Park! Thus, the idea of the Occupation Park became more concrete in the personal dynamics of resident families, bringing them to participate. The Park would not come from a ready-made intervention, such as when the city council comes, fences off a space, puts up a sign and declares it’s a park.
Nowadays we have a wonderful community garden in the Paulo Freire settlement, which is part of the park and produces food. We are assembling organic food baskets and, for sixty reais, anyone can have two baskets delivered at their door each month. We are planting fruit trees in front of our houses, where the land is drier and we have less shade.
Every now and then the city council comes and, without discussion, they claim that a house is within the green area and that it will have to be taken down. But the Park starts from a conception of green areas that is the opposite to that the formal city imposes. Shouldn’t a green area come in, leaving houses where they are? The green invading settlements and settlements invading the green, in a permanent dialogue? Couldn’t residents take care of the plants, instead of leaving? We are trying to achieve this design.
We have been discussing this with the residents, but we face several difficulties, such as the lack of garbage collection and the lack of sanitation, which cause other problems. How can we tell someone that they shouldn’t throw sewage into the river if they are not guaranteed sanitation? Without such basic services, living in a park becomes a contradiction. At Eliana Silva, where we have plenty of space, we have built evapotranspiration tanks (TEvaps), but that was not possible at the Paulo Freire settlement, which is very small. In that case, we were forced to direct a sewage pipe into a polluted river in Vila Pinho, which is terrible. At the same time as we defend the preservation of a spring, we are saying that sewage can be dumped into another river. This is a contradiction that we cannot deal with if we do not have closer dialogue with the formal city.
The Park is a necessity, people can and really want to live close to green areas. The Municipal Park, which is in the city center, cannot be all that we have in terms of green areas. We live in the settlement, we work all day, and the city parks are not open at night. How will we access these places? We have several reports from people who have never been to a park. They need it. We like to say that our Park will be complete in 2030; that it is under construction. This is completely contrary to the formal city’s line of thought. The formal city thinks like this: “There will be no trees left in those seven settlements by 2030!” But we will prove that they are wrong; we will have many trees. Let’s urbanize our own way. This is the urbanization in which we believe.
1 Favelas are Brazilian slums, usually poor areas, suffering from governmental neglect and police abuse.
2 Quilombos are communities originally formed by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery, in search for freedom and autonomy. With the end of slavery these communities persisted and still do today. People born in a quilombo are called quilombolas.
3 The Movement of Struggle in Neighborhoods, Villages and Favelas (MLB) is a social housing movement in Brazil. It started in 1999 and advocates urban reform. Both the authors of this text are leaders of the movement.
4 Unidade Popular is a left-wing political party, linked to social movements. Leonardo Pericles, one of the authors of this text, ran for president as a member of the party in the 2022 Brazilian general elections.
5 In this context, “occupation” refers to an act in which a group of people occupy a physical space, such as a vacant lot, an abandoned building or a public area, with the aim of using it as a place of residence.
6 The IBGE is the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, which conducts a comprehensive population and housing census in Brazil.
7 Palácio das Artes is the largest center of cultural production, training and dissemination in Minas Gerais and one of the largest in Latin America.
8 Mangabeiras Park is a large public park located in a wealthy region of the city of Belo Horizonte.