“Isolation?” The question comes with a tone of denial and may even sound like negligence, but it is the reality of more than 7 thousand residents of the Vila Barca community, one of the largest stilt slums in Brazil, located in Belém, the Pará state capital. The houses in the area sit upon wooden stilts on the banks of a river.
The shanty town is near one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, which has apartments worth millions of Reais.
The community suffers from abandonment by local authorities. Unthinkable scenes such as children walking around in trash, no water in their taps, open sewage and no electricity are part of inhabitants’ daily realities.
Brasil de Fato was in Vila Barca and was welcomed by the leader of the Residents’ Association, Inez Medeiros. She denounces the fact that authorities completely ignore the area as well as the conditions to which locals are submitted to everyday. She also says that the lack of housing has intensified during the pandemic.
"The lack of water, the inexistence of sewage treatment, (…) many homes don’t have water in their taps, and while many residents try to remedy the situation, they are unable to. These problems have been aggravated during this period of social isolation, seeing as many are in need of the bare minimum to survive,” she stated.
Vila Barca is part of a housing development project by local authorities, that seeks to demolish the shanty town and replace it with brick and mortar apartments. However, the construction has been on hold for around 15 years, according to Medeiros. She adds that the abandonment worsens other issues the community faces, such as a high concentration of drug addicts and people in a state of homelessness.
Besides the social disparities between people who live so close to each other, Vila Barca’s neighboring luxury apartments were built on land under permanent preservation owned by the Navy, which by law should not be touched.
In a press release, the local housing authority (Sehab) said that work in Vila Barca is undergoing. “It has been divided into 3 stages, and 168 houses have already been delivered in phase 1, 12 in stage 2 and 8 in stage 3. 78 units from phase 2 still need to be constructed and 120 from phase 3, which are already underway,” said the entity.
Brasil de Fato’s team visited the location at 11am last Monday (13) and did not see any construction activity.
Sewage and covid-19
Last Wednesday (15th), president Jair Bolsonaro signed into law a new sanitation bill. The legislation seeks to increase the private sector’s participation in the water and sewage treatment industry, which is currently administered in large part by public, state owned companies.
The national census, done by the Brazilian Institute of Statistics and Geography (IBGE), shows that only 27.4% of households in Brazil’s northern region have access to sewage treatment. In the state of Pará, that number is only 4.7%. The state is currently one of the worst hit by the pandemic. Data from the National Council of Health Secretaries, concludes that there have been over 137,000 confirmed cases and 5,400 deaths as of last Sunday, July 19th.
Help from the River
For many communities, the river is sacred, as it represents a source of abundance. Those dwelling in Guajará Bay, though being deprived of many things, are thankful for the river, because in the absence of clean water they use the bay.
The Resident’s Association head, Ines Medeiros, details a contradiction in which those living closest to the river, have the most problems in accessing water.
“It’s funny because those closest to the river here in Vila Barca are those who suffer most from the lack of potable water, and as such, they end up having to us the river. They end up in contact with the Bay, which is contaminated, full of sewage. Since the stilt houses have no sanitation systems, all the sewage from the residences go into the river, which accumulates dirt and fecal matter, problems that even laymen can see are serious,” she says.
Tatiana Beltrão, who is 29-years-old and has lived in the community for 10 years, is a mother of four. She tells us that the municipal governments always change but the problems persist, with water access being one of the most difficult to manage.
Though she has a beautiful view of Guajará Bay and a water pump at home, Tatiana suffers from lack of clean water, recognizing that not all residents are able to purchase a pump, the only alternative being pulling up water with pipes and buckets.
Tatiana hosted Brasil de Fato’s team in her wooden home, apologizing for the amount of dishes in the sink. This is because the previous day no water was coming out of her taps. When this occurs, the only way is to use water from the tides. During the pandemic this was almost always the only way to go about this. “We come home, wash our hands, but also save some water from the high tide and use it as needed,” she summarizes.
44-year-old Angélica Lopes, another inhabitant of the shanty town, also uses river water for her day to day activities.
Near her home, there’s a pipe from which she pulls the water with the aid of bucket, of which there a plenty in her laying around. She explains that there is a method to drawing the water with the tide: one must wait for the river to fill up and only then get the water.
“That’s the main difficulty, there is no tap water here, and when the tide is rising, we wait for the river to fill up so we can get some water to do the things we need to, like washing our clothes, or the dishes,” she explains.
Though facing so many difficulties and being deprived of so many things, Angélica admits that she is not planning on moving away from her riverside home. Standing next to her water buckets, she says that all she wants is for the authorities to recognize that the Residents of Vila Barca, have the same rights as those living in the million dollar apartments.
Edited by: Mauro Ramos e Vivian Fernandes