The Tragic Rebirth Of Sao Paulo’​s Favelas

In a favela in Sao Paulo
In a favela in Sao Paulo
Leandro Machado, Emilio Sant'anna

SAO PAULO â€" João Batista, a 45-year-old builder, has been unemployed since December. Jailson de Lima, 46, is luckier: He still manages to find construction work from time to time but doesn't earn enough to pay rent, which has been on a relentless rise. Cristiane dos Santos, 27, lived in a hostel for some time but eventually gave up.

All three are victims of Brazil's economic downturn. And in the past year, all three moved from their respective parts of São Paulo, the country's largest city, into favelas, as the informal slums are called.

Over the past few weeks, Folha de S. Paulo visited five favelas, including one in the eastern area of Cangaiba that was resurrected in June 2014, four years after it was evacuated and closed because of violent clashes between residents and police. Some 2,000 families live there now.

The Cangaiba favela is where Jailson de Lima now calls home. He'd never lived in a favela before. But at the beginning of this year, unemployed, he told himself, "I can't pay my rent anymore, so I'll build my own shack." He called his sister, who came with her husband and her sons to lend a hand. One of her sons ended up building his own accommodation just next to his uncle's. And that was that.

The area, which covers some 47,000 square meters, had been left empty since the Ministry of Justice ordered its evacuation in 2010. There was supposedly a project in the works to develop affordable housing there, but in four years, not a single wall was built. Now, just over a year after it became a favela again, the site has several small markets, an Internet café and an evangelist church.

Along the gigantic Radial Leste Avenue are two more favelas, one that has grown significantly of late, and another that, like the community in Cangaiba, was rebuilt after the police cleared it. There, we saw about 50 families â€" men, women, children and elderly â€" establishing themselves on a patch of land between the avenue and the Bresser flyover that was covered with grass just a month ago.

A fourth slum, in the eastern area of Guaianases, was erected a year ago on land that belongs to local authorities and was destined to receive social housing. The fifth favela we visited, in the western district of Jaguaré, sprung up between apartment buildings.

Troubling signs

There's no official data to show whether the number of favelas in São Paulo has decreased or increased over the past five years. The last study was conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 and showed that there were 1,643 favelas in São Paulo at the time containing more than 2 million people â€" approximately 11% of the city's total population.

But even without updated data, urban planners, militants and people working in social housing institutions are all positive that the number of people living in what is considered "sub-normal housing" in the city has risen. The reasons, in a megacity where an estimated 230,000 accommodations are lacking, are multiple.

"The only housing policy that exists today is "My House, My Life,"" explains city planner Raquel Rolnik. "But if, for whatever reason, you get evicted today, you'll join the queue of those waiting for another place. And the wait can be five, maybe 10 years. So where do you go in the meantime? Well, there's little choice but to go to a slum."

And with a shrinking Brazilian economy, growing unemployment and rampant inflation, there's little hope the situation is going to improve in the near future. "The first signs of the crisis are there for all to see," says Rolnik. "Unemployment is rising and wages are falling. For whoever lives on a tight budget, anything less makes a difference."

Juliana Avanci, lawyer with Gaspar Garcia Center for Human Rights, which helps homeless people, thinks the real crisis hasn't even started yet. "We've indeed seen a rise among the favela population. But the worst effects of the crisis are still to come," she says. Avanci, 33, faults problems with Brazil's housing policies and the slow rate of new construction.

Organizations fighting for housing access, such as the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), say the biggest problem is skyrocketing rent prices. Data shows that the average rent in São Paulo has gone up 98% since 2008 (despite falling in May and June 2015), while inflation over the same period was 54%.

"Favelas are growing in size, and the makeshift constructions are getting higher, with houses of two or three stories," says Alex Abiko, professor of housing management at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo. "They're unsanitary and have ventilation and lighting problems."

Abiko says public authorities are wrong not to update their data on favelas. "How can they do anything when they don't even know where the slums are, or in what conditions the people are living?"

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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