Gentrification Through Arson in Sao Paulo?

Real estate in Sao Paulo has been booming in recent years. Fires have devastated slums in or near the most desirable areas. Is there a connection?

That's been a subject of debate in Brazil’s largest city for weeks. So far this year, 34 fires have been recorded in Sao Paulo's so-called favelas. On her blog, Raquel Rolnik, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of Sao Paulo, suggested the blazes were linked to gentrification projects:

It is very strange that favelas, which have been through much more precarious situations and were once more prone to fires than today -- because of the existence of wooden shacks, for example -- are catching on fire now, amid one of the biggest booms in the Sao Paulo real estate market.

She questioned why the city’s plan for fire prevention in precarious settlements was not working.

Joao F. Finazzi, a student of international relations at Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo, developed the analysis further. In a blog piece titled "Don’t Believe in Spontaneous Combustion," he wrote that the last nine favela fires had occurred in areas in which just seven percent of the city’s 1,565 favelas are situated. He documented how each of these areas had experienced among the steepest increases in real estate prices. For instance, the fire-struck Sao Miguel favela is situated next to the Ermelino Matarazzo neighborhood, which has seen the highest housing appreciation in the city: 214 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Where property prices were not rising, there were fewer favela fires, though more favelas, Finazzi wrote.

Something very peculiar is happening to the minority of slums, because they have more fires than the vast majority. Unless the weather is drier in these regions and the inhabitants of these communities have a more incendiary spirit than others, the coincidence is simply not acceptable.

He concluded, "To think of coincidence in a situation like this is to want to close your eyes to the world."

Both Finazzi and Rolnik said that the city council's commission of inquiry into the favela fires, which was set up in March, had achieved little so far. Finazzi linked to a blog posting in which journalist and political scientist Leonardo Sakamoto wrote scathingly of the prospect for corrective measures. "The contractors and real estate speculators are here, donating to campaigns, lending relatives to public jobs, influencing the observance and non-observance of rules," he said. "Meanwhile another favela burned in Sao Paulo."

Sakamoto added: “Brazil is becoming a giant construction site. The problem is that there are people living in the places where they want to build.”

The favela fires reached national attention after a particularly damaging inferno Sept. 17 in Moinho, a prime location under a bridge in the city’s old center. One person died and 320 were made homeless. It was the second fire in the same favela: two died and 1,500 were made homeless following a blaze there in December 2011.

In an opinion piece in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, Brazil’s biggest, Andre Delfino da Silva, coordinator of the Favela Residents Defense Movement, and Raimundo Bonfim, general coordinator of the Sao Paulo State Popular Movements Central, drew a link between recent fires and real estate prices and lamented the suffering of favela residents.

Fires in favelas in the city of Sao Paulo are becoming routine. It is very sad to watch flames destroy homes, especially those simple ones, often made of wood, built with a lot of sweat and sacrifice by families who did not have support from the authorities to access adequate housing.

The unsigned Drizzle Blog, named after the city’s famous light rain, for the Estadao newspaper, lamented the "hell in the lives of the hundreds of residents who lost the little they had, consumed by fire.” The piece added, "This is a precarious Sao Paulo, which many people don’t notice but that insists in existing without the authorities taking account.”

Conservative columnist Reinaldo Azevedo took issue with press reports blaming the Moinho blaze on shortcomings of the city's fire prevention plan. In his widely read blog for the weekly news magazine Veja, he wrote:

I note that if the plan didn’t exist, then the city could not be made liable. But since it exists, it immediately takes the blame.

Azevedo noted that the police said it suspected the fire started when one member of a fighting couple, both of whom were drug users, set fire to the other:

There is a new culture shaping up in this country, which, I have no doubt, condemns us to eternal backwardness. Nobody is responsible for anything. Everything is expected for free from the authorities... : housing, transportation, milk, pills, morning-after pill, medicine, condoms, abortion, education, health, culture, happiness. The list keeps growing. On the other hand, well… on the other hand, nothing! Not even responsibility for the madman who decided to set fire to his boyfriend. After all, he must also be a poor victim of the "City plan" that failed.

As for what was behind the larger spate of favela fires, Jair de Lima, coordinator of Sao Paulo’s Civil Defense, was asked this question on the Sunday television show Fantastico. His reply was that the city had passed through a long, dry spell. He said:

At the end of July and August, we had no rain. And we had relatively low humidity. So the start of a fire which could just be a shack, almost insignificant, spreads very quickly.

He noted that favela houses are often precariously constructed; that many residents steal electricity from power lines, which can result in short circuits; that furniture is cheap and flammable; and that stoves use bottled gas, which is prone to leaks. The show ran a tape of three shacks being set on fire at a fire brigade training center to demonstrate how quickly a blaze can spread.

Yet the reporter of the segment also said: “In some cases, according to Civil Defense, fire is started by criminal actions, caused by those interested in the land.”

A long dry spell, highly flammable houses, motives for arson. It all adds up to a hot season for Sao Paulo's favelas, and good reason to question the city's fire prevention capacities.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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