A spate of fires in the favelas of São Paulo in recent years appears to be concentrated on more expensive land, a Guardian Cities and Agência Pública investigation can reveal.
The finding is likely to further concerns that many fires are being started deliberately, despite a controversial parliamentary commission in 2012 on the matter which ended inconclusively.
New analysis, however, found that the land value of 80 favelas hit by fire was 76% higher than the average for informal housing in the city. The numbers came from Civil Defence records between 2008 and 2012.
The investigation also found that fires occurred more frequently in city districts with higher property values.
More than 1.5 million people live in 1,700 favelas across São Paulo. Most are precarious settlements, without formal access to sewerage systems, water, electricity or rubbish collection.
Nevertheless, many sit on prime real estate. As the value of land in São Paulo continues to rise, there is increasing pressure to raze favelas and to move the people who live there.
This past Friday, shortly after midnight, fire broke out in the Levanta Saia favela in Campo Belo, one of the richest regions of São Paulo. Thirteen fire trucks fought the blaze as families spilled on to the streets with the few belongings they could recover.
Felipe Ramon, 23, an organiser of children’s parties, held a small glass in his hands with his remaining possessions: a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Ramon said it is the seventh time he and his mother have lost their home to fire.
He previously lived in the Favela do Piolho or “Lice Favela”, also in Campo Belo, which was almost entirely consumed by fire in September 2014, destroying roughly 80% of dwellings and leaving 264 families homeless. It was the second blaze there in two years.
Although the wooden shacks and mess of wiring continue to pose a fire risk, the wider Campo Belo area is well-served by public transport, health and education facilities, making it desirable land.
“We live in a neighbourhood where [property] speculation is out of the ordinary,” says Rudnéia Arantes, a leader of the Favela do Piolho, noting that residents don’t want to leave. “There are schools, NGOs, shops, nurseries and everything else. Why would you leave here? Where would the people go?”
Authorities have generally attributed the frequency of fires in favelas to poor-quality infrastructure and population density, while denying any link to the value of the land.
A parliamentary commission of inquiry set up in 2012 to look into such allegations concluded: “We’re not able to speak of criminal fires motivated by real estate interests, as up to now there’s no evidence leading to it.”
But the Guardian and Pública analysis showed that the average commercial value of favelas struck by fire in 2013 was R$291 (£68)/sq m (using estimates by the real estate association Secovi), while a random sample of 460 favelas the same year had an average commercial value of only R$166/sq m.
Moreover, the analysis revealed that fires were more frequent in richer areas. Over the past five years, 23 fires – about 29% of those analysed – happened in the 15 districts with the city’s highest real estate values, home to less than 10% (145) of São Paulo’s favelas. In the remaining districts, where the majority of the city’s favelas are found, there were 52 fires: one blaze for every 29 communities, compared with one for every six in the richest districts.
The fire department registered no fewer than 1,648 favela fires between 2001 and 2012; in 2016 there were 202, and dozens more so far this year.
Each new fire stokes an old suspicion: that the fires are deliberately lit by groups linked to real estate investments in the area. In 2012, a parliamentary commission of inquiry was set up to look into such allegations, alongside investigations by police and municipal bodies.
Its final report was ambiguous, however, concluding that the fires had occurred because of “a sum of factors”, including climate, humidity, lack of rain, flammable construction materials and poor-quality electrical installations.
The commission was widely criticised, however, for only holding six of its 13 scheduled meetings, after the rest were cancelled due to poor attendance.
In addition, the Brazilian news portal UOL revealed in 2012 that every member of the commission was taking campaign donations from real estate companies. The president of the commission, Ricardo Teixeira, received R$464,000 from property firms to finance his run for city councillor.
Following the 2012 fire at Favela do Piolho, a fire department report warned that poor infrastructure put the community at continued risk. After the next fire in 2014 questions were raised about whether the city had failed to take the necessary steps to prevent further blazes. The matter is reportedly under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Housing and Urban Planning, although a recent city council report suggested no resources had yet been allocated to it.
Carla Aparecida’s house burned down in both fires: first in 2012 and again in 2014 blazes. “It took me over a year to rebuild … and when only one refrigerator was left for me [to replace], the [other] fire came,” says the 34-year-old. “It burned everything, everything, everything.”
After the 2014 fire, Aparecida says she was offered emergency aid from City Hall – conditional on her leaving the region. She accepted, although she eventually returned to Favela do Piolho and now lives with her five children in a much smaller shack of just 4 sq m.
Another way some residents suspect they are encouraged to leave neighbourhoods after fires is what they say is the fire department’s frequently slow reaction. They also report that support after fires is patchy. City Hall insists that any decrease in post-fire aid funding is due to residents submitting improper and inconsistent registration data.
Observers point to the increasing tendency in São Paulo to evict informal communities, rather than improve them.
“It used to be a part of redevelopment plans that the city would accommodate affected communities,” says Margareth Matiko, coordinator of urbanism at the Pólis Institute. “What has happened is that governments have begun to adopt the policy of withdrawing the population in order to build large urban projects, such as in the case of the Urban Espraiada Water Operation.” That development plan aimed to improve transit, roads, social housing and leisure spaces in the wealthy Pinheiros district, and has seen more than 11,000 families moved to new areas.
Another 2012 investigation into favela fires from the Public Ministry’s Special Action Group on Combating Crime was deemed inconclusive and closed.
The analysis was carried out using data from the City of São Paulo and Secovi.