Brazilian squatter activist Nete Araujo talked with Rowenna Davis
Nete Araujo is no conventional grandma. At just 34 years old, she wears sweetheart purple nail varnish and bright white trainers. And instead of spending her days making tea and handing out cake, this nana chooses to pass the time occupying abandoned buildings in São Paulo. For the last four years, Nete has been helping to establish squats for the destitute, rallying exploited tenants to take political action and campaigning for the right to secure, dignified shelter for all.
‘As citizens, we have a responsibility to guarantee that homeless families have dignity – a house, water, education and electricity,’ she explains. ‘Change has to come from the people, because when it comes from the politicians, corruption gets in the way.’
Born in rural Guariba, Nete grew up cutting sugar cane before joining the tides of people moving to São Paulo in search of a better life. She married early, giving birth to her first child when she was just 14. Then one day, when her husband asked for a pay rise, he was sacked. Nete and her children were evicted from their home and forced to live under a motorway bridge for several months, relying on hand-outs to eat.
‘Living on the streets means losing your dignity. People would look down on me, but I used to have a house just like them,’ she recalls. ‘I lost my privacy completely. There were no doors to shut or windows to close. I was cold and I couldn’t wash myself or my children. The conditions were beneath anything worthy of humanity.’
It was only when she found the charity APOIO that her life began to turn around. APOIO, which means ‘support’ in Portuguese, works with homeless communities to help them secure their right to decent housing. Once Nete found her strength, she decided to work full time for APOIO, in order to help those going through similar circumstances to her own.
Nete’s task is not a small one. Over a third of Brazil’s 180 millon citizens live in slums, the numbers fuelled largely by rural-to-urban migration. In São Paulo alone, 25 new people join the ranks of the city’s population every hour. The inadequate housing and increased homelessness that result breed social problems. Alcoholism, domestic violence and drug trafficking are rife.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this situation is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It is estimated that 17 per cent of residential units in São Paulo’s city centre are lying empty. These buildings could provide some 45,600 badly needed homes for local people, but conditions in the property market mean that it is not profitable to sell them. ‘In these spaces there are rats, insects and mice living better than human beings,’ Nete complains. ‘Animals occupy the buildings whilst the people sleep on the streets.’
This is where Nete’s work comes in. Working illegally, she breaks into São Paulo’s abandoned buildings and helps turn them into functioning homes for local people. The result is Supergran meets Robin Hood. ‘Some nights we do six or seven occupations, so you have to be really organized. Many of the houses are precarious and dangerous, and we have to work hard to get them set up,’ she explains. By moving into these buildings, the poorest people in São Paulo are literally ‘living their protest’. Their approach seems to be working. Since 1999, APOIO has helped over 1,700 families to improve their living conditions.
When you ask Nete about her proudest achievement, she answers with two words: ‘Prestes Maia.’ A 22-storey disused building in the heart of São Paulo, Prestes Maia was the site of the largest squatted high-rise building in the whole of Latin America. Between 2002 and 2007, 466 families turned this building into their own residential community, which included a school, a communal area and a library with over 7,000 books. ‘In the beginning it was just a skeleton of a building. It didn’t have any walls or lifts. But it soon came to be a home for all of us,’ Nete smiles.
For five years the families in Prestes Maia lived under the threat of eviction from local authorities. But in June 2007, after massive grassroots pressure, the Government announced that it would provide permanent housing for 150 of the families on the site, and compensate the rest.
Nete was one of those offered permanent housing, but she refuses to leave squat life while others don’t have that choice: ‘To defend the right to housing you have to live with the people. It doesn’t serve any purpose to be in my home when others don’t have theirs. APOIO threw a rope down to me when I was in a dark well. They pulled me out, but there are still other families down there in need of a rope. It is our obligation to help them.’