The Horto Community and the Fight for an Ancestral Territory in the Context of Environmental Racism
This article describes the implicit racism reflected in the constant threats of eviction of the bicentennial Horto community, and is part of a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University, to produce articles for the Digital Brazil Project on human rights and socio-environmental justice in the favelas for RioOnWatch. The article is also the latest contribution to our year-long reporting project, “Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas: Deconstructing Social Narratives About Racism in Rio de Janeiro.” Follow our Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas series here.
On June 30, at 5am, we, residents of the Horto community, headed to the community’s entrance following the news that there would be a mega operation by the federal courts to deliver eviction notices to residents. Although we had received the information that it would not be an operation to evict families but, rather, to deliver notices, this renewed our anxiety about the possibility of evictions. We were surprised with the number of police officers that were in the community for the operation: there were Military Police, Federal Police, and even Civil Police present.
At the entrance to the community, Pacheco Leão Street #1235, the police arrived with weapons in hand telling us to open the gate. We did not react, as we had been informed that there would be no evictions. They’d come to deliver notices. The families that live at the Major Rubens Vaz and Vila São Jorge localities within the neighborhood were the ones who received the most notices, although there were also legal notices delivered in other areas of the community. Residents reported episodes of police violence during the delivery of the notices.
What we do not understand is that there were also notices for the Dona Castorina area, which is in the midst of a land tenure regularization process with the Federal Heritage Secretariat (SPU), with none of the families living in the location having repossession suits filed against them. We contacted the SPU and got no response, and would like to understand what the SPU plans to do in this area.
In response to the officers of the court delivering notices in the community, we organized an action in defense of Horto on Jardim Botânico Street. It was attended by many residents, young and old, and by partners of the community. We remain on this journey of mobilization to guarantee the permanence of the Horto community.
We must not forget that the operation carried out by the Federal Court of Justice to realize evictions in the community are happening against the backdrop of an uncontrollable Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil, which has surpassed the terrible mark of 570,000 deaths. Contrary to the World Health Organization‘s guidance for people to stay at home, the neighboring Botanical Gardens Research Institute (IPJB), which claims it needs the land, insists on evicting over 600 families in the Horto community.
Allowing the actions of land repossession to be carried out, as well as the delivery of voluntary vacancy notices under penalty of forced repossession, goes against Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) decision which suspends evictions and administrative and legal measures that result in evictions during the pandemic (Claim of Non-Compliance with a Fundamental Precept n. 828, or ADPF 828).
Plans to Evict the Horto Community As a Prime Example of Rio de Janeiro’s Racist Logic of Urban Planning
Located in the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens) neighborhood, in Rio’s upscale South Zone, the Horto community guards an ancestral history. Its development was made possible thanks to the resistance of a people who arrived in Brazil from various countries in Africa as enslaved persons, and who, over the years, have established themselves thanks to the bravery of the women and men that survived the horrors of slavery and contributed their knowledge and cultural heritage. It is impossible to talk about Horto without remembering the mills that occupied this land in the colonial period, and the enslaved labor that developed it. Thus, even today, African ancestry evokes a resistance that necessarily involves gender and race and, therefore, makes up the complex history of how the territory came to be.
The case of the Horto community is one of the most perverse generated by Rio de Janeiro’s eviction policies. This racist and exclusionary policy is promoted by elites as a solution to reorder urban space, always according to the economic interests of businessmen and investors who profit from real estate speculation, expelling black and low-income people from areas considered valuable and resettling them in distant places, often without proper infrastructure. Before getting deeper into the case of Horto, some background must be provided.
The city of Rio de Janeiro has experienced land conflicts since the end of the 19th century. Historically, the emergence of cortiços (tenement housing) and favelas is linked to the end of slavery, after which there were no public policies to support black workers’ integration to society. As a result, favelas grew and developed as a solution to meet the housing deficit in a scenario of racial disadvantage. In this context, the desire to eliminate black territorialities from neighborhoods that are considered noble has been historically materialized and executed through forced evictions that, supported by structural and institutional racism operating in the administrative and legal spheres, relocate black people to areas far from the city’s center.
Favelas have always been the target of eviction policies, because they are considered black territories. The composition of the population living in these areas has been, and continues to be, mostly black. Therefore, making spaces identified as black disappear from the “marvelous city” is a constantly adopted policy. The case of the Horto community is no different.
According to the 2010 Census carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), approximately 62.1% of the Horto community is black, taking the categories black and brown into account. Therefore, the extinction of this bicentennial community represents, once again, a eugenicist and racist policy, especially when these numbers are compared to the population of the Jardim Botânico neighborhood, which is mostly composed of white people (82.8%). These data show that Horto is constituted as a black territory within a predominantly white neighborhood. Thus, removing the community is to promote the whitening of the region and the erasing of the history of black people.
The 2010 Census also shows that Horto has a particular gender profile, with 55% of its population being female. Consequently, the impacts of the eviction policy affect a population that is mostly black and female. It is therefore understandable why women lead the resistance movement against the eviction of the Horto community.
Therefore, in the face of the vulnerability caused by land conflicts, this female resistance organizes itself to promote the permanence of their families in the places where they live, to foster their ability to make decisions in difficult moments, and to face the suffering generated by eviction threats. Even though the eviction policy is perverse, painful, and exposes them to socioeconomic, mental health, and emotional vulnerabilities, these women remain firm in their commitment to resist and fight for the permanence of their community.
A Brief History of the Consolidation of a Bicentennial Community
The Horto community has a very rich history, as a black, ancestral locality, originally built by individuals enslaved by the Portuguese empire. The community originated in colonial Brazil, during the era of sugar mills and coffee plantations, which was also the era of slavery. Although the construction of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens represented a milestone for the area’s occupation, according to researcher Laura Olivieri, the region had been occupied since 1596, with the opening of the D’El Rey sugar mill.
The D’El Rey Mill was founded by Governor Cristóvão de Barros (1571-1575) and was then administered by Antônio Salema until 1577. Initially, there was an attempt to use indigenous labor. However, this endeavor failed. Antônio Salema produced the genocide of the indigenous population and replaced the labor force with enslaved Africans. With the arrival of Dom João VI and the Portuguese royal family, those enslaved began working in the Horto Real, today known as the Botanical Gardens, in addition to the mills and coffee plantations.
Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, which saw the beginning of Brazil’s industrial growth, textile factories were installed in the region accelerating the growth of the community. Villages were built so that workers from the surrounding factories could live near their jobs.
During the same period, the Botanical Gardens Research Institute (IPJB) provided a few houses to its employees for the same purpose: so that they could reside close to their place of work. Gardeners, security guards, administrative assistants, general services assistants, among others, obtained permission to build houses and live inside the park and in Horto, in order to supply the institution’s labor needs.
Therefore, we can see that the argument used to incriminate the community as trespassers does not hold up. Besides treating the descendants of those who built the history of the neighborhood as disposable, removing the Horto community promotes the silencing and the erasure of an important piece of social memory of the history of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
In this sense, the community of Horto resists and emerges more powerful, resisting continuous threats of eviction since the 1980s. Located at the limits of the Botanical Gardens Research Institute, the community’s land has been valued at around R$10.6 billion (US$2 billion), according to an article published in O Globo newspaper. The community is made up of 621 families distributed over eleven locations: Caxinguelê, Chácara do Algodão, Clube dos Macacos, Dona Castorina, Grotão, Hortão, Major Rubens Vaz, Morro das Margaridas, Pacheco Leão, Solar da Imperatriz, and Vila São Jorge.
Conflict with the Botanical Gardens Research Institute
Going against the history of community consolidation, notably marked by the Botanical Gardens Research Institute’s consent for families to settle in the region, from the 1980s onwards Horto residents began to be treated as invaders and the federal government proposed legal measures to evict families deeming their ways of life incompatible with the institute’s goals.
The legal measures were brought on by the federal government on two distinct occasions. The first was in the 1980s, when the federal government filed 215 land repossession lawsuits arguing the irregular occupation of a public area, which were debated throughout the 1990s, finally resulting in decisions against the families. The other, in 2018 and 2021, happened when the IPJB filed new land repossession suits against approximately 300 families arguing irregular occupation of a public area. In this case, they also argued that housing as a land use was incompatible with the institution’s research and environmental preservation goals. These actions were made official between 2018 and 2021 are still being argued in court.
The State did not make provisions for alternative housing or compensation for the families on either occasion. Since then, with the community’s constant mobilization, of the 621 families that make up the Horto Florestal, five have been removed.
Over the nearly 40 years that the community has lived under the threat of eviction, the government’s treatment of the conflict has not been linear. At certain times, the families’ right to housing was recognized. The main one was between 2006 and 2011, with the elaboration of the Horto Land and Urban Regularization Project by the Federal Heritage Secretariat (SPU), in tandem with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)’s Housing Laboratory (LabHab). Based on the analysis of the region’s cultural, environmental and urban aspects, the project sought to reconcile the IPJB’s expansion interests with the families’ right to remain.
After a complaint filed by the Botanical Gardens’ Association of Residents and Friends (AMAJB), the project was not implemented by decision of the Federal Court of Accounts (TCU) with the claim that the regularization of families in the region would represent a misuse of a public good.
The argument of the incompatibility of housing with environmental preservation has been articulated to exhaustion to justify the Horto community’s eviction. This argument, however, is false because the way of life of the Horto community is closely linked to the environment. Its residents are the main contributors to the preservation of the region’s environment, history and culture. Added to this, it is evident that the perception of public authorities—and the resulting treatment of the community—in relation to the alleged environmental impacts of the Horto community, mostly composed of black women and men, is diametrically opposed to the perception of the environmental impact generated by its high-income neighbors and by the public and private facilities located in the surrounding area. Surrounding the Botanical Gardens are the Canto e Mello Condominium (in the Gávea neighborhood), a Light (electric utility) substation, the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA), and others. With this in mind, it is clear that environmental racism guides the actions of public authorities in the Horto community’s eviction process.
Horto’s Struggle Resists!
Aware that the Horto community is home to the ancestral history and memory of black and indigenous people, and that most of its population is, to date, of African descent, we cry out with all our might that the rights of all residents be respected. Those residents who helped build the neighborhood and now, because of interests driven by real estate speculation, have their right to housing threatened.
In other words, besides erasing and silencing black ancestry, the removal of the community will result in an ethnic cleansing that will directly impact the lives of the men and women who were so important to the construction of this territory, and make their survival even more precarious. Therefore, we cannot remain silent in the face of this distinct case of environmental racism, as it continues to be perversely executed even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic!
Brazil and the world need to be made aware of the cowardice that is being perpetrated against the Horto community. We need support to raise awareness of our cause and to pressure those responsible to abandon the policy of evictions and comply with the land regularization that was in progress before those interested in the removal of the families conspired to interrupt it. These people want to exclude black and poor people from one of the most expensive areas of the city of Rio de Janeiro. We are organized and we will fight for the permanence of the Horto community! Horto stays!
 SANTOS, Carolina C. P. dos. Elekô: mulheres negras na luta por direito à moradia na cidade do Rio de Janeiro [Elekô: black women in the fight for the right to housing in the city of Rio de Janeiro]. Master’s thesis in Sociology and Law – Fluminense Federal University, Niterói, 2017. Available at: https://app.uff.br/riuff/handle/1/21601.
 Women’s participation in the construction of the territory: Rocinha and Horto / Rio de Janeiro Network of Social Museology, Rocinha Sankofa Museum of Memory and History, Horto Museum, [organizers]. – Rio de Janeiro: Inês Gouveia, 2018.
 MENDONÇA, R. da M. Segurança da posse, consenso democrático e controle externo unilateral: avanços e retrocessos na história da ocupação do Horto Florestal, na cidade do Rio de Janeiro [Land tenure security, democratic consensus and unilateral external control: progresses and setbacks in the history of the Horto Florestal occupation. Master’s thesis in law – Rio de Janeiro State University, Rio de Janeiro, 2016.
 GUIMARÃES, Virgínia; PINTO, Paula. Racismo ambiental e aplicação diferenciada das normas ambientais: uma aproximação necessária entre os casos da Comunidade do Horto Florestal e do Condomínio Canto e Mello (Gávea-RJ) [Environmental racism and the differentiated application of environmental regulations: a much-needed comparison between the cases of the Horto community and of the Canto e Mello Condominium]. In: Revista Desigualdade e Diversidade, n. 17, pp. 89-106, 2019.
About the authors:
Carolina Câmara Pires dos Santos is a researcher and a consultant in Race Relations in Brazil and in the African Diaspora. With a degree in law from Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University (PUC-Rio), she holds a master’s and is currently a doctoral candidate through the Federal Fluminense University (UFF)’s Graduate Program in Sociology and Law. An arts educator, Santos teaches African diasporic dances to black and favela youth at grassroots organizations.
Emerson de Souza was born and raised in Horto Florestal. He is 46—of which 25 have been dedicated to music and sociocultural movements.
Emilia Maria de Souza is a black woman, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and resident of the Horto community. As a member of the Association of Residents and Friends of Horto, she has fought for housing rights for over 20 years and has gained experience in the struggle for constitutional rights participating in other movements such as MNML, UMP, Despejo Zero and the Popular Council.
Paula Máximo de Barros Pinto is a legal advisor for the Horto Florestal community. A master’s student at the Rio de Janeiro Federal Rural University’s graduate program in Social Sciences in Development, Agriculture and Society (CPDA/UFRRJ), she holds a law degree from PUC-Rio.
Rafael da Mota Mendonça is a legal advisor for the Horto Florestal Community. Holding a master’s degree, he is a doctoral candidate in law at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) and an instructor at PUC-Rio.
About the artist: Natalia de Souza Flores, born and raised in Rio’s North Zone, is a member of the Brabas Crew. With a degree in Graphic Design from Unigranrio in 2017, she has worked as a designer since 2015. She launched a magazine of collective comics called ‘Tá no Gibi’ in 2017 at the Rio Book Biennial. Her main themes are based in African culture, using cyberpunk, wicca and indigenous elements.