Social paradox

Project aims to legalize building lots in areas of water sources, without jeopardizing the quality of the water

The houses spring up in a disorderly way, on irregular lots where cesspools are mistaken for wells. Some houses do not even have a cesspool: the sewage runs along the streets, cutting channels until it reaches the lowest region and hits one of the various springs of the basin of the Billings reservoir, which supplies water for about 1.5 million persons from the municipalities of Diadema, São Bernardo do Campo and Santo André. This is the scenario at Sítio Joaninha (Little Joan Site), in Diadema, where 240 families live. The environmental degradation of the area is identical to several other irregular lots of land, which occupy between 15% and 20% of the areas around the water sources of the Billings and the Guarapiranga lakes, to the south of the metropolitan region of São Paulo.

According to the legislation, in order to guarantee the preservation of the water sources and the quality of the water, these building lots should never have existed. So much so, that the city halls are forbidden to provide them basic infrastructure – like running water, electricity and sewers – under penalty of being included as defendants in lawsuits in the civil courts and of being convicted to put right the damage. The only legal solution would be to dislodge the 1.2 million persons who live today in the areas of the water sources of Greater São Paulo. But it is possible, within the legislation, to seek other alternatives that make it possible to draw up standards for regularizing the building lots and, at the same time, to reduce environmental damage.

And this is the challenge for the project Reparation of Damage and Adjustment of Conduct in Urbanist Matters, proposed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is being carried out by the College of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU), of the University of São Paulo (USP), and which is part of FAPESP’s Public Policies Program. “The question must be seen from the social, and not merely environmental, point of view. The occupations happened because the demand for housing has always been greater than the government’s capacity for offering low-cost houses”, is the explanation of the coordinator of the project, Maria Lucia Refinetti Martins, from FAU.

Legal knot
The occupation of the water sources results, on a daily basis, in an avalanche of lawsuits in the Public Attorney’s Office of Justice for Housing and Urbanism in the capital. They are public civil lawsuits filed following denouncements by neighbors, at the request of city halls, or of the inhabitants themselves, wanting to regularize their situation. For the law to be strictly observed, the attorney’s office would have to ask the courts to expel the lawbreakers. And for a long time this was exactly what public attorney José Carlos de Freitas did. “Wewould sue the person who sold the lots, the municipality and the state, and we would ask for the dwellers to be removed, as the law requires. But this is a very difficult decision to be made, because these people would simply have nowhere to go to”, he says. Protection for water sources in the state of São Paulo is ruled basically by three laws: one federal law and two state laws. Generally speaking, they restrict the occupation of the ground in regions close to basins that supply water to the population and adopt criteria for density of occupation; they divide the area by categories that range from being totally improper for occupation (those closest to the basin) to those where occupation is permitted in plots of at least 500 square meters.

“The objective of the legislation is to guarantee the quality of the water”, Freitas explains. “It is within this spirit of the law that we are going to work to regularize the building lots, provided that there is a commitment from all those involved to repair the damage caused to the environment; this made is possible by means of signing a term of adjustment of conduct”, he explains. It was to get input for the terms of these agreements that the Public Prosecutor’s Office got in touch with FAU. “Our goal is to define what has to be done on the lots to guarantee compliance with the spirit of the law and to untie this knot between the environmental and social issues”, adds Maria Lucia.

Sítio Joaninha
From this perspective, the first measure was to carry out an investigation of the lawsuits existing in the public prosecutor’s offices in Diadema and Santo André, and to select for a case study four sets of plots located in the Guarapiranga and Billings sub-basins: Sítio Joaninha (Diadema), Parque Andreense (Santo André), Jardim São Francisco (Embu) and Parque dos Químicos (São Bernardo do Campo). Sítio Joaninha was chosen for being one of the most problematic areas of building lots. It occupies an area of over 200,000 square meters, and is located by the side of a sanitary landfill, out of use today, but which until the 80’s received all the garbage of São Paulo. Worse, the plots of land bought by the inhabitants did not belong to the person who sold them, which makes it difficult to grant ownership for usucaption. There are houses there that are risking collapse, clandestine electrical connections, and there is no treatment for sewage, nor running water.

The population of Sítio Joaninha is pressing the city hall of Diadema to regularize the possession of the land and to implement basic infrastructure; they would be satisfied to enjoy a supply of water and electricity. “They aren’t even asking for sewers”, explains Sonia Sumiko Karazawa Nagai, head architect of the Integrated Planning Division of the Diadema city hall. The mayor’s office is negotiating with the Public Prosecutor’s Office the conditions for regularizing the building lots, since the intention is to reduce removal to the fewest families possible. “First, we need to define precisely the area that can be occupied”, Sonia explains.

Supported by FAPESP, the project has already identified some alternative techniques that may guarantee the quality of the water, without needing to remove the families. The first step is the treatment of the sewage, which can be done on the spot, in the lowest area of the plots of land, close to the basin of the stream. Maria Lucia believes that this is an “interesting solution”, because it also prevents housing from being installed very close to the stream, since the space would be occupied by the treatment station. “The ideais to create a protective belt”, he explains. The city hall is studying yet another possibility, which is to pump sewage up to the São Caetano Treatment Station. “Work has now started in the Eldorado region, nearby Sítio Joaninha, and it could be extended to the building lots. But this has not yet been decided”, explains Sonia Nagai. The need for works of infrastructure also includes setting aside an area for planting trees, drainage, and improving the state of the streets, without this meaning paving them all. Maria Lucia explains that stretches of earth have to be left, and sidewalks with grass, to absorb the rainwater. The poor conditions of the streets in the region do not constitute a more serious problem, but they do isolate the inhabitants. The Mail, for example, does not get into thelots: the letters are left at a florist’s in the lowest part of the region.

The concern of the Diadema city hall and of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in giving possession of the areas to those dwelling there has an explanation: in the majority of times, the occupation of the areas of the sources of water is involuntary. “I found out that it was an area of water sources when I went to ask for electricity to be connected to my house, and they told me they could not connect it. I had no idea that this was what it was”, explains Raimunda do Vale Ferreira, vice-president of the Association for Housing and Environmental Preservation of Vila Joaninha. Electricity, which in Raimunda’s case came after a long pilgrimage, is today a privilege for half a dozen families. The others make use of clandestine connections that form veritable spider’s webs over the houses.

Action by inspectors
Improving these people’s living conditions has its risks: the lots – sought after today for their low price – are going to become more attractive when there is water and electricity. The city hall has now drawn up a register of the families and is starting a survey of the existing buildings on the land, to prevent further construction. But in spite of constant visits by the inspectors, other works are under way. Fausto Veronese, an inspector from the city hall, explains that when the building is a new one, the city hall notifies the owner and orders work to come to a halt, but many carry on.

“In these cases, we begin a lawsuit asking for the demolition of the building”, says Veronese. According to him, some of these lawsuits are now at the final stage of the process, but there is not yet any case ready for demolition. “The city hall will have to intensify inspection, and the inhabitants must undertake to denounce a neighbor who starts a new work. Then there is the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which can sue the city hall and the state, in the case of omission, and take measures to go after the lawbreakers’ assets”. But nothing of this is going to work if the decisions of the courts take too long, he points out. Until all this changes, the “For Sale” signs spread all over Sítio Joaninha.

The art of negotiating

City halls and states may shortly be able to count on the assistance of new techniques for negotiating conflicts in areas of occupied water sources. The proposals are being developed in the Negowat project, financed by the European Commission and the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (Cirad), and also supported by FAPESP, in the modality known as Grants for the Coming of Visiting Researchers. Originally developed in France, the project offers tools that make it possible to simulate the results of each decision taken, and to work on role playing, making each group experience the reasons of the others.

“We use basically two kinds of software, multi-agent modeling and role-playing, which makes it possible for us to do an environmental analysis, integrating the knowledge of the various areas that are at work in the project”, says Yara Maria Chagas de Carvalho, the coordinator of the Brazilian group of Negowat. Multi-agent modeling is a new form of computer representation, developed in the last 15 years, and which uses object oriented language. Frequently used in industry, air traffic control, urban traffic analysis, amongst others, this technique has been used in research centers for the management of natural resources. The modeling is redone until the parties agree with the way they are being portrayed, and only then does the role-playing begin.

The work is carried out with the members of the Upper Tietê Basin Committee, made up of representatives of the state, the city halls and of society at large, in the proportion of one third each. The project should also be extended to the Guarapiranga and Upper Tietê Headwaters. The intention is to qualify the members of the committee and to facilitate negotiations between them, since the management of water involves several municipalities, each one with different needs and interests; besides this, the characteristics of the population that occupies the areas of the water sources is very diverse. “We have low income inhabitants attracted by the price of land, farmers, and even industrial concerns, before the legislation to protect the water sources”, says Yara.

The solutions encountered for each one of the areas under study certainly vary from one to the other. “The modeling is participative, and it could hardly be different in such a complex reality as the Brazilian one, where the pattern of occupation of the ground seems like a mosaic, with farming, houses and industry”, says French researcher Raphaele Ducrot, Negowat’s coordinator. An identical project is being carried out in Bolivia.

Yara Carvalho believes that it will be possible, in one year, to have a precise diagnosis of the reality of the areas of the water sources in the two sub-basins chosen, and a model with the conditions for doing simulations. “From then on, we can see the effects of the various decisions that can be taken. At the same time, we are going to use role-playing, with one of those taking part in the discussions playing the role of the owner of the industrial concern, for example, and from then on the cost of transferring the company to another place will be analyzed”. This is how, she explains, the intention is to draw the research into a direct dialog with the community.