The First of May Refugee Camp in Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro, seen from above on June 15, 2021.
The First of May Refugee Camp in Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro, seen from above on June 15, 2021. Photo: Ian Cheibub for VICE World News.

They Lost Everything in the Pandemic. Now They’re Taking on an Oil Giant, and Winning

Hundreds of families displaced by COVID have found a new home on abandoned land owned by Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras in Rio. They just won the right to stay, for now.

UPDATE: Hours after this story was published, police stormed the occupied land, threw out thousands of people and began burning and destroying their makeshift camp. Occupiers told VICE World News that they were shocked at the move, which came despite a legal ruling against their eviction.

ITAGUAÍ , Brazil - The settlers stamped out their campfires, grabbed their children and moved through the dawn light to the field behind their new encampment. They huddled around Erick Vermelho as he steeled the people for battle.


“We will resist until the end. In the people’s fight, no one tires,” the activist roared.

The camp had sprouted up almost instantly when hundreds of families occupied the land on May 1, pitching black plastic tents and constructing makeshift kitchens on a vast wasteland that had been deserted for three decades.


A man walks in the middle of the tents built at the First of May Refugee Camp, in Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro. June 15, 2021. Photo: Ian Cheibub for VICE World News.

Refugees from the economic devastation of the pandemic, the settlers faced a formidable opponent: Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, which owns the land. 

As soon as the “May 1st Refugee Camp”  appeared, the company went to court to evict the families. 

And it looked as though Petrobras might win. Dozens of local Itaguaí military police and City Hall officials arrived on May 7 to enforce an Itaguaí civil court repossession order and remove the settlers. 

“The land belongs to us,” Simone Marques, a spokesperson for Petrobras, told VICE World News by email. The company had planned to build a petrochemical park in 1986 on the tract in Itaguaí, on Rio’s western outskirts, but then chose another site instead. “The company is taking steps to comply with the injunction and expects people to leave the place peacefully, respecting the court’s decision.” 

But critics from the political left, activists and public health officials argued Petrobras was evading social responsibility and preparing to place thousands of people at heightened exposure to coronavirus variants if they were evicted. Brazil has registered over 500,000 deaths, making it the world’s second worst-hit country.


Shouting through a red face mask, Vermelho organized the community of some 3,000 people into a human barricade to confront the police. The men, wearing white t-shirts with “PEOPLE'' painted in red, took the front line, as hundreds of single mothers and young children clustered behind. 

“It was a theatre of war. We had come willing to fight,” Vermelho, a leader from the People Movement (MPB), said.

As the sun climbed, the community waited for the police, blocking the front wooden gate under banners declaring: “Don’t Take Our Childrens’ Right to Housing.” 


A man reads the newspaper while the settlers of the First of May refugee camp wait in line for a house draw that will decide which families are going to live together. Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro. June 15, 2021. Photo: Ian Cheibub for VICE World News.

Many of the settlers, evicted from their homes when they lost their jobs in the pandemic and could no longer pay rent, had nowhere else to go. And new inhabitants kept arriving -- workers, single mothers with their children and trans people -- driven by hardship and desperation for a place to live.  

The occupiers had hoped to build permanent homes on the plot, and as the police massed at the gates, the squatters held their ground. 

But instead of charging the occupiers, the police finally grew weary and left. 

“The Itaguaí City Hall’s plan was to take away hundreds of displaced families and dump them in different bus stations on the edges of the city -- as if we were disposable pieces of trash,” Vermelho said.

“Aside from strength and will, we had timing on our side,” he added. “The day before, we had our most deadly favela raid in our history - local police were reluctant to use brute force.” The Jacarezinho raid, in which police killed 27 people, was widely condemned for excessive violence and human rights violations.


That night, Rio Civil Chamber Judge Alexandre Scisinio ruled against Petrobras’s repossession order, basing his decision on a recent state law that had blocked evictions of informal settlements during the pandemic. The Itaguaí settlers can stay on the land, he ruled, until Rio's main human rights body, the Public Defense Office, reviews the coronavirus risks faced by communities who have occupied land illegally and issues an opinion at the end of the year.

Rio and Paraná states were the first states to approve temporary suspensions of evictions and the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) then extended that across the country to remain in place for most settlements as long as the COVID pandemic continues. Anderson Lopes Miranda, a housing rights campaigner, is fighting to make the moratorium permanent for all irregular settlements before the end of the year. The activist at Despejo Zero in Sao Paulo said the number of people seeking homes at new settlements has spiked since the pandemic began.

“Life was always difficult before the coronavirus but now, it’s unbearable. And the government offers no help. The pandemic really shone a light on the urgency of our work,” he said.


Jessica Soares poses for a portrait with her son in front of a tent at the First of May Refugee Camp in Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro. June 15, 2021. Photo: Ian Cheibub for VICE World News.

Before arriving at the encampment, Jessica Soares, 17, a single mother, and her three-year-old son Luiz were homeless, and all but invisible to the state.

Soares fled abuse at home as a child and then again from her partner. “I didn’t have a single real. I didn’t know how I’d feed my son the next day”, she said. 


A 2020 census conducted by Rio City Hall counted at least 7,272 people living on Rio’s streets. Forty percent of them had been homeless for less than 18 months, the majority were black and younger than 50. 

Now, the crisis has grown worse. Marcelo Machado, a researcher at the Fiocruz health institute’s homeless research department in Brasilia, has also reported an alarming spike since last year of cash-strapped workers on Rio’s streets, including single mothers and young families.

Unemployment, and reductions to emergency aid are to blame for the rise in homeless people, Machado said. 

Although 60 percent of Brazil’s unemployed received monthly welfare packages of about $120 and $240 for single mothers in 2020, that all changed when the emergency lifeline was reduced by more than half this April. 

Lilia Silva, 30, said she had grown increasingly desperate when the pandemic slashed her informal work. 


A man stands in front of tents at the First of May Refugee Camp in Itaguai, Rio de Janeiro. June 15, 2021. Photo: Ian Cheibub for VICE World News.

“We have nowhere to go and the new emergency aid can’t buy anything,” the single mother of three said. “Working on the streets would put my family at risk of contagion.” Rio is currently only vaccinating people over the age of 44.

In the face of rising despair, the new tent-city in Itaguaí couldn’t have emerged sooner. Thanks to community donations, Vermelho said the families have reintroduced meat to their diet and now eat three full meals a day. 

The campsite has also become a safe haven for Brazil’s transvestite community, who have increasingly been at risk of violence during the pandemic. 

“I think I’ll be happy here. I spent years hopping among shelters doing sex work. I don’t want that life anymore. All I need is a stable home and enough to pay for my hormonal drugs,” said Cassandra, 29, describing how her life has changed in the weeks since she arrived at the camp.

Protected from the imminent threat of eviction for now, the residents are planning to plant a community vegetable patch, set up small local shops, and create a sports ground so children can play soccer and fly their kites. 

For all the pain that the pandemic brought, the coronavirus has urged the government to rethink outdated public policies, said Machado, the researcher.

“Yes, the occupation is illegal, but can’t the area be used for a more pressing purpose?” he asked. “Can’t the people be the ones to create social housing solutions for themselves where the government is absent?”