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Developers and Activists Battle Over One of São Paulo's Few Remaining Green Spaces

In a city desperately short of greenery, the beauty of Parque Augusta’s small forest has inspired a campaign calling for it to be a public park rather than the site of massive apartment towers.
January 28, 2015, 4:16pm
Photo by Claire Rigby

São Paulo's iconic Rua Augusta — a road that runs from the chic Jardins district across Avenida Paulista, with its high-rise banks and institutions, and down into Centro, the city's historic center — is like a living cross-section of the Brazilian city's history.

At 60 years and counting, the stately Chapelaria Plas hat shop at number 724 is a last vestige of the genteel 1950s, while a handful of remaining sex clubs and dive bars reflect the road's evolution, along with the rest of Centro, from the 1980s onward, into a grittier, dirtier kind of downtown. From the 2000s onwards, the street's raw energy, coupled with its dozens of bars and tiny clubs, transformed Rua Augusta into one of the busiest and most entertaining night-time streets in the city. More recently, a small but growing collection of sleek restaurants and hip bars have been accompanied by the construction of new apartment blocks, some of immense proportions.

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Lying serene and untouched at the heart of it all, behind long walls topped on two sides by chain-link fencing, is one of the last remaining scraps of old native forest in central São Paulo. The so-called Parque Augusta is a lush, shady, semi-forgotten piece of surviving woodland — part of a 72,000 square-foot plot that once belonged to a convent school and is now owned by the construction companies Setin and Cyrela, which plan to build tower blocks on the site.

A banner along the park's entrance.

A small but vocal campaign against the tower blocks, and for a public park, is gaining traction in the city, where a lack of trees and vegetation is exacerbating the already disastrous drought affecting São Paulo state. In a city desperately short of greenery, the beauty and wildness of Parque Augusta's small forest is a precious rarity. It is made up of mata atlântica, which was once the region's predominant vegetation and is now endangered across Brazil.

Woodland covers about a third of the plot. Running along its northernmost edge, araucaria pines tower over a profusion of jacaranda, jabuticaba, ipês, palms, Brazilwood, and rubber trees. The shade below is cool and fragrant even on the hottest days, and the ground is covered in a dense layer of rich leaf litter.

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"I've been coming here for years," local resident Flora Boni told VICE News while walking her dachshund in the park on Monday. "I'd love this place to become a public park — we have more than enough buildings in this area."

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Photographer and photo editor Douglas Theodoro is among various activists committed to preserving the woodland who occupied the park on January 17. They have been keeping an around-the-clock vigil to ensure that the gate that provides access to the public stays open.

"We won't accept the construction of tower-blocks here," Theodoro told VICE News. "This area is in desperate need of green spaces, and this a beautiful, readymade park."

Activists monitor the park's gate around the clock to ensure that it stays open.

The freeform, horizontally organized movement of Parque Augusta campaigners was served with an eviction order last week, but has refused to leave. Though police officers and lawyers for the construction companies presented the order, they have so far not attempted to evict the activists.

In meetings with lawyers for the property developers, the campaign has stated its willingness to leave voluntarily on condition that the gates are left open 24 hours a day. "It's not as if we even want to be here," said Theodoro. "The people taking turns to keep watch here have homes, they have jobs — it's a sacrifice to stay here overnight."

"It is completely legal for us to be here," Daniel Biral of the group Advogados Ativistas (Activist Lawyers), which has been advising and representing the campaign legally, told VICE News. "There is a longstanding right to public access on this land, and we are merely exercising that right."

Indeed, a provision of public access appears in a set of clauses included in the deeds to the land by its former owners, the Order of St. Augustine. The nuns ran a girls school on the site, Colégio Des Oiseaux, from 1907 until selling the property in 1969. The deeds drawn up by the order's lawyers included clauses designating the forest as public access woodland to be preserved at all costs and to be kept open to the public, who should have right of way across the land.

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"It was a very innovative measure on the part of the Order," Biral said, explaining that in Brazilian law, "right of way" customarily refers to access to agricultural land, electrical transformers, and so on. "In this case, they made use of a private clause in regard to the property." This clause was later backed up by municipal decree, as noted in the land registration ledgers.

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The fight to designate the land as a public park actually dates back at least 40 years, when the first petition was drawn up and signed. The effort has variously included political lobbying, demonstrations, picnics held outside the park, festivals held inside, as well as the current occupation of the park for the purpose of maintaining open access.

A series of festivals were held on the land in late 2013 during a wave of political dissent sparked by mass protests that June. By December 2013, after the sale to Setin and Cyrela went through — and amid growing support for Parque Augusta — the new owners closed and padlocked the park gates, breaking with tradition.

A free festival in January brought hundreds of people to the park.

The lot stayed closed until earlier this month, when activists occupied the land, claiming to have found the western entrance to the park left open. The group has since been working to clean up the park while monitoring the gate in order to maintain access. They removed hundreds of bags of rubbish from the woodland and held a festival on January 17-18 that brought hundreds of people into the park. The carnival bloco group Tarado Ni Você held an all-day party in the park the following weekend, this time attracting thousands of people.

The creation of Parque Augusta has also been discussed in multiple versions of City Hall's Master Plan for São Paulo, most recently in 2014 — but so far, the political will and the necessary funds have not materialized. Mayor Fernando Haddad went as far as decreeing the park's creation in December 2013. The following month, his office declared that the money needed to purchase the land from its owners was simply not available.

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The construction companies have tried to reassure the activists that they will provide public access to parts of the land once the construction is complete.

"We have absolutely no guarantees that that will actually happen," said Biral. He noted that while the deeds specified that a full 82 percent of the land should be left unconstructed, the plans submitted by the property developer show buildings covering 40 percent.

A digital projection of the proposed development (above), and of the park as activists would like to see it (below).

For now, securing right of way across the land is the group's legal focus. It launched an action demanding the reopening of the gates in January 2014, after the developers locked the gates. Biral said that the case has been shuttling between different judges ever since, while the construction companies secured a court order to evict the activists within 24 hours.

"There is an inherent difficulty in being a loose collective, rather than a private appellant or a powerful group," he remarked.

While some of the activists hope to preserve at least the woodland and public access to it, others like Theodoro are determined to secure the entire area as a public park. The activists are working on a number of different fronts. The developers are requesting permission to build on a greater share of the land than is permitted in the deeds, and their construction plans have not yet been approved.

"Winning public support for the park is essential," Theodoro said. "All it takes is to get people inside the park to see it for themselves, just for a moment. It only takes a stroll through these woods to understand instantly why this has to be preserved, and to be revolted by the thought of its loss. We see that realization dawning on people every day. It's so obvious."

Follow Claire Rigby on Twitter: @claire_rigby Photos by Claire Rigby