You know when you are approaching the shantytown known as Copa do Povo, or People’s Cup, when a pair of men suddenly appear on the road in front of the car lugging a long piece of bamboo.The pole is building material for this “flash favela”, a patchwork of black plastic lean-tos that has sprung up overnight on a vacant lot near São Paulo’s new Itaquerão World Cup football stadium in the city’s gritty eastern periphery.
Copa do Povo is the result of an “invasion” organised with near military precision by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto, the homeless workers’ movement, a leftist group that tries to find houses for the poor. Its aim is to use the World Cup to pressure the government to build housing on this piece of land for the 4,000 homeless people the organisers claim have moved here.
“Thanks to the World Cup, rents around Itaquerão have risen from R$350 per month to R$700 (US$316) last year,” said Sueli Gomes da Silva, a cook in one of the camp’s common kitchens as she offers a piece of fried cassava. “You want one? We may be poor but our food is OK.”
With football’s World Cup due to kick off at the Itaquerão stadium on June 12, initiatives such as the Copa do Povo are designed to bring maximum pressure on the Brazilian government at a time when it is most vulnerable.
The government faces presidential elections in October, further weakening its hand. The combination of the two events is spurring on every form of activist group, from the homeless to unions. The government can do little but either meet their demands or try to stall them. “From the point of view of social interest groups, there is no better moment than this,” said Carlos Mello, political scientist at Insper in São Paulo.
The homeless workers’ movement has 17 “invasions”, as these illegal land grabs are known, under way in greater São Paulo, including six in the past year alone. It is blaming the latest one on the World Cup for allegedly increasing rents in Itaquera, the suburb in which the stadium is located, making accommodation unaffordable for the poor. The Copa do Povo and the stadium are about 3km apart.
“This region has suffered the most from the event and this situation is being repeated in every host city,” said Josué Rocha, spokesperson for the MTST. He said while the group was not against the World Cup, the government had failed to deliver projects of longer lasting significance, such as improvements in transport or housing, that he claimed it had promised.
However, Miguel Reis, the deputy mayor of Itaquera, said rising rents and house prices in the region were due to improvements in the economy rather than the World Cup. “Itaquera is attracting industry, there are new roads and shopping centres, and the metro has been improved. It is natural that house prices would rise.”
While Itaquera’s problems might have little to do with the World Cup despite the rhetoric of the homeless workers movement, the event has exposed the challenges for an unequal society of holding a tournament of this stature.
Brazil’s social problems are so pressing that it is easy for activists to hold the government hostage over its expenditure on a vanity event such as the World Cup. In São Paulo alone, for instance, there is an estimated deficit of 230,000 homes with nearly 1m people living in favelas or irregular areas, according to the city government.
At the Copa do Povo, the homeless arrived in the early hours of a Saturday this month and immediately began assembling makeshift tents. The 150,000 square metre piece of land occupies a verdant hill near a large park. It was the property of a bankrupt construction company that has been seized by banks.
A sense of opportunism spreads among the poor who have crowded in here to stake their claims. Most hope the homeless movement will be able to win negotiations with Fernando Haddad, the city mayor, who has said he is considering turning the land over to them.
Adrielly Kesley Alves, a child who is sitting with her friends and mother talking on a mobile phone, lives nearby in a rented house but her family came running here when they saw the invasion starting.
“I’ve never taken part in anything like this,” says her mother, Maria de Fátima.
A friend, Sueli de Souza, an unemployed maid, is using a carpet as a door on her lean-to. She says she does not support any political party, including President Dilma Rousseff, despite the Brazilian leader’s recent increase in social security benefits for the poor.
“I don’t know about these rich people. If I were rich, I would donate something, just a little, to help the people living under bridges or on the streets,” says Ms de Souza.