RIO DE JANEIRO -- Police started evicting several hundred homeless families from a recently established tent city near Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, an event that underscored Brazil's resurgent poverty during the pandemic.
Televised images showed residents blocking the entrance to the campsite with bonfires as police launched tear gas canisters and fired water cannons at the tents. With the Southern Hemisphere in the heart of its winter, the city was experiencing one of its coldest mornings on record.
The forced removal in Itaguai followed a court decision in favor of the land's owner, Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras. The residents had occupied the plot since May and baptized it the “First of May Refugee Camp."
“They're cowards,” said one tearful and angry resident, Ana Paula de Oliveira, 27. “Here no one is armed, or a drug addict or drug trafficker. ... We just want to exercise our right to housing.”
Another woman appeared on the Globo News television channel begging for help. “I’m a domestic worker,” the unidentified resident said through tears. “The woman fired me because of the pandemic. Help me, please: I have nowhere to go, I don’t have any family.”
Shantytowns have emerged in several cities across Brazil, reflecting a surge of poverty after the government pared back one of the world’s most generous pandemic welfare programs. That left many exposed to soaring inflation as the nation's weak job market has yet to show signs of recovery.
According to the national statistics agency, some 14.8 million people were unemployed in the three months through April, or nearly 15% of the population. That tied the level recorded in the first quarter of 2021 that was the highest since the data series began in 2012.
Petrobras said in a statement that, in compliance with the court order, the company had provided hand sanitizer and face masks and offered transport to three nearby bus stations.
By early afternoon, backhoes were demolishing the encampment. Children could seen carrying their families' few belongings out of the area as police holding clubs stood watch.
A federal oil workers' union that had been helping families with donations issued a statement Thursday condemning "the attitude of Petrobras’ management and the violence of the police in the eviction of hundreds of families who have nowhere to go.”
— Associated Press journalist Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.