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Brazil's Occupy Cocó Park Fights to Save Nature Reserve from Construction

[All links lead to pages in Portuguese unless otherwise noted.]

A federal regional court in Brazil has delivered a blow to opponents of overpass construction in the urban area of Fortaleza, which they say would harm the local ecosystem, by overturning an earlier ruling that put a stop to the project, paving the way for construction to begin.

The proposed construction project in Cocó Park, Fortaleza's largest natural reserve, sparked an Occupy movement to attempt to stop it, but members of the occupation were eventually forcibly removed from the park. A Federal Justice court ruling on 8 August, 2013 had prohibited the construction of the two overpasses alongside the park, but it was knocked down by the Federal Regional Court of the 5th Region (TRF5).

That decision was made on 14 August 2013 by federal judge Edilson Pereira Nobre Júnior, acting president of the TRF5, after the city governmentwhich supports the construction, petitioned in the same court against the project's suspension. According to his ruling, “the city government claims the justification of damage to the environment is not sufficient for interrupting the project”, the federal judge argued:

a paralisação da construção dos viadutos causará maior prejuízo à ordem e à economia públicas, tanto por impossibilitar que a sociedade possa usufruir de melhorias no trânsito da região, como por impor severos prejuízos a serem suportados com verbas públicas. 

the interruption of the overpass construction project will cause more damage to public order and economy, both for preventing society from enjoying the improvements to local traffic congestion, as well as for imposing severe losses to be borne by public coffers.

On 13 August, one day before the ruling was suspended, public prosecutor Oscar Costa Filho and other opponents to the construction over the trees of Cocó Park had a meeting in the city of Recife [en] with the TRF5 president to tell him that the overpass construction had not gone through an Environmental Impact Assessmentbut that argument didn't seem to affect the judge's decision.

Occupation cleared with violence

Guard attacks demonstrator. Photo taken from the Facebook page "Dunas do Cocó".

Civil guards attack demonstrator. Photo taken from the Facebook page “Dunas do Cocó” [Dunes of the Cocó]

In Fortaleza, over the past 15 years the traffic intersection of Engenheiro Santana Jr Avenue and Antonio Sales Avenue has been a very heavy one. To alleviate the situation, the city government proposed building two overpasses on site, taking over a bit of Cocó Park's area and about one hundred trees.

On 12 July 2013, ten citizens outraged by the destruction of trees stood in front of the bulldozers to protect the remaining dozens of trees required to begin the construction.

The Occupy Cocó was cleared with violence by agents of the city's civil guard very early in the morning, around 3 a.m. on 8 August. There was a clash among the civil guard and about 200 protesters, who were camping in the grounds of Cocó Park for 28 days. Approximately 300 agents of the Special Operations Group of the city's civil guard of Fortaleza took part of the operation to clear Occupy Cocó.

During the operation, teargas bombs and rubber bullets were used by the civil guard, and protesters say police acted with exaggeration. University professor Geová Alencar denounced the police action:

Reiniciamos o manifesto no meio da rua, gritando palavras de ordem e, de repente, a polícia veio para cima, jogando bombas de efeito moral. Todos nós corremos sem entender.

We took the protest to the middle of the street, shouting rallying cries, and all of a sudden the police ran towards us, throwing bombs. We all ran, with no clue why they did that.

Guards used pepper spray to disband protesters. Photo taken from the Facebook page "Dunas do Cocó"

Guards used pepper spray to disband protesters. Photo taken from the Facebook page “Dunas do Cocó” [Dunes of the Cocó]

The Rapadura Mídia collective shared on Facebook a series of five videos with the live coverage of the early morning clearing on 8 August. A short documentary produced by Canal Popular presents testimonials of protesters after the clearing of Occupy Cocó Park. This short video shows the trees cut down as well as the presence of civil guard agents and the protesters:

The Brazilian section of Greenpeace released a statement on the case:

De fato, a obra é polêmica. Em primeiro lugar, por confiar na expansão do espaço viário como forma de solucionar o problema de congestionamento, o que significa insistir em uma falácia muito criticada pelos especialistas – os carros se comportam como gases, quanto mais espaço há, mais espaço ocuparão, pelo fato de que a melhora no tráfego estimula mais pessoas a utilizarem o carro, levando ao congestionamento novamente. Em segundo, mas não menos importante, por não ter contado com participação popular e ser uma obra que não considera um planejamento de médio e longo prazo da mobilidade da cidade, voltado para a priorização de outros meios de transporte – como a bicicleta, transporte coletivo e andar a pé – que não o carro.

It is indeed a controversial project. First of all, for believing the expansion of road space is the solution for the problems related to traffic congestion means insisting on a fallacy widely criticized by experts – cars behave like gases. The more space available, the more space they will fill. The reason is that a better traffic situations stimulate more people to use their car, leading to traffic congestion once again. Second of all, but not less important, for not opening a construction project that doesn't involve a plan of urban mobility over the medium- and long-term, prioritizing other means of transportation – such as bicycles, public transport and walking – besides a car to public participation.

On Twitter, citizens demonstrated their outrage with the hashtags #SalveCocó [Save Cocó], #SalveoCocó [Save the Cocó] e #OcupeCocó [Occupy Cocó].

If urban mobility relies on cutting down trees, I'd rather walk

What's the largest project of the Engenheiro Santana Jr and Antonio Sales Avenue traffic intersection? The people's struggle… The voice of those who keep the dream alive!

See the park's location on the map:

Cocó Park map, in Fortaleza, Brazil. Image taken from the blog Fátima e Cocó

Cocó Park map, in Fortaleza, Brazil. Image taken from the blog Fátima e Cocó

Background on the story

The Cocó Park was created through a state decree in 1989, but sections of its 1,046 hectares have since been taken by private endeavors, which precludes its formalization.

In January 2013, a court authorized the construction of residential condos in an area adjacent to the park based on a Term of Conduct Adjustment (TAC, in Portuguese) issued by the city government's previous administration. The new administration (which now proposes the overpass project) contested the TAC, and the license for construction was canceled.

On February 2013, Global Voices reported [en] about the Cocó Park:

The approval of the construction of 14 residential blocks in the dunes of the Coco River provoked outrage in Fortaleza, Brazil. A petition has reached 5,000 signatures and two acts were organized via Facebook. In 2009, an Area of Relevant Ecological Interest was created at the Dunes of Coco to protect the site after denouncements of a real estate project by the movement Save the Coco Dunes.

Movement Salvem o Parque do Cocó [Save the Cocó Park]

Movement Salvem o Parque do Cocó [Save the Cocó Park]. Image from the Facebook profile Dunas do Cocó


While the park's delimitation isn't conducted, demonstrators have mobilized with movements SOS Cocó and Salvem as Dunas do Cocó [Save the Cocó Dunes] and the Cocó Defense Movement, to protect it.

On 2 August, protesters who occupied the park's grounds went to the Federal Public Defender's office with lawyers of the National Network of People's Lawyers, known as RENAP in Portuguese, to denounce threats of forced eviction of the Occupy Cocó. As the federal public attorney Dinarte de Pascoa Freitas stated after the meeting, such threats had been made at late hours in the night, contradicting the Code of Civil Procedure, which requires both a prior warning to protesters and that the eviction must be conducted during working hours:

(…) “vimos também homens armados a paisana circulando o local e quando passamos na frente do prédio do pelotão especial da Guarda Municipal foi possível perceber uma forte movimentação à 1 hora da manhã”, afirmou um dos manifestantes que preferiu não se identificar.

"Cocó is not a condo's garden" Photo from the Facebook page 'Cocó Dunes'

“Cocó is not a condo's garden” Photo from the Facebook page ‘Cocó Dunes’

(…) “we have also seen armed men in plainclothes wandering about in the grounds of the park, and when we drove past the special forces of the city's civil guard, we were able to notice intense activity at 1 a.m.”, declared a protester who wanted to remain anonymous.

On that same day, very early in the morning, 12 vehicles of the civil guard had parked next to the occupation site. Through social networks, several supporters were mobilized to leave their homes and be present on site. Police patrol continued to show up at very early hours from before midnight to 2 a.m., intimidating those favorable of the park's defense.

When the violent clearing took place, the Public Prosecutor's Office of Ceará demanded explanation from the Municipality's Secretariat of Security about the operation, questioning through a letter whether there was a judicial warrant to justify the action. The letter reminded that it was also necessary to preserve the physical integrity of both the occupying demonstrators and the natural heritage of the Cocó Park

“Estamos preocupados com o conflito e a violência que se instalou. O cidadão precisa ser protegido no seu direito”, disse o promotor de Justiça José Francisco de Oliveira Filho à Globo.

“We're worried with the conflict and violence “that took place. Citizens must be protected in their right”, said the prosecutor José Francisco de Oliveira Filho to website G1.

The president of the Human Rights Commission of the Ceará Legislative Assembly considered it an “aggressive action”. She proposed to file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor's office.

The Ceará section of the Architects's Institute of Brazil released a note in which it considers the city government's intervention project inadequate in regards to the National Policy of Urban Mobility guidelines, approved in 2012, and also to the Urban Mobility Plan of the Municipality. The institution states that international experience shows that overpasses and high lines contribute to promoting degradation and decay in surrounding areas, and presents in video an alternative solution to the proposed road overpasses:

 

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