SAO PAULO (AP) – Thousands of impoverished Brazilians are living illegally on land near the World Cup stadium where the opening match will be played next month, blaming the arena's construction for rent increases that drove them out of their homes.
Braving insects, little food and a lack of privacy, the families seized a field nestled in the green hills of eastern Sao Paulo forming a village 2 miles away from the stadium built for the sports' biggest tournament.
The new residents have shoveled dirt, hammered wooden stakes into the ground and fastened tarps and plastic bags to makeshift frames to improvise a tent city. The still-under-construction Itaquerao stadium hovers like a flying saucer on the horizon, just beyond a wall of trees.
The approximately 5,000 people who have invaded this private property say rising rents are a result of World Cup real estate fever in the neighborhood around the stadium.
But the occupation has come to symbolize Brazil's persistent income disparity and the frustration that the country's poor feel as the government focuses its spending on world-class arenas rather than providing more affordable housing and improving woeful schools, hospitals and other public works.
"We are not against the World Cup," insisted Rita de Cassia, a 35-year-old nurse who says her landlord doubled the rent on her one-bedroom house nearby, driving her family out of their home. "We are against how they are trying to belittle us. They are giving priority to soccer and forgetting about the families, about the Brazilian people."
The mother of three says her cabinetmaker husband is unemployed and they are living off her $350 monthly salary, which she had used to pay about $110 a month in rent.
But their landlord notified them earlier this year that the rent on their home in the Itaquera neighborhood was being raised to $220.
"We just don't have that kind of money," she said. "We wouldn't have clothes. We wouldn't have food."
She joined the thousands of other squatters organized by a group called the Homeless Workers Movement, which has been helping the families set up the tents.
Robson Goncalves, one of the movement's leaders overseeing the occupation dubbed "The People's Cup," says he doesn't know who owns the land that measures about 37 acres. He said it has been abandoned for two decades, and noted that no one has claimed it since the families began squatting on it last weekend.
"Ever since they started building that stadium, property owners started overselling. This area is really becoming affordable only to the upper class," Goncalves said.
The leader said the government should redistribute the property for subsidized housing and cited a federal program that has built hundreds of thousands of houses for families eligible for low-interest rate mortgages.
Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad has told local media he's studying how to register the land so the families could move there legally. But critics say other people are already waiting for a government funded house or apartment in Sao Paulo, which has a housing deficit of 230,000 homes.
Some experts question whether the World Cup is actually to blame for rising rents near the stadium.
Pedro Taddei Neto, an architect and urban planning expert from the University of Sao Paulo, said the World Cup hype won't have a lasting impact on real-estate prices.
"Of course, there's a lot of speculation. It's inevitable. The World Cup is around the corner and it worries these people," he said. "Once the World Cup is over, we will go back to reality."
Meanwhile, those in the squatter village try to get on their uprooted lives.
On a recent day, a boy pushed his friend in a wheelbarrow, while a little girl hugged her mother's thigh as strangers passed. One woman dried her hair with a towel after taking a shower at the communal bathroom while another cooked the last of the 130 pounds of rice she prepared for the residents that day.
"The government might want to treat us like we are anarchists, disruptive, but we are families," said De Cassia. "You think that I want to have a girl as little as mine in the streets? No. I just deserve my rights."