The informal builder has constructed more than 100 houses in his local community of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela.
Ricardo de Olivera is 40 years old and has been putting up houses, apartment blocks, shops, and all manner of buildings in the favela of Rocinha and around Rio de Janeiro since he was 12. He reckons he has built over 150 constructions. At the age of seven, when his father left, he took responsibility for his family and was unable to finish his education.
A foreign architect would not get into this hole and dig. He would hire someone or would hire machines. But here in the favela, we are hands on.
In his neighbourhood, he is known affectionately as “the Engineer of Rua 2” because of the number of buildings he has been involved with there. Despite his reputation as a master builder he has left his own house till last.
He has a vision for a five-storey building complete with a space observatory on the top floor but his plans have been put on hold for ten years as the challenges of finances and favela politics get in the way. His house is part of his inheritance from his grandfather who was one of the first occupants of the hill upon which Rocinha was established in the 1920s.
The waterways some of which were marked out by his grandfather have since turned into open sewers. And the position of one of these sewers running past his house cause him a lot of concern as his two sons suffer health problems. Ricardo himself has been afflicted by Tuberculosis three times, which he suspects is connected to the sewer.
The spirit of community-building is important in Rocinha. Ricardo has helped on all his friends’ houses but they are also there to lend a hand on his, particularly during ‘post-barbeque Sunday DIY sessions’ which could involve anything from replacing windows to building a new floor.
But as the city gears up for the Olympic Games, life in Rocinha is changing. The death of his friend and colleague Amarildo de Souza as a result of police brutality forces Ricardo to reconsider his future in the favela.
Since 2008, so-called police pacification units have been set up across Rocinha, one stands less than 50 metres from the front of Ricardo’s house. On several occasions he has been stopped and questioned by them in a similar to way to the prequel to Amarildo’s murder. The level of distrust between authorities and the community remains high but as more cases come to light, there are moves to bring justice for the deaths.
For Ricardo a house is more than a home – in Rocinha it is also a means to build walls between you and the outside world.
“If I was in command, I would drop a bomb here and destroy all of this. And make it all new again …. Ever since I was a kid, I never heard a suggestion about making things better. I never heard anyone say they were going to improve the community.”