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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 3 - 1999 - Security of Tenure (HABITAT, 1999, 63 p.)
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View the documentThe Illegal City
View the documentBenefits of Regularizing Informal Settlements
View the documentUrban Tenure Reform in South Africa
View the documentCollective Land Acquisitions in São Paulo, Brazil
View the documentTowards Land Reform in Bangladesh
View the documentShadow Lives: Urban India’s Informal Economy
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Collective Land Acquisitions in São Paulo, Brazil

by Helena Menna Barreto Silva

In Brazil today, especially in the metropolis of SPaulo, land and home ownership is often the only security people have in a country where public housing and other social welfare benefits are not available.

However, buying a house in the formal market is affordable only to families that earn over 15 minimum wages1 per month. Also, because public provision of housing is inadequate for the largest part of the population, home ownership can only be achieved through self-construction. For that, acquisition of land is very important.

Since access to land is almost impossible in the formal market, the common way to own land has been through the acquisition of illegally parceled land, provided by land parcelers and big property owners, usually in rural areas. Such parceling and selling of land occurred in larger scales during the country’s period of economic and job growth, especially the growth of formal jobs.

Since the mid-1970s, the increase in the value of land and the reduction of real wages has resulted in the acquisition of land by invasion of public and private land by the urban poor. The invasions were initially done on an individual basis but are now being done collectively.

Such illegal solutions, usually in precarious locations unsuitable for construction, have been tolerated due to the incapacity or absence of interest in facing the problem by the Government.

Since the late 1970’s, the problems caused by illegal settlements and the difficulties in acquiring land has resulted in the consolidation of citizens’ organizations for housing. The organizations have three main aims:

· regularization of the illegally parceled lands;
· upgrading of slums to improve security of tenure;
· improving access to land for building.

Nowadays, these organizations have three options when acquiring land: claiming from the government, organizing invasions, or acquiring a collective title deed (collective acquisition). The organizations can switch from one option to the other during the negotiation process, depending on the situation.

Collective acquisition, involving the creation of an association, can serve many purposes. It can:

· avoid problems associated with invasions;

· allow direct promotion of land parceling and construction of houses by the societies with their own resources;

· allows for enrolment in public programmes for housing finance and urban development.

However, this option only benefits those families which earn more than 5 minimum wages per month and have few children because one must have a certain income to organize a legal society and acquire land. (Not all associations are genuine, however. Some have used the collective acquisition system to deceive both the authorities and urban poor families.)

On the other hand, most associations which acquire land for construction have to do so outside the law because:

· exorbitant land prices in areas that are legally suitable for construction forces the associations to seek areas where land parceling and the construction are forbidden;

· the lack of resources for urbanization in the terms of the law;

· the bureaucracy and project approval terms are lengthy;

· public housing finance institutions cater for only a few people.

· The waiting time and cost of housing finance are too high. This forces people to seek illegal solutions.

· Although the associations can be prosecuted by local authorities for illegal land parceling, such prosecutions are rare.

Collective acquisition by associations can lead to a beneficial partnership between government and organized communities. However, for that to happen, it is necessary to revise urban laws, allocate more resources for housing finance, infrastructure and construction. Technical support for land selection should also be provided so that land parceling is done in adequate locations.

The Government’s position of deliberately ignoring the illegal acts committed by organized communities has the net result of justifying the expulsion of the poor to inadequate locations. Promoting the regularization of land after irregular occupations is not the solution; it is necessary to guarantee that the poor inhabit adequate areas in the first place and have security of the land ownership from the moment they occupy the land.

The efforts of associations are not a substitute for the Government’s responsibility of providing housing for people who are left out of the formal market. It is essential for the Government to define land policies and legal instruments that lower land costs for public programmes.

Helena Menna Barreto Silva teaches at the Faculty of Architecture, University of SPaulo, Brazil. She has dealt with urban planning, land policy and urban legislation issues in several Brazilian municipalities.

This article is based on investigations conducted for The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy during the period 1998/1999, which included interviews with associations that acquired or intended to acquire land, NGOs, public agencies that financed the purchase of land by associations and county agencies responsible for regularization of land parceling.


1 The monthly minimum wage varies between US$70 and US$100.