Land regularisation and civic participation in Brazil

The example of Canoas (Rio Grande do Sul)

– By Julie Bédochaud:

In the year 2005, nearly 29% of the Brazilian urban population resided illegally in occupied areas, commonly known as favelas (“UNHABITAT, Urban indicators”). While the first favela dates back to the 19th century (Mike DAVIS, Le pire des mondes possibles, La Découverte, 2006), these illegal occupations had a substantial growth period in the 1960s and then continued to multiply in the 1980s.The phenomenon stems from unjust land usage practices and overconcentration of populations in urban areas, which Brazil still has not managed to overcome or to reform. The great majority of the Brazilian population has been held back from owning land by latinfundios’domination and the monopolisation of large parcels of land. This situation is reinforced by the close relations between the State and real estate lobbyists, a clientelist scheme that is firmly entrenched in Brazilian cities and clearly identifiable in the urban landscape. Skyscrapers, big luxury constructions and shopping centres are growing at the same rate as the favelas, giving rise to questions about urban management policies.In light of this crisis, a number of mechanisms, both at state and federal levels, have been developed in Brazil to improve favela living conditions. The federal “Statute of the City Law” (2001) introduced new possibilities for urban policy action, notably in the area of land regularization, aiming to incorporate illegal occupations into city confines.At a local level, Porto Alegre has developed innovative measures for dealing with illegal occupations, or “vilas”, as they are known in this part of the country, generating a broader awareness for positive action throughout Brazil as a whole. The participatory budget initiative has brought new perspectives in financial management (Bernard CASSEN, « Démocratie participative à Porto Alegre », Le Monde Diplomatique, août 1998) and assisted in the construction of basic infrastructure, such as road tarring and waste management systems. Porto Alegre has demonstrated that inhabitants’ participation in decision-making has promoted fairer social and urban development practices.This democratic experience has produced extremely positive results, which have in turn inspired several cities to replicate the model. Canoas is one such example, a city located on the outskirts of Porto Alegre, with 40% of its population residing in illegal occupations. The Canoas City Council implemented a participatory budget at the beginning of 2009 (when the Labour Party was elected into office). One of the main objectives was to kick start the first land regularisation process, to be implemented in the city’s northwestern suburb of Guajuviras. By promoting a policy derived through participatory democratic means, the city council aimed to develop the way projects directly concerning inhabitants are administered.The main objective of this article is to use the example of Canoas to better understand mechanisms available for land regularization processes, and secondly to identify key potential obstacles to populations being able to live in dignity within “legal cities”.


Having ignored for many years the urgency of the situation that was developing nationwide, land regularization programmes were finally implemented at a federal level.

A. Brazil, land of socioeconomic and territorial contrasts

In Brazil, urbanisation processes and rural exoduses were initially stimulated by post-war industrialisation and by a modernisation movement that swept the country, accelerating from the 1960s onwards. The concentration of populations in urban areas was not accompanied, however, by land redistribution or by the reallocation of gains derived from equitable productivity. On the contrary, the concentration of land and power in the hands of few is a phenomenon that continues to dominate the country’s socioeconomic relations, aggravating the neo-liberalised Brazilian economy’s inequalities. These factors, combined with the crisis of the 1970s/80s and an industrialization built on low salaries, have provoked an outbreak of poverty, visible in the illegal occupations that dominate the urban landscape. This social exclusion translates into spatial segregation (Erminia MARICATO, « Métrópole periférica, desigualdade social e meio ambiente », O desafio da sustentabilidade – Um debate socioambiental no Brasil, Fundação Perseu Abramo, São Paulo, 2001) for territories that are completely rejected or neglected by authorities and the middle class, which Erminia Maricato does not hesitate to qualify as “ghettos” – a socio-spatial exclusion that manifests itself in the enforced geographical mobility of inhabitants, who must commute great distances to get to work. Added to this is the difficulty of access to urban services, such as public transport, waste management, post offices, crèches, etc.

Whilst admitting to the situation, authorities mostly shirk the responsibility of controlling land occupations (Erminia MARICATO, 2001). The issue is only ever raised when illegally-occupied territories endanger environmentally-protected land. Otherwise, these areas remain in a state of illegality by an implicit contract between inhabitants and the State, whereby inhabitants are not able to complain in a court of law about their living conditions. Despite the fact that they inhabit the urban landscape, favela dwellers are therefore outside the “legal city”. The pervasive illegality of their situation could be said to constitute an integral part of their identity. They may have the right to occupy the city outskirts, to work and peddle their services to the middle and upper classes, but they do not have the means to lead a decent life. Therefore they cannot be said to enjoy the rights of the city: of urban lifestyles, of meeting points, of exchanges (Henri Lefebvre, Le Droit à la ville, Paris, Anthropos, 1968) of circulating freely and choosing where to live (Charte Mondiale du Droit à la Ville,

In order for these populations to have access to the minimum conditions for living, two methods are envisaged: relocating inhabitants or undertaking a process of land regularisation. The first option is often very problematic, given that inhabitants are often adversely impacted by the sudden lifestyle change. The use of this method is increasingly challenged because it may cause psychological problems, affecting the sense of identity of people uprooted from their places of living. On the other hand, land regularisation, which involves public intervention on the legal, physical and social fronts, aims to legalise the populations illegally occupying urban areas. It also involves public authorities intervening in abandoned territories to improve peoples’ quality of life through affirming their right to housing, their right to the city and their active participation in environmental issues (Betânia de MORAES ALFONSIN, « Regularização fundiária : um imperativo ético da cidade sustentável-o caso de Porto Alegre », in Direito à Cidade, trilhas legais para o direito às cidades sustentáveis, Coordinator: Nelson Saule Júnior, p.163). The right to housing, which constitutes a legal recognition, abolishes urban segregation and incorporates inhabitants into the “legal city”, allowing them full citizenship status. Governments are the first to have to guarantee this collective and individual right, but it is only recently that this right was integrated into the foundations of Brazilian society.

B. Urban reform, a necessary movement for urban political advancement

While the 1980s saw Brazil face constant degradation in big city living conditions, this decade was also marked by the end of the dictatorship and by the signing of the Constitution (1988), which brought in many new ideas, notably thanks to the movement for urban reform, founded in 1987. Since the 1960s, groups fighting for the right to shelter, or the direito à moradia, banded together under the umbrella of urban reform, for whom the objective was to submit propositions for the new Federal Constitution. It was through the National Forum for Urban Reform in 1988 that principles guiding present-day urban policies were established. These principles would later constitute the foundation for the implementation of processes such as land regularisation:

– recognising peoples’ right to the city
– recognising and applying the social functions of the city and of property
– implementing democratic city management

Questioning democratic and participative management procedures accompanied this questioning of peoples’ right to the city. The theme of participation was developed when the country underwent a decentralisation process, handing over portfolios to the municipalities directly engaged with local problems. Furthermore, the Federal Constitution contains two articles (Art. 182 and 183) on urban policies, which present the objectives and instruments for developing municipal portfolios on urban development and land usage. The Constitution also outlines “acquisitive prescription” or usucaption (accessing the right to property) for people occupying private land measuring less than 250 m². The Constitution of 1988 contains several advancements formulated by the National Movement for Urban Reform: social rights, development, social equality and justice. Brazil takes a great leap forward by affirming citizens’ right to participate in decisions of public interest. However, decentralisation processes further solidify the federal government’s disengagement from important issues. Moreover, the Constitution does not establish any objective for the favelas, merely indicating that this issue comes under all three levels of jurisdiction (federal, state and municipal). This municipal responsibility is often not properly assumed, leading to an absence in clearly-defined urban policies.

C. A better definition for urban policies: the Statute of the City Law

After 11 years of debate, in 2001 the Statute of the City Law (Estatuto da Cidade) outlined the master plan for urban policies, notably on the issue of land regularisation. The master plan established the fundamental requirements for restoring social functions to the city, a concept that derived from claims put forth by the Landless Workers Movement, which envisage property as an economic entity responding to social needs. The plan also identified zones where regularisation mechanisms were to be employed to address illegal occupations, such as the special interest zones (ZEIS), in rem jurisdiction, concessions for special usage in the interests of shelter, usucaption, and free technical and legal assistance for underprivileged communities and social groups (Directive V, Article 4, Statute of the City Law).

The Statute of the City Law is key to understanding contemporary urban policies in Brazil. The Statute’s master plan is an essential tool for defining urban-related norms, given that it permits the control of urbanisation, land occupation and the construction of social habitats through the ZEIS. While the definition of the master plan is under municipal jurisdiction, it is interesting to note how directives are issued from a federal level. The effective implementation of regularisation processes depends entirely on political will at a local level. Municipalities affected by this issue must define their own objectives. It is necessary then to understand how such policies translate into concrete action, and which tools the municipality responsible use in order to create a participative and dynamic process.

II – Case Study: the implementation of the land regularisation programme in Canoas

In 2009, 20 years after the first land regularisation process in Porto Alegre, the Canoas City Council launched its own program. Given that the concept of the right to the city has paved its own way since the 1988 Constitution, and that several programs have been successful – including that of land regularisation –, it is certainly useful to analyse how these translate into concrete actions in the field.

A. Assessment of the Guajuviras “vila”

Canoas is a city on the outskirts of Porto Alegre that has seen its population double in 30 years, with a total population in 2009 of 332,056 inhabitants (IBGE, In parallel, the number of favelas, or “invasions” has seen a steep rise, particularly in the period between 1980 and 2000. In 2006, there were more than 20,000 families illegally occupying land, comprising one third of the total territory intended for regularisation by Canoas. In 2009, the municipality undertook its first land regularisation program on the Caic subdivision, in the northeastern neighbourhood of Guajuviras. This neighbourhood is a city council priority in light of its weak organisation levels and high incidence of violence. The Guajuviras neighbourhood has 60,000 inhabitants, of which 15,000 live in the Caic subdivision. The land was “invaded” in 1987 and considered densely occupied in an organized fashion in 1999. In 2001, the inhabitants’ association lobbied for a land regularisation process, however, the municipal government did not follow up the claim, arguing that the occupied land belonged to the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

In 2003, when jurisdiction over the territory was transferred from state to municipal level, the municipal government neglected regularising the Guajuviras neighbourhood, revealing the institutional nebulousness surrounding the issue of illegal occupations, and the disengagement on the part of authorities, despite the fundamental urgency of the issue. Finally, in 2009, the city council begins its regularisation program for this subdivision.

B. Regularisation, a process emerging from municipal will

The land regularisation program occurs in a series of stages and its implementation involves a number of elements to be in place beforehand. First of all, the master plan must comply with two legal requirements: firstly, the Statute of the City Law (Federal Law n°10.257, 10th July 2001), which requires all communes of less than 20,000 inhabitants to revise their master plan accordingly, and secondly, the 2005 law (Resolution n° 25, 18th of March, 2005, Art. 3, Diário Oficial da União), promulgated by the Ministry of the City, which decrees that the “process of elaboration, of implementation and of execution of the master plan must be participative”.

The new Canoas master plan was defined in 2008, integrating the special interest zones (ZEIS): zones comprising invaded areas of either public or private land, occupied by a low-income population with no other means to acquire land. The zones are intended to legally urbanise and regularise land, thus guaranteeing citizens’ right to shelter. This tool enables illegal occupations to become an integral part of the city’s urban planning, and thus to have their basic infrastructure needs fulfilled, as well as defining property rights, identifying inhabitants and developing ways to increase possible housing solutions (Nelson SAULE JUNIOR, Karina UZZO, Patrícia de Menezes CARDOSO, Regularização da Terra e Moradia: o que é e como implementar, 2002). Most of all, the ZEIS constitute a means to buffer occupied land against real estate markets, through outlawing the grouping together of subdivisions.

The implementation of legal tools for land regularisation is completed by the participative element outlined in the 2005 law. Therefore, the integration of illegal territories is achieved by both legal regularisation procedures and by a collective and consultative method with those most concerned: the inhabitants.

C. Civic participation as a legitimation of the process of land regularisation

The integration of civic participation processes into the master plan and into the “My Land Canoas” municipal law (Municipal Law n°5495, April 2010) responds to both federal objectives and municipal requirements for legitimation.

A collection of mechanisms has been implemented in order for citizens’ opinions on issues that concern them to be taken into account. This procedure takes place in a few stages:

1) population census and verification of the land distribution situation: the first stage consists of making an inventory of the inhabitants in the Caic territory.

2) project development through consultation with the community and topographical assessment (analysis and updating): on the basis of urban planning and environmental diagnostics (as set out in the master plan), the boundaries of properties must be drawn up, staying as close to reality as possible. The population census, which allows inhabitants to be identified, enables the finer points of these boundaries to be decided. The plan also outlines redevelopments to be undertaken on the entry and exit points of the subdivision, as well as the preservation of a garden at the subdivision’s centre.

3) public presentation and analysis of the project: once the urban planning has been finalised, it will be presented to the community in the interests of adding or omitting elements.

4) conclusion of the urban planning stage and organisation of a public consultation: the project is submitted for a final vote, both regarding the urban planning side (namely redevelopment plans drawn up) and the legal instruments intended for use (in the case of Caic, the conceding of in rem jurisdiction usage).
In the above methodology, we can appreciate that the inhabitants are involved in each phase: in project development and in the validation of the project before it is adopted by the city council. This recognises that land regularisation can only be achieved in cooperation with the community, given the in depth knowledge the latter has pertaining to its own territory. Authorities are required to be in direct contact with inhabitants in order to successfully complete the first phase of population census, however, the government’s entry into the vila must necessarily be justified and legitimate. Civic participation processes, such as public hearings and consultations, are therefore a government commitment that enables greater active effectiveness, however, there are inevitable obstacles to be overcome and mediation techniques to be adopted.

D. Mediation as a means of pacifiying tensions between inhabitants and authorities

Defining urban planning projects and legal instruments are sensitive issues for inhabitants. There is always a conflictuous aftermath, tainted by neglect from authorities, with inhabitants becoming reticent to any form of intervention in their territory.
In order to conciliate tensions and preempt potential conflict, the city council’s land regularisation division has developed a series of mediation techniques. One such technique was scheduling meetings in each quadra (small group of houses), enabling authorities to clearly present and explain land regularisation procedures to small numbers of inhabitants. It has been such mediation strategies that have allowed the city council to have an impact upon the community, and to position itself as a trustworthy partner in dialogue. The difficulty for city council representatives has been to know which attitudinal stance to adopt when dealing with inhabitants. In this instance, Paulo Freire’s methodology has proved to be a very interesting tool (Paulo FREIRE, Pedagogia da autonomia, saberes necessários à prática educative, São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1997). This methodology insists on the importance of exchange and dialogue, and warns against elitism. By understanding and positioning themselves at the level of knowledge of their dialogue partners, city council representatives allow themselves to assist in overcoming difficulties and developing critical faculties. Mediators must embark on these exchanges with a custom-prepared set of vocabulary. These exchanges are challenging for both mediators and inhabitants. City council representatives underwent training courses in the interests of understanding the issues at stake for dealing with the vila and the strategies that could be adopted for efficient and effective mediation.

E. The limits of the process

In this instance, the mediation and exchange project embarked upon by city council representatives with the inhabitants unfortunately did not go according to plan. Despite meetings being successfully scheduled inside each quadra, conflict surfaced during training programs for community leaders. While city council representatives were confident in the smooth operations of their procedures, inhabitants began complaining their displeasure and their doubts about the project. It was through analysing the hostilities of this meeting that city council representatives were able to observe and appreciate the lack of social mediation and of a lasting presence in the field. Beyond the fractious communication pertaining to this particular project, this dissention stemmed from inhabitants’ feelings of being ignored and neglected by authorities for decades, demonstrating the great need for deeper social work to be embarked upon in order for a truly participative process to be effective. Training in critical awareness for citizens is a process that involves scholastic education and socio-cultural action plans, and these are necessary before citizens can effectively engage in public debate, however the lack of human and financial resources presents a large obstacle for the implementation of such tools.

This mistrust harboured by inhabitants towards city council representatives greatly slowed down the process of land regularisation. The municipal agents needed to improve their listening skills and their presence in the field in order to implement the project, but nonetheless, other problems that were much more difficult to manage, still emerged. It was during the public hearing, where it was intended that citizens vote on the urban planning project and the land regularisation mechanism, that the process was blocked. Having developed the project and convinced the inhabitants of its usefulness, the city council decided abruptly to suspend the process and the vote for the land regularisation mechanism. Knowing the force and clout of real estate promoters over the city council, we might envisage a hypothesis whereby political blockages were related to economic interests… This would also mean that the master plan was not as precise as it needed to be, allowing leeway for real estate promoters. To cite just one example, the master plan for Canoas includes largely standardized dimensions of 5.66 hectares (or 2.55 hectares each side) for the quadras, which allows real estate promoters to envisage large constructions for the spaces. We can also imagine that on the cusp of elections, the city council invests all its time and energy into campaigns, thus neglecting other projects they were involved in. By analysing the limits of the process, we can understand how, despite the implementation of a participative procedure, inhabitants are not actually allowed to properly exercise their roles, which are effectively subject to economic and political interests.


Whilst the Statute of the City Law launched enabled urban policies to be greatly expanded upon, the federal legislative framework on the issue of illegal occupations remains nebulous. When decentralisation processes relegated urban matters to municipalities, it was only through the volition of local policy-makers that land regularisation processes were implemented. Citizens’ access to basic services and a decent standard of living largely depends on the urban planning tools envisaged in municipal master plans, leading one to wonder at the primacy of the city council’s role in an increasingly urbanised world.

Whilst the process of including inhabitants in the city (as outlined in municipal master plans) must accord to each territory’s individual realities, it also depends on the effectiveness of operating participative strategies. We can therefore imagine that the effective and equitable administration of Brazilian cities is two-fold: urban planning mechanisms through the implementation of a master plan, and civic participation through popular consultation.

However, in the field we can observe a different reality. Brazil is confronted with the great difficulty of real estate promoters’ clout and influence over large tracts of urban land (the urban network). “Illegal occupations such as the favelas are for the most part tolerated, and this is when they don’t interfere with the central circuits of production and profit of private real estate promoters.” (Erminia MARICATO, « Métrópole periférica, desigualdade social e meio ambiente », O desafio da sustentabilidade – Um debate socioambiental no Brasil, Fundação Perseu Abramo, São Paulo, 2001). Inhabitants in fact do not have their proper place in urban policy-making, nor in the development of projects that concern them. Thus, even if the government is invested in improving their living conditions, inhabitants are subject to the law of the fittest.

With the advent of the World Cup in 2014, a large number of developments are already underway, and so these issues are more pertinent than ever. In the case of metropolitan areas surrounding Porto Alegre, the extension of air and naval facilities, the renovation of the Beira-Rio stadium and the creation of new road and railways, many vilas will no doubt be razed to make way for lucrative alternatives.

However, we can perhaps imagine that if economic interests no longer intervened in the public sphere, a visible and effective democracy could be installed as a long-term objective. As a young democracy, maybe Brazil needs more time to find the ways to most equitably and effectively manage its cities.

source : Culture Europe International
Institut d’Etudes européennes
2, rue de la Liberté, 93526 Saint-Denis cedex 02

Translated from the French by Ellen Heyward

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