Huffpost Impact
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

André Albuquerque Headshot

Squatters No More: Legitimizing Brazil's Favelas

Posted: Updated:

Brazil's slums -- the infamous "favelas" -- are growing fast. The country's census in 2000 estimated that there were 12.4 million people living in substandard housing. UN Habitat projects that this number will reach 55 million people by 2020.

Urbanization -- the process of migrating from rural areas to cities in search of refuge, a new life and hope for a better future -- has created disorderly, informal and often chaotic growth. Cities in Brazil and other emerging economies are often not sufficiently prepared for such a large influx of people who come without financial resources to rent a house or skills to find work. As a result, many have occupied public and private areas illegally, usually in zones ringing the outskirts of town and without any urban or social infrastructure.

Occupying vacant lands illegally has become a way to compensate for the affordable housing deficit in many countries. While it solves an immediate problem of shelter, it creates other problems: conflicts over land ownership, urban infrastructure, public services and environmental protection. It also leads to conflicts among various government agencies that impact urban development, but do not coordinate with each other.

Without the resources to solve integrated problems of affordable housing, especially to resolve issues of rights to land under the homes that migrants have built, the government is faced with myriad challenges.

Grassroots Solutions

Terra Nova Regularizações Fundiárias, which was established in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, offers a new, and we believe, unprecedented way to tackle land ownership issue in favelas. For the past decade, we have carefully evaluated the laws defining property rights and the government's processes for settling disputes. We found they were overly complex, slow and costly, with the result that slum dwellers rarely used them.

Based on this, Terra Nova has developed a methodology that significantly reduces the bureaucracy involved in the process of "regularization" - the term the Brazilian government uses to describe the legal and fair transfer of land title from the current private or public land owner to the squatter family or community. This ensures that the conflict related to land ownership is resolved quickly and peacefully, allowing the occupants, with their own resources, to obtain title to the lot in which they reside.

By creating an entrepreneurial process whereby families engage in and pay for the process to acquire land rights, the relationship of that person or family to the land is larger than mere ownership. This is a very different and much stronger relationship than when the government gives titles to residents for free. Land titling transitions residents from illegal squatters with insecurity about their future to being able to participate in the formal economy as legal homeowners and community members.

Agents for Change

From the moment a slum is "regularized", the area is recognized (by neighbors, public works employees, government agencies, etc.) as a legitimate part of the city. Once this happens, residents can then begin to enjoy basic services such as water, electricity and sewer systems.

Residents also acquire a formal address. This is extremely significant as it leads to personal pride and responsibility to invest in their properties and their community. It also fosters community organization and strengthens leadership.

Not surprisingly, we have seen more home improvements after regularization. With new-found confidence, residents are increasingly working with public agencies to improve infrastructure, clean up land where garbage has been dumped, and generally, ask for better services.

When people are granted land rights and take ownership for their property, they become active agents of social and community transformation.