Latin American Land Markets

Martim Smolka, Novembro 1, 1996

The Lincoln Institute’s Latin America program pursues education and research projects with universities and local governments throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. These activities are especially salient now given many political and economic changes affecting Latin American land markets. For example, the (re)democratization of the continent is engaging a larger segment of the society in designing viable, innovative programs for local administrations of competing political parties.

In addition, institutional and in many cases constitutional reforms are affecting land values and landownership rights and regulations. Structural adjustment programs to curb inflation and overcome the economic crises of the 1980s are changing attitudes regarding holding land either as an investment or a reserve of value. Frequent speculative switches between land holdings and other financial assets according to the caprices of the prevailing ‘economic environment’ have been a planner’s nightmare in Latin America.

The forces of globalization and urbanization also contribute to significant and changing pressures on the use of land. More and more, Los Angeles-style landscapes can be found in certain suburbs of Sao Paulo, Santiago or Mexico City. While loss of the region’s biodiversity is well documented, Latin America is also at risk of losing its land use diversity.

In spite of these common themes, Latin America is hardly a homogeneous entity. Its diversity emerges clearly when examining the landownership and land market structures of different countries. For example:

The Chilean glorification of land markets contrasts with Cuba’s virtual elimination of land markets and resulting residential segregation.

Mexico had a unique experience with communal (ejido) lands that are now being privatized with important implications for new urban expansion.

In Brazil, frequent land conflicts, many with tragic consequences to the landless, can be attributed to a long-promised land reform yet to be implemented.

In Paraguay, until its recent democratization, land was traditionally attributed by the hegemonic political party, simply by-passing the market. In Argentina, on the other hand, the state uses its considerable stock of fiscal land to facilitate international investments in property developments directly through the market.

Nicaragua’s past land redistribution is probably responsible for the vigor of the recently liberalized property market and the strong land reconcentration processes now under way.

The booming land markets of Ecuador and Venezuela have often been attributed to the ease of laundering drug money from neighboring Colombia, where regulations are stricter.

Given this diversity, the Institute’s Latin America program is focusing its education and research efforts on building a network of highly qualified scholars and policymakers. Representing different countries and a variety of academic and professional backgrounds, they help identify topics of proven relevance for the region. Some examples of current topics grounded in public officials’ actual and anticipated needs are: rekindling the debate on the functioning of urban land markets; closing the gap between formal and informal land markets; and implementing new land policy instruments.

Access to land by the low-income urban population is the issue that best captures the hearts and minds of many researchers and public officials. Two connected research themes are 1) the mechanisms that generate residential segregation or exclusion through the market by private or public agents; and 2) the strategies of ‘the excluded’ to access land and subsequently formalize their ‘inclusion.’ Most of the Institute’s education programs being developed in Latin America to deal with land management and instruments of public intervention are informed directly or indirectly by this issue.

For many public officials in the region, land reform is a sensitive issue and capturing land value increments generated by public action is still seen suspiciously as a subversive idea. Thus, the Lincoln Institute is in a unique position as a neutral facilitator capable of collaborating with Latin American scholars and public officials as well as experts from the United States to provide a comparative, international perspective on land policy ideas and experiences.


Martim Smolka, Senior Fellow of the Institute since September 1995, is on leave as associate professor at the Urban and Regional Research and Planning Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.