Grassroots Education for Latin American Communities

Sonia Pereira, January 1, 1998

The popular sectors in most Latin American cities are at a serious disadvantage in influencing land use planning and management in their communities. Although neighborhood activists may be well-organized locally, their interests are generally absent from decision making that can have broad implications for both urban land management and human rights. As part of its ongoing effort to help community leaders and public officials in Latin America become more effective in implementing critical land management policies, the Lincoln Institute supported an innovative educational program in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

“Urban Land Policies for Popular Sectors” was cosponsored by the Institute, the Center for Investigations CIUDAD, and the Center for Research in Urbanism and Design at the School of Architecture of Catholic University in Quito. This pilot program served as a forum for more than 50 representatives of low-income communities throughout Ecuador who met for the first time. They discussed ambiguities surrounding the formulation and implementation of urban land policies, and the causes and impacts of these policies on the use and regulation of land. Particular attention was given to equitable access to land ownership, affordable housing and self-help construction on the urban periphery.

Ecuador’s Minister of Housing and Urban Development opened the first session, and a team of academics, professional policy advisors, local and national government authorities, and opinion leaders offered a number of strategic planning workshops and panel presentations. The forum included both conceptual and practical discussions on urban land legislation that recognized the noticeable lack of information on land policy at the grassroots level.

Many questions underscored the situation in Ecuador, where insecurity of land, home and person has often led to violence and evictions. This important issue served to highlight the primacy of human rights in the urban land debate, and to reinforce the urgent need to consider a broad range of public policies and planning mechanisms. In addition to encouraging organizational networks among the urban poor and partnerships with other local and national popular movement leaders, the forum explored strategies to build solidarity among the various sectors.

Mayors from other Latin American cities attended the final roundtable session and concluded that the forces affecting poor urban residents in Ecuador are strikingly similar throughout the region. One clear lesson is that access to information is needed to allow every individual and community to influence the formulation and implementation of urban land policies based on democratic participation. An inventory of comparative case studies of community-based land use practices will be incorporated into follow-up programs to assist public officials and administrators in future land use planning and policymaking.

This Quito forum is an example of the Lincoln Institute’s educational goal to provide better knowledge to citizens affected by urban land policies. One outcome is the “Document of Quito,” a summary of the strategies arrived at by consensus among the participants. The challenge of turning their consensus into action will be the true test of the pilot program. The Institute may also collaborate with the United Nations Program on Urban Management for Latin America and the Caribbean to develop a common agenda in education, research and publications. The results would help expand discussions of urban land issues at the grassroots level and improve the ways public officials and popular leaders can work together to generate more effective policies.

Sonia Pereira is a visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute. An environmental lawyer, biologist, social psychologist and activist on behalf of human rights, she has been widely recognized for her work on environmental protection for low-income communities in Brazil. She is a Citizen of the World Laureate (World Peace University, 1992) and a Global 500 Laureate (United Nations Environment Programme-UNEP, 1996).