Land Equity for the Urban Poor

Sonia Pereira, November 1, 1997

Increasing socio-economic and spatial disparities in Latin American cities have prompted a revival of interest in equity-oriented government policies to reduce those disparities. However, solutions to the major urban problems being faced today must go far beyond the implementation of inconsistent and narrowly defined actions. The solutions must ensure equity for all sectors of society. In too many places, entire neighborhoods are forced to exist under deplorable living conditions while government agencies seek to evict residents in the name of environmental protection. It is evident that urban legislation can no longer ignore the rights of people to have a place in which to live in security and dignity.

The critical impact of land inequity on the urban environment requires that the urban poor gain access to the technical information necessary to better negotiate their concerns with public officials. My research explores the role of environmental education in low-income communities in developing countries. Taking a perspective based on self-help capacity building, my goal is to develop programs to train community leaders at the grassroots level to deal more effectively with local land use conflicts and environmental risks.

Impacts of Land Inequity

Like many Latin American cities, Rio de Janeiro is strongly affected by prevailing poverty and environmental degradation. Complex factors are involved: economic instability, inequitable land ownership, short-sighted development policies, and a lack of a democratic system that provides for human rights and freedoms. In my view, the problems experienced by Rio de Janeiro during the last few decades are mainly a result of existing “apartheid” urban planning assumptions and a lack of political will to incorporate the popular sectors in land use policy making.

In the region of Baixada de Jacarepaguá-at the heart of the core expansion area of Rio de Janeiro-the extraordinary process of urban growth since the 1970s has provoked dramatic changes in the landscape, as well as a variety of environmental problems. Amidst the spectacular natural beauty of lagoon ecosystems, mangrove forests and wetlands, the region remains home to a large population of urban poor who live in favelas-shanty communities resulting from largely uncontrolled urbanization of public land.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the region enjoyed an unprecedented development boom that has fostered unsustainable patterns of land use. Discrimination against the poor inhabitants and inequalities in landownership allowed landowners and speculators to capitalize on the boom by formally obtaining titles and subdividing the land. In addition, a select group of private builders injected themselves into the local scene with multiple court permits to develop the region for high-income residential condominiums, commercial establishments and industrial enterprises.

Increasing pressures on the land snowballed into a wide range of protests between the popular sectors and the powerful land developers, posing the threat of forced eviction of the poor inhabitants. The accumulated discontent against the government for failing to control land speculation and ensure protective legislation created an extremely dangerous situation. Violence and persecution claimed the lives of 30 community leaders, presidents of local community associations, their family members and relatives. The murders were carried out by what are known in the region as “extermination squads,” and no criminal investigation has taken place.

The Vicious Cycle of Poverty and Environmental Degradation

Since poverty and environmental degradation are interdependent, it is appropriate to think of environmental concerns in terms of social justice. My research revolves around the problems of inequality and the environmental risks faced by the residents of the Via Park village-an informal settlement located in the region of Baixada de Jacarepaguá. A basic question arising from this research is to what extent can improved access to land equity actually contribute to mitigate the factors that encourage environmental degradation. By connecting land use issues to the learning process of environmental education, the research demonstrates that environmental degradation is a recurring phenomenon manifested in the inequitable ways land has been used and distributed in the region.

Via Park village has been caught in a serious land use struggle since the 1970s, when urban development began to impact many traditional fishing communities in the area. Builders were eager to lobby the government to break the fishermen’s land tenure system, which was enforced by law, and thereby turn the land over to market forces. In the 1980s, the area was designated a public reserve for environmental preservation, enshrined in Article 225 of the Brazilian Constitution (1988). Since the village was located on protected land, the city’s planning authorities then argued that the Via Park residents had no legitimate claims of ownership.

Living in an atmosphere of fear and at mercy of the land developers and speculators who continued to flourish, the Via Park residents started illegally subdividing and selling small parcels of land to new settlers. The growth of the poor population and the concentration of land ownership and speculation contributed to the expansion of informal land markets into nearby low-income communities.

Underlying these practices was a more complex system of commercial transactions and civil relations governing the invasion of vacant lands, as well as the division and sale of plots. Throughout Rio de Janeiro, land development through informal channels is the predominant “territorial pact” by which disadvantaged local groups have been able to gain access to land and housing. At the same time, agents from the “formal world” have developed political arrangements to support and take advantage of existing informal land markets.

It was in this context that a program for grassroots environmental improvement was conceived and eventually implemented in Via Park village. However, given the residents’ long history of exclusion-including threats of forced eviction-they remained suspicious. It became clear that successful program implementation would depend on managerial strategies based on an integrated vision of the geographic/ecological and social/cultural environment.

If the dilemma of poverty and environmental degradation is to be overcome, then the task of improving the environment must be shown to be compatible with the struggle for land equity. This innovative approach toward environmental education differs from traditional methodology, which is generally more concerned with simply introducing physical changes to the environment. The key here is to focus on the conditions that are favorable for the development and exercise of a sense of “community belonging”-a tangible expression of shared sentiments, values and identities where land is understood not only as a component of wealth, but as a common settled place invested with symbolic meanings.

Lessons of Via Park Village

While there is no single solution to the social and environmental vulnerability of the urban poor living in the Via Park village, their experience does offer some insights. One alternative suggests creating “urban natural reserves” integrated into the community where those threatened with forced eviction are encouraged to maintain their traditional lifestyles. In exchange, government authorities at all levels would accept the obligation to promote land equity, giving security of tenure and protection to those forced by circumstances to live in informal settlements.

Aspects of the environmental education program initiated in the Via Park village are applicable to other Latin American cities. The fundamental principle is based on insuring respect for the inherent identity of the community. The experience of the Via Park residents demonstrates that local action can contribute to consolidating a socio-political struggle for land equity with protection of the environment. This is in line with current thinking about land use and environmental management, which suggests an integrated approach that acknowledges the leadership role of the local residents.

The Via Park case reveals that a routine excuse being used to justify evictions is “protecting the environment.” In other words, the urban poor most often accused of being the primary protagonists of environmental degradation are in reality the greatest victims. For the 450 residents of the Via Park village, the trauma of being forcibly evicted from their homes will never be overcome. Five people, including two children and one woman, lost their lives in the confrontation. The Via Park village, now destroyed by bulldozers, still reminds us that hope for land equity lies in community solidarity, effective governance and democracy.

Sonia Pereira is a visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute. She is also completing her Ph.D. thesis from the Institute of Earth Sciences of the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, with support from a Fulbright scholarship. 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).