Redefining Property Rights in the Age of Liberalization and Privatization

Edesio Fernandes, November 1, 1999

An apparent paradox exists in developing countries between a more progressive definition of property rights and current trends toward privatization. On one hand, most proposals and programs of urban management have required the adoption of a socially oriented approach to property rights, which guarantees broader scope for state intervention in controlling the process of land use and development. This is particularly the case with land regularization programs. On the other hand, the widespread adoption of liberalization policies and privatization schemes has reinforced a traditional, individualistic approach to property rights, thus undermining progressive attempts to discipline the use and development of urban property. Are these trends mutually exclusive or can they be reconciled to some extent?

Two related workshops for policymakers, urban managers and academics were held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late July to address this paradox. The Sixth “Law and Urban Space” Workshop was cosponsored by the International Research Group on Law and Urban Space (IRGLUS) and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS). The Lincoln Institute supported that workshop and also sponsored a seminar on “Security of Land Tenure in South Africa, Sub-Saharan Countries, Brazil and India.”

The Conceptual Framework for Law and Urban Space

IRGLUS, a Working Group of the Research Committee on Sociology of Law of the International Sociological Association (ISA), seeks to discuss critically the legal dimension of the urbanization process, thus promoting a long-needed dialogue between legal studies and urban environmental studies. Most urban studies have reduced law-including legal provisions, judicial decisions and the overall legal culture-to its instrumental dimension. Law is dismissed by some as if it were just a political instrument of social discrimination and political exclusion. It is taken for granted by others as if it were merely a technical, unproblematic instrument that can provide immediate solutions to escalating urban and environmental problems.

Among urban scholars and professionals alike, there is little understanding of the reasons for the growing illegal practices identified in urban areas, particularly those concerning the use and development of land. Existing data suggests that if both access to land and construction patterns are taken into account between 40 and 70 percent of the population in the major cities in developing countries are somehow disobeying the prevailing legal provisions. And this figure is not confined to low-income land users.

Few studies have asked why this phenomenon of urban illegality has happened, why it matters and what can be done about it. Most observers fail to see the apparent divide between the so-called legal and illegal cities as an intricate web in which there are intimate though contradictory relationships between the official and the unofficial rules, and between the formal and the informal urban land markets.

The combination of the lack of an efficient official housing policy in most developing countries and the actions of largely uncontrolled market forces does not provide adequate housing solutions for the vast majority of the urban population. Far from being restricted to the urban poor, urban illegality needs to be addressed with urgency, given its grave social, political, economic and environmental consequences to the overall urban structure and society.

However, if urban illegality is but a reflection of the powerful combination of land markets and political systems, it is also the result of the often elitist and exclusionary nature of the legal system prevailing in many developing countries. Both the adoption of legal instruments, which do not reflect the existing social realities affecting access to urban land and housing, and the lack of proper legal regulation have had a most perverse role in aggravating, if not determining, the process of socio-spatial segregation.

Definitions of Property Rights

One the most significant problems affecting urban management in this context is that, despite the existence of rhetorical provisions, urban environmental policies frequently lack legal support in the basic provisions of the legal system in force, especially those of a constitutional nature. The central issue to be addressed in this regard is property rights, specifically urban real property. Indeed, in many countries the progressive, socially oriented assumptions of urban policies, implying as they do a broad scope for state action, are frequently at odds with the constitutional definition of property rights.

Several presentations in the IRGLUS/CALS Workshop discussed how the traditional approach to individual property rights prevailing in many developing countries, typical of classical liberalism, has long favored economic exchange values to the total detriment of the principle of the social function of property. Many significant attempts at promoting land use planning and control, including the legal protection of the environment and historical-cultural heritage, have been undermined by a dominant judicial interpretation that significantly reduces the scope for state intervention in the domain of individual property rights. Attempts to promote land regularization have also been frequently opposed by both landowners and conservative courts, even in situations where the land occupation has been consolidated for a long time.

Whereas the excessive, speculative hoarding of privately owned urban land has been tacitly encouraged, the effective implementation of a long-claimed social housing policy has been rendered more difficult due to the need to compensate the owners of vacant land at full market prices. In many countries, the individual property rights system inherited as a result of colonial rule often fails to take into account traditional customary values in the definition of property rights. Since these countries have largely failed to reform the foundations of legal-political liberalism, the discussion of so-called neo-liberalism is a false question in this context.

The Workshop participants placed special emphasis on the legal-political conditions for the recognition of security of tenure. It was noted that agents as diverse as social movements, NGOs and international finance organizations have increasingly made use of different though complementary humanitarian, ethical, sociopolitical and, more recently, economic arguments to justify the need to adopt public policies on this matter. Legal arguments also need to be adopted, including long-standing provisions of international law and the fundamental principles of the rule of law concerning housing and human rights, so that a new, socially oriented and environmentally friendly approach to property rights is recognized.

Much of the discussion focused on whether security of tenure can only and/or necessarily be achieved through the recognition of individual property rights. In fact, the analysis of several experiences suggested that the mere attribution of property rights does not entail, per se, the achievement of the main goal of most regularization programs-that is, the full integration of illegal areas and communities into the broader urban structure and society. The general consensus was that a wide range of legal-political options should be considered, from the transfer of individual ownership to some forms of leasehold and/or rent control to more innovative forms, still unexplored, of collective ownership or occupation with varying degrees of state control.

It was argued that the recognition of urban land tenure rights has to take place within the broader, integrated and multi-sectoral scope of city (and land use) planning, and not as an isolated policy, to prevent distortions in the land market and thus minimize the risk of evicting the traditional occupants. Examples from case studies in Brazil, India and South Africa have shown that, whatever the solution adopted in a particular case, it will only work properly if it is the result of a democratic and transparent decision-making process that effectively incorporates the affected communities.

Above all, it was accepted that the redefinition of property rights, and therefore the recognition of security of tenure, needs to be promoted within a broader context in which urban reform and law reform are reconciled. Law reform is a direct function of urban governance. It requires new strategies of urban management based upon new relations between the state (especially at the local level) and society; renewed intergovernmental relations; and the adoption of new forms of partnership between the public and the private sectors within a clearly defined legal-political framework.

Law reform fundamentally requires the renovation of the overall decision-making process to combine traditional mechanisms of representative democracy and new forms of direct participation. Indeed, many municipalities in several countries have recently introduced new mechanisms to allow the participation of urban dwellers in several stages of the decision-making process affecting urban management. Examples are at the executive level through the creation of committees, commissions, etc., or the legislative level through popular referendums or by recognizing individual and/or collective initiatives in the law-making process, as well as the formulation of popular amendments to proposed bills. A most interesting and promising experience is that of the “participatory budgeting” adopted in several Brazilian cities, in which community-based organizations participate in the formulation of the local investment budgets.

Finally, the need to promote a comprehensive legal reform and judicial review can no longer be neglected, especially in order to promote the recognition of collective rights, to broaden collective access to courts and to guarantee law enforcement. India and Brazil, for instance, have already incorporated the notion of collective rights in their legal systems to some extent, thus enabling the judicial defense of so-called “diffuse interests” in environmental and urban matters by both individuals and NGOs.

In other words, urban reform and the recognition of security of tenure are not to be attained merely through law, but through a political process that supports the recognition of the long-claimed “right to the city” not only as a political notion, but as a legal one, too. There is a fundamental role to be played in this process by lawyers, judges and prosecutors for the government. However, the collective action of NGOs, social movements, national and international organizations, and individuals within and without the state apparatus is of utmost importance to guarantee both the enactment of socially oriented laws and, more importantly, their enforcement.

If these are truly democratic times, the age of rights has to be also the age of the enforcement of rights, and especially of collective rights. It is only through a participatory process that law can become an important political arena to promote spatial integration, social justice and sustainable development.

Edesio Fernandes is a lawyer and a research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies of the University of London. He is coordinator of IRGLUS-International Research Group on Law and Urban Space and coeditor (with Ann Varley) of Illegal Cities: Law and Urban Change in Developing Countries (Zed Books, London and New York, 1998).