A Bridge Too Far? Land Titling For What? Debates on Favelas in Rio Speak Very Different Languages

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Two events held on Tuesday, September 18 demonstrated an enormous divide between groups working on issues related to favelas and favela residents in Rio de Janeiro. Both events had more than one hundred people present and each featured an influential global thinker to help foster debate.

The first event, “A Simpler Brazil,” was an exclusive seminar on land regularization produced by the Brazilian Support Service for Small and Micro Businesses (SEBRAE), held at the auditorium of Infoglobo Communications (publisher of O Globo newspaper) in downtown Rio and live streamed on Facebook. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy and famous for evangelizing land rights as an end-all solution to poverty, presented his work on formal property rights and economic development around the world. The second event was the inaugural seminar of the Peripheral Perspectives course, which took place at the Maracanã campus of the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) in the city’s dense and under-serviced North Zone. Brazilian urbanist and architect Raquel Rolnik, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing (2008-2014) who documented numerous mega-event housing rights violations in Brazil’s build up to the World Cup, contributed to the seminar with a critique of dominant perspectives on favelas and informality.

Both events highlighted the importance of recognizing and generating value in favelas, but the divide between these contrasting approaches may be a bridge too far. Considering the work of the two world-renowned guests, this distance is clear. De Soto’s emphasis on strengthening property rights and providing formal land titles in favelas diverges enormously from Rolnik’s critical view of approaches predicated on economic development that ultimately end up reinforcing inequalities and exclusion, only exacerbating poverty in the world’s cities.

The only potential solution that may be seen as bridging this divide was highlighted late in the “A Simpler Brazil” debate by Jailson de Souza of the Favelas Observatory, when he described the Community Land Trust model recently shared in Rio from communities in Puerto Rico.

“A Simpler Brazil”

The event at Infoglobo opened with a series of speakers including Mayor Marcelo Crivella and Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão. There was a panel on the challenges and opportunities of urban land regularization, with participation from the representatives of the Ministry of Cities; Caixa Econômica national housing bank; the Rio de Janeiro Land and Cartography Institute (ITERJ); the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV); the Municipal Government of Campinas, São Paulo; Rio’s Housing Business Union (SECOVI); and the Favelas Observatory.

Following the panel, there was a presentation by Hernando de Soto and a question-and-answer session with the audience on the role of land titling in reducing conflict and generating economic development in places as diverse as the Amazon, Japan, and the Middle East. The event ended with the official launch of a project spearheaded by Roberto Medina to “construct a favela” at next year’s Rock in Rio, one of the largest music festivals in the world. In partnership with SEBRAE, Viva Rio, and the Central Única das Favelas (CUFA), Medina’s project “Communities Do Business” will provide opportunities for favela residents to participate in Rock in Rio’s “favela space,” which will highlight art, food, and music from Rio’s favelas.

“Peripheral Perspectives: Urban Centralities”

On the same day, members of Rio’s academic and activist community attended the event at UERJ organized by the Institute for Social and Political Studies (IESP/UERJ) and the Roots in Movement Institute (Instituto Raízes em Movimento), a widely respected community-based organization in Complexo do Alemão. Consisting of lectures by professors Raquel Rolnik (University of São Paulo) and Luiz Antonio Machado (IESP) followed by a discussion, the event marked the inauguration of an extension course that will highlight the deconstruction of existing narratives on urban peripheries over the coming months.

During introductory remarks, Alan Brum of the Roots in Movement Institute explained the purpose of the course: “We come from favelas, mainly Complexo do Alemão, producing research, producing popular knowledge, organizing, systematizing… making research available to other researchers, activists, and social movements… Through courses like this, [our proposal is to] share and exchange [this work] with society.”

Researcher Ricardo Moura described how the course emerged out of CEPEDOCAthe Center for Research, Documentation, and Memory of Complexo do Alemão, which since 2013 has provided a convening platform for all researchers working in the large complex of favelas, whereby universities acting in the area engage with residents to develop research with them in ways that benefit and empower the community further: “activities that effectively build connections and paths with universities and academics…for the development of research in favelas together with social movements and local groups.”

The (Im)Possibility of Bridging the Gap Between These Perspectives

Despite clear differences in tone and approach, the two events shared an emphasis on the importance of building partnerships across institutions and fostering exchange between “formal” and “informal” areas within the city.

During “A Simpler Brazil,” the focus was on the state and corporate sectors. Virtually all participants called for better coordination among federal, state, and municipal governments. There was quite a lot of agreement that Brazil’s Law 13.465 (passed in 2017) has contributed positively to the process of land regularization and is an answer to many urban problems. According to Gilmar dos Santos, head of the National Secretariat of Urban Development (a branch of the Ministry of Cities), the new “law is what is most important for quality public policies…that change the lives of citizens.” Governor Pezão echoed this view saying “there is no better public policy” to bring people into the formal sector. Mayor Crivella assured that “we are devoted to the cause” of land regularization.

In addition to formalizing property rights in informal settlements and providing ownership titles to favela residents, the event touted the benefits of partnerships with corporate entities like SEBRAE and Rock in Rio, which aim to help entrepreneurs in favelas who are limited by the insecurity of the informal sector to grow.

By contrast, the Peripheral Perspectives event raised critiques of the relationship between public authorities and businesses and warned against relying on institutional solutions. Instead, partnerships that aim to address the needs of favela residents should not only recognize that social and economic organization in favelas has positive attributes but also bring resources directly to social and economic entities in favelas in order to avoid the destruction, dispossession, and violence that top-down institutional resources and formalization can generate.

While the views of politicians and institutional actors expressed during “A Simpler Brazil” have been echoed in media coverage of the event, the view that land titles are a simple solution to problems in favelas had one notable moment of critical reflection. In the panel on land regularization, Jailson de Souza e Silva, founder of the Favelas Observatory, a globally respected Maré favela-based research and action-oriented NGO, was last to speak and offered a scathing assessment of comments by public authorities sharing the stage who had spoken earlier.

Silva began by criticizing the fact that women were absent from the discussion: “The presence of women is central… because [women] are the principal organizer[s] of the entire process of building the community in a favela… It is impossible to discuss this topic without [their] participation.”

The critique continued. “The first thing we should discuss is the following: what concept of the city are we working with? The city is not just facilities and services. The city is also interaction, diversity, solidarity, and affection.” Silva commented on Community Land Trusts as an example: “There are experiences like in Puerto Rico, for example, that distinguish clearly between granting the right to houses [surface rights], without necessarily granting the right to the land.”

The event focused less on the distant periphery, but rather on Vidigal, Cantagalo, and Rocinha. In the words of Silva:

[These favelas] are central spaces, cultural entities that have to be preserved against the logic of transforming these assets into market assets, into assets simply geared towards the need to think of our city as dominated by the logic of capital. There are creative and innovative solutions that do not simply follow the logic of formal property. For example, [as was done in Puerto Rico] we can create mechanisms that guarantee the presence of residents and guarantee the cultural environment, distinguishing between land and the houses [situated on it].

For Silva, it is necessary to “break” from the mass public housing policy of Minha Casa Minha Vida and “its logic of expanding the city… [The city] is much more than just housing and we can build a more diverse, rich, and lively city when we take into account the people that are living there—principally black women who are responsible for building it.”

The possibility of bridging the gap between these two approaches appears bleak. One produces initiatives like “Communities Do Business” and the other challenges the validity of dichotomous categories such as formal-informal and solutions based on a simplistic process of bringing favelas into the formal city. While a “favela space” at Rock in Rio may appear to consider potentialities that exist in favelas, it fundamentally represents the very narrative that Raquel Rolnik and others want to invert. It creates a spectacle of poor communities and attributes value to favelas only as they are inserted into the formal market. This is a distorted view of the potentiality that comes from within favelas, as their value is considered only in terms of commercial potential and business expansion. Benefits may emerge for a select few in favelas, but this effectively generates enormous wealth for large businesses without producing substantive change for the poor.

Ezra Spira-Cohen is a PhD candidate in Political Science. His research is on the impacts of land policy and state intervention in land tenure in Brazil.