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Update: Brazil's Sweeping Land Reform

Brazilian favela

The Rocinha favela. (AP)

July 05, 2017

Brazil's land reform will affect millions living in favelas, rural regions, and the Amazon.
Amid Brazil's political crisis, President Temer scored a big victory: land reform.

Brazilian President Michel Temer suffered a political blow last week when the attorney general formally charged him with corruption on June 26. Still despite multiple impeachment requests filed in Congress and an approval rating of just 7 percent, Temer has continued to advance an ambitious legislative agenda, which includes a major land reform.

After six months of deliberation, the Chamber of Deputies approved on June 28 eight amendments to the land reform measure, which had already passed both the lower house and Senate, sending it back to the president to be signed into law. The measure signifies a considerable shift in economic and social policy after 13 years of Workers' Party leadership under Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, rewriting land policy affecting urban, rural, and Amazonian territories.

Initially introduced as an executive order by Temer in December 2016, the measure calls for the regularization of federal property currently occupied by informal homes, businesses, and agricultural operations. In doing so, the administration intends to integrate informal, irregular, or illegal settlements into the formal regulatory apparatus of local, state, and federal government.

A Historic Challenge

Informal development is a historic characteristic of Brazilian cities, where low income populations excluded from the formal housing market resorted to building homes on vacant land, resulting in the proliferation of favelas, or slums. Since the ratification of the 1988 Constitution, which recognizes property rights for favela residents, municipalities have incorporated titling schemes into various upgrading programs. Despite these efforts, many properties remain unregistered with the government and, subsequently, untitled.

Land regulation has also posed a challenge in rural regions where, since the 1960s, low-income farmers have organized campaigns for agrarian land reform. One of the principal actors in these campaigns is the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST), which employs the tactic of invading and occupying underutilized farmland. Over 5 million people have been resettled in farming collectives with the support of the federal government since the 1990s, negotiations with the government to procure titles for occupations have become increasingly contentious as agribusiness operations have expanded and demanded access to many of the same properties.

A Debate in Brazil's Favelas

One of the principal components of Temer's land reform measure seeks to expedite the process of procuring titles for residents on informal properties, subsidizing the application and processing fees while suspending criminal or civil actions for those who register properties before a deadline. In favelas, this law will relax restrictions on properties that qualify for titles, opening a new avenue to grant multiple titles to single structures, known as direito a laje. This represents an important recognition of the nature of favela properties, where families frequently add floors or units for children and grandchildren. 

Supporters cite the need to streamline the titling process for informally settled land in order to extend property rights to millions of Brazilians. By ensuring favela properties have both titles and official addresses, the federal government intends to fully incorporate them into the formal market and increase residents’ access to credit, thereby stimulating the market. But opponents argue that titling in expensive cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, will speed up displacement and gentrification. They point to the favelas of Babilônia and Vidigal in Rio's South Zone, where rents and utility fees have skyrocketed in recent years. Opponents also contend that the motivating force behind Temer's land reforms is not a desire to secure property rights for working class Brazilians but rather a hope that registering properties will allow utility companies to expand their reach in favelas, where bills for water and electricity are frequently discounted or uncollected. 

New Avenues for Rural Development

The measure also stands to drastically reshape land policy in the Amazon and rural regions. Requirements for granting titles to settlements will be updated under the new rules, a move that threatens MST occupations of public land. In addition, agribusiness operations that had been illegal under previous law, such as unlicensed mining and cattle ranching, can now be considered as a productive use of public land and qualify for titles. The measure also notably allows for the direct sale of public land for the first time, which is expected to have the biggest impact on the Amazon region. 

Many environmental groups have criticized Temer for prioritizing the interests of agribusiness over the preservation of the Amazon, despite recently reaffirming Brazil's commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. By granting titles to operations engaging in illegal deforestation and facilitating the sale of public land in the Amazon, some fear deforestation will increase substantially. According to Instituto Socioambiental, an estimated 40 million hectares of land (roughly equivalent to the size of Germany) in the Amazon could be made available to the private market with no requirements to hold new landowners liable for potential environmental violations, such as deforestation.