Developing the Social Function of Property in Brazil: Between Progress and Social Tension

Nelson SAULE JR, Vanessa KOETZ, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

A Critical Approach to Developing the Social Functions of the City

The urban policies regulations and tools set forth in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 must be analysed. On the one hand, granting municipalities more political and institutional authority to promote urban development policies, which create fairer and more inclusive cities, was positive. Nonetheless, at a social and territorial level, the different requirements - such as a federal law and a municipal master plan - clearly weakened the effectiveness of the collective right of the social function of property, at least in the short term.

The social groups which have historically benefitted from the distribution of land in Brazil - large rural landowners and urban building owners - made sure that their representatives in political parties delayed the implementation of urban policies by municipalities for as long as they could, in order to prevent cities and urban properties from fulfilling their social function. The 13 years it took the Brazilian Parliament to approve the Charter of the City in 2001 clearly illustrate this strategy.

When President Luís Inácio da Silva was elected, the Charter of the City was adopted, along with the creation of the Ministry of Cities, of the National Cities’ Council and the organisation of the National Conferences on Cities. These were significant steps to promote the principles of the social function of cities and of property, the democratic management of cities and the recognition of the right to the city as the master framework for national urban development policies.

The “Mega-Events” at the Core of the 2013 Social Tensions

The progress made in designing these national policies to combat social and territorial inequality in cities has not yet been concretely translated into measures by municipal authorities. It is still necessary to include the social function of property and the right to the city both as goals and as indicators in the appropriate solutions to collective urban land conflicts. The areas inhabited by low income people who are concerned by the work for the FIFA World Cup are an illustration of this.

Specific factors must be considered regarding the achievement of the effective enforcement of a national urban development policy which emphasizes the social functions of the city and of ownership. Also, fundamental values must be observed and manifested in a concrete way in order to solve the collective conflicts of urban land:

  • Since 2009, the program “My House, My Life” has entailed an assignation of 20 billion Real for the building of 2 million urban homes. The construction of these homes, however, didn’t make use of tools designed to ensure that property fulfils its social function. As a result, many of these homes were built on the outskirts of cities.

  • The organisation of international mega events, namely the FIFA World Cup in 2012 in 12 Brazilian cities, such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador; and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

  • Representative democracy has prevailed over participative democracy in decision-making processes on mega urban development projects.

  • The lack of policy on land conflicts. There are more and more, leading to human rights violations in the communities concerned by the work related to the mega events.

These factors explain why the 2013 scenario seemed absolutely contrary to political agendas of urban reform in cities or expressions such as the huge demonstrations in Brazilian cities where millions of people rallied in June.

The demonstrations first set forth the specific demands of the “free pass” movement, which stemmed from people’s dissatisfaction with the increasing prices of public urban transportation. These demands then became broader, involving a yet imprecise agenda on the right to the city based on the following claims:

  • The defence of the right to transport as a fundamental right;

  • The establishment of free transports and the enhancement of the quality of public transportation;

  • The prioritizing of collective public transportation, instead of individual transport by car;

  • The right to participate in the strategic decisions concerning the city, such as the public budget;

  • The right to demonstrate in public space;

  • The right to access quality education and health care;

  • The allocation of public resources in such a way that priority is given to meeting the needs of the inhabitants of the city and not to major constructions such as the enhancement or building of football stadiums:

  • Political reform, strengthening direct and participatory democracy;

  • The improvement of the living conditions in favelas and city outskirts;

  • The prevention of the eviction and displacement of people from their homes because of real estate projects or preparation for mega-events like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games.

In 2014 the FIFA World Cup will be held; there will be national elections for the President of the Republic and the parliament; and the governors of federated states and state parliaments will be elected: this context may contribute to bringing together these fragmented demands.

If massive street demonstrations were to return with more organised claims for the right to the city and urban reforms, set forth both by traditional urban movements and new urban movements, this could lead to a new political deal aimed at making Brazilian cities more fair and democratic.

Next Steps for the Assertion of the Right to the City

In 2012, a Working Group on Decent Housing was created within the Human Rights Council: it launched research and field missions in the cities of Fortaleza, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with the goal of analysing the impact of the mega events on the concerned populations, especially the FIFA World Cup. The study evidenced the following common issues:

  • The difficulties the population faces accessing information on the projects and plans which affect their right to housing as well as on the housing solutions for the people concerned

  • The lack of communication, conflict resolution and collective negotiation with the concerned population

  • The lack of popular participation in the definition of mega-projects or mega-events

  • The absence of grassroots organisations’ participation in the definition of publicly funded housing projects

  • Inadequate compensation for the people who have been displaced because of the mega-projects

  • Justice’s lack of enforcement of the right to the city and of the social function of property and of cities in conflicts on the right to housing which were submitted to its appreciation.

As a result of this initiative, in October 2013, report was published with a series of recommendations for adoption by state authorities and public institutions.

Enforcement of the Resolutions of the 5th National Conference of Cities

The 5th National Conference of Cities was held from November 20th to 24th 2013 on the topic “We can change the city: Urban Reform Now!”. Among the major themes were incentive policies and the implementation of tools to promote the social function of property.

The National Forum of Urban Reform set forth and defended a series of measures to promote the social functions of cities and property1. These included:

  • Immediately putting to use unoccupied or underused public buildings for social housing; creating special “social interest” areas in low income neighbourhoods or unoccupied areas to build social housing

  • Having public authorities adopt tools and policies to make the use of private property subject to collective interests. This entails, among other things, making social participation and oversight mandatory for the approval of urban and real estate projects.

  • Making collective ownership a social right recognized by the public authorities. The right to housing could thus be put into practice by groups.

  • The National Congress should approve amendments to the Bill reforming the Civil Proceedings Code changing the legal proceedings for repossession and possessory actions.

The approval of the following measures is proof of some positive outcome of the 5th National Cities Conferences:

  • Mapping out land to identify urban vacant lots and unoccupied buildings in public and private areas.

  • Establishing and implementing, by the end of 2014, policies to prevent and solve land conflicts, to prevent dispossessions and violence in urban and rural occupations

Immediately suspending projects and initiatives which involve assigning funds without a previously established and democratically determined resettlement plan by the Ministry of Cities

  • Proposing a law which would stipulate that in the event of land conflicts, repossession is performed only in cases where there are guarantees of a court hearing, conflict resolution and verification of the enforcement of the social function of property.

  • Enacting a bill establishing a legal status for social ownership, to fulfil the right to decent housing.

It is undeniable that over the last few years progress has been made in Brazil regarding the design of urban public policies geared at sustainable development for cities. Nonetheless, these policies still haven’t brought about concrete changes in the situations of social and territorial inequality. The political controversy over models and visions of the city which could be favourable to the agenda for the right to the city and urban reform at the level of national policy will depend on the alliances and coalitions between social movements. More specifically, traditional urban movements, which have been fighting for fair, democratic and sustainable cities will have to ally with emerging movements, which can renew practices of citizenship, solidarity, organisation and social mobilisation.

This support implies solidarity and support from low-income communities and vulnerable groups which promote initiatives - administrative and legal - as well as mobilisations in favour of the right to the city and to decent housing, in order to remain in the consolidated urban areas they live in. With the increase of public and private investment in real estate projects for well-off people, as well as the construction and renovation of sports facilities, airports, avenues and metro lines in low-income areas, communities’ and social groups’ organisation and mobilisation to fight for their rights has been sparked.

The struggles and the international mobilisations and articulations in favour of the right to the city, such as the World Charter for the Right to the City or research, studies, summits and international campaigns, must be given utmost importance: their strategic aim is to develop the social functions of the city and of property. All these strategies must be encouraged in the next few years, especially considering the upcoming 3rd United Nations Conference on Human Settlements - Habitat III, in 2016.

The promotion of fair, democratic and sustainable cities by an alliance of different movements and organisations for the right to the city must be at the heart of the next global urban agenda.</multi>

1 “Por la función social de la propiedad urbana: la ciudad no es un negocio, la ciudad es de todos nosotros” online: