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Do mega events affect a country’s land and tenure rights?

by Socorro Leite, National Director, Habitat Brazil | Habitat for Humanity Europe and Central Asia
Friday, 5 August 2016 15:21 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This year, Brazil is hosting the world’s biggest sports event – the Summer Olympic Games. While athletes arrive in Rio to compete for medals and global audiences prepare to watch the games, two questions are on the mind of Rio de Janeiro's residents:

Where will the families evicted from where the Olympic City was built live?And will the infrastructure built for the event become ghost towns that are abandoned and decay over time?

Rio is one of Brazil’s most expensive cities. The favelas, where a small house can cost close to US$40,000, that surround the city have been there for more than 60 years. Families have built their lives and homes there for generations. But, that all changed when the Olympic facilities were built. Families were forcibly evicted and had to go through the emotional, physical and financial trauma that comes along with having to move at short notice. Whole communities disappeared.

Social organizations and civil society movements in Brazil are advocating for the Olympic City to be used as social housing for the families who were evicted. They do not want to see the same mistakes that have plagued Brazil after it hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2013.

The greatest legacy of the World Cup was not sustainable development or better livelihoods for its population. Rather, the event left behind massive government debt, infrastructure problems, and more than 250,000 people evicted from the places they called home to make room for stadiums and other construction necessary to host the football games. In some cases, the government compensated these families far below the market value of their homes. For example, families who owned a house with an estimated value of US$70,000 received US$22,000, which was not enough to purchase another house.

And some families evicted for the World Cup are still waiting to receive compensation for their losses. In Pernambuco – a state in the northeast region of the country – 200 families were evicted with little notice from the community where they lived for 40 years to make way for a new bus terminal. The bus terminal, like many other World Cup projects, was not completed in time for the event and the land stands idle. Today, the families are suing Pernambuco’s state government.

Things like this happen because property rights are a controversial issue in Brazil. Impoverished families generally live in slums or informal settlements where they often do not have legal ownership of the land on which they built their houses. Although there are laws that guarantee that these families should have access to secure land tenure, the process to legalize their rights is long and costly. On average, a land tenure case can take up to 20 years and often will end without a clear solution or recommendation.

Research recently conducted by Fundação João Pinheiro showed there more abandoned buildings in Brazil than there are homeless families. If policies that enforce the social role of property were implemented or procedures for the legalization of homes are simplified, Brazil’s housing deficit of more than 7 million would be solved.

The social role of property is a legal term used in Brazil to mean that every building in a city needs to fulfill a role and be built with a purpose. This makes it illegal to have abandoned buildings in a city. However, these policies are not observed in practice and cities have thousands of abandoned buildings, fulfilling no purpose other than contributing to and benefitting from market speculation.

Brazil’s legal system, as in the case with many countries, tends to prioritize the rights of the landowner over those of the tenants occupying the land. While civil society organizations campaign for the social role of property and greater security of tenure for the residents, it is a difficult battle to fight. But it is a battle that 50 million Brazilians who are currently living in inadequate housing and security of land tenure hope they will win.