The topic of land governance and regularization has been increasingly talked about in Brazil since the passage of a few key statutes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With growing urban cores all across the country, and the continued development of industry and need for housing for those migrating to these large urban centers, the Brazilian government has become more focused than ever on how informal settlements become legally formalized and their inhabitants protected by the law.
This is the environment that a small team from the legal department at Centro Universitário Ritter dos Reis (UniRitter) stepped into when they entered into an agreement with the municipality of Canoas in 2012, agreeing to help legalize land ownership for local populations. Since it started working in earnest with the community in 2012, the project has grown to include more students, faculty, and staff of the university and continues to benefit thousands in the community.
In Brazil, the government acknowledges that there is a large problem with how people obtain and lay claim to land in the country. It has been a largely informal system that results in many unplanned settlements that strain the economic, environmental, and social capabilities of areas. It is a multi-tiered problem that often hits the socially vulnerable with the most force, as they are sometimes sold land under false pretenses, believing that the sale is legitimate and will result in outright ownership. In reality, it is often a ruse to make a quick profit. Or, marginalized populations will migrate to these growing urban centers to find work, but find no housing options that they can afford. They are then forced to make a home in informal, often dangerous settlements with no real hope of ownership of their own space.
In the municipality of Canoas, UniRitter, together with city hall, has been working to rectify these complex problems through a legal and social approach. The project is led by Cibele Gralha Mateus, a professor of law at the institution. Each semester, 12 UniRitter students work five days a week at the city hall of Canoas. They identify cases in the municipality where land regularization can occur, spending time in the community with those who live on land informally, in order to gain official land ownership documentation for families when possible.
Gaining official ownership of a piece of land can transform the life of a family. Families are often forced to squat on pieces of land that sit in dangerous environmental situations, prone to flooding and unsanitary conditions. The title to a piece of land all their own in a safe area can make all the difference in the livelihood of that family. Mateus knows that seeing the effect of legal advocacy and action in a real-life situation is key to her students’ education.
“There is a huge difference for students who take part in the project,” Mateus said. “They learn the theory in class, but in the field, they see how it can change someone’s life.” The project at UniRitter is doing just that, and since 2012, the team has legalized more than 5,000 pieces of land, benefitting over 23,000 people in Canoas. Mateus is a ready advisor to her students, as she has studied and taught land governance issues for much of her legal career.
The program has become a model in the country for this type of work, and many other institutions and municipalities have inquired about how UniRitter has worked in partnership with the community on these regularizations. Through their daily progress in helping the most socially vulnerable in their community, UniRitter and their students are giving Brazilian families a new lease on life through land ownership.