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A view of a hillside favela in Rio de Janeiro
Image: DW/Sam Cowie

Empowerment for favelas

Sam Cowie / al
October 12, 2012

A pilot project aims to give legal land tenure to some of Rio de Janeiro’s favela dwellers. Although it will increase costs for inhabitants, there's hope it will also stimulate economic growth in the community.


Maura da Rocha stands in front of her red brick, two-bedroom house in Cantagalo, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. She has lived in this shantytown on a steep hill nestled between the world famous Copacabana and Ipanema beachside neighborhoods since arriving in the city as a rural migrant from Brazil's impoverished northeast more than 40 years ago. Just recently, Maura was awarded a document that entitles her to the legal ownership of the land her house is built upon.

"I'm really happy, because now they'll never be able to take us away from here and put us somewhere else. We have the right now to live permanently in the community,"she says, taking a break from hand-washing her grandchildren's clothes with a hose and bucket. Soap suds run down the hill into the favela's crude gutter system.

Maurada Rocha's land document is the result of Projeto Cantagalo, a project undertaken by the NGO and think tank Instituto Atlantico that aims to give legal land tenure to around 1,500 favela inhabitants.

Previously, and as is the case with the majority of favela dwellers in Rio, Maura lived in precarious uncertainty. Her house was built on state land without state permission. In reality she had no legal protection or entitlement to her property and couldn't enjoy the same privileges as her counterparts down the hill.

A house in the Cantagalo Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Housing in Cantagalo is cramped and often built without formal council approvalImage: DW

"They cannot borrow money using their house as collateral, they don't have a formal address, they can't receive letters," says Carlos Augusto Junqueira, head of the legal team working with Instituto Atlantico on Projeto Cantagalo."What we are doing is providing these people with the same level of rights as the rest of the formal city."

Projeto Cantagalo began five years ago, when the favela was still under the control of drug traffickers who had taken over during the cocaine boom of the 1970s and '80s, as was the case in many of Rio's shantytowns. That situation changed in December 2009, when Rio's military police established a permanent fixture in Cantagalo, chasing out or arresting the drug traffickers.

The first land title was issued last year. Since then, 44 of an estimated 1,500 property titles have been granted.

Increasing house values

Like most of Rio's favelas, Cantagalo - which means "crowing rooster" in Portuguese - started as an informal squatter settlement of wooden shacks. Today, 6,000 people live here. The vast majority of the buildings are solid concrete structures; only about 40 wooden shacks remain. Electricity reaches more than 99 percent of the homes and most have running water. Adequate sanitation, however, is a persistent problem.

"One of the first and most important benefits is the improvement in the value of the houses. In the past, the most anyone could get for a house here would be 30,000 real (11,400 euros; $14,700). Now the highest value that has been obtained for the sale of a house is 140,000 real," says 67-year-old Luiz Bezerra, a retired bus driver who heads the resident's association of Cantagalo.

Luiz Bezerra from Projeto Cantagalo holds a title deed up to the camera
Luiz Bezerra was a bus driver, but now volunteers for the land ownership projectImage: DW

As a result of being absorbed into the formal city, the residents of Cantagalo will face extra costs, the most expensive of these being property taxes.

However, plans are in place to ensure that these changes are gradual. Cantagalo will become what's known as a barrio popular or lower income neighborhood, which protects residents from paying the same hefty land taxes as their counterparts in Copacabana or Ipanema, which have some of the highest property taxes in the city.

Promoting economic growth

One of the key principles of Projeto Cantagalo is that empowering new property owners should stimulate local economic growth. 

Roberto Carvalho, vice president of the Instituto Atlantico organization, says there are three aspects to improving the economic impact via the project.

Locals pass on the street in Cantagalo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The streets of the Cantagalo favela will hopefully get an overhaul as part of the projectImage: DW

"First, if the government is giving the title, they have to provide the infrastructure. So, there are some investments in the community," Carvahlo told DW. "Second, the inhabitants want a better home and so they start investing small amounts of money themselves. Thirdly, the private sector, including the neighborhood surrounding those areas, which for years pretended the favela didn't exist, also starts spending."

Projeto Cantagalo still has a long way to go before realizing its goal of securing legal land title for all of favela Cantagalo's property owners and incorporating the neighborhood into the formal city. But for resident Maura da Rocha and many like her, the future now looks a lot more secure and settled.

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