Whose Land is It Anyway?

When the demolition of abandoned warehouses at the José Estelita Docks started in the city of Recife, Brazil, the ongoing mobilization since 2012 by the #OcupeEstelita movement proved its worth. On May 21, when real estate developer Moura Dubeux’s bulldozers got in position during the night to demolish the old sugar warehouses, several individuals, mobilized mainly through the Direitos Urbanos (Urban Rights) group were there to stop them.

On June 3, #OcupeEstelita had their victory (partial, up to this point) formalized by the municipality, whicht begrudgingly suspended the authorization of demolition of the warehouses.

Decades abandoned, the Estelita warehouses are relics from the old sugar cane economy of the state of Pernambuco, and used to belong to the now defunct Federal Railway Network. The land where the warehouses are located was auctioned off in very sweet terms to a consortium of developers who planned, along with the municipal authorities, the New Recife project.

New Recife consists in the building of 12 skyscrapers of over 40 stories in the area, one of the best located in town. Moreover, the project also consists in the capture of the debate by the government. By the mayor’s and the developer’s plutocratic logic, which has been able to find adherents, there’s the camp in favor of progress, new apartments and urban development, and there’s the team who favors the past, backwardness, the continued abandonment of an area potentially very valuable like the José Estelita Docks.

It’s obviously a bogus dichotomy and has been challenged by the Direitos Urbanos activists, who debate urban solutions for the city. As a forum for discussion and activism, Direitos Urbanos gathers many different positions on how to occupy and plan the city. Unfortunately, not only are they diverse, but they’re also vague and a little bit too slanted towards a middle class urban outlook. They emphasize not the legitimacy of use and property of urban land, but a specific view on how these spaces should be put to use: mixed communities, plazas, squares, trees, bicycle lanes instead of car roads, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with mixed urban spaces, which should be favored rather than disincentivized by legislation (as they are nowadays), but the fundamental problem of the use of urban land remains, even with a aesthetic rejection of the developers’ claim to Estelita’s warehouses. The fundamental discussion should be: Who should be able to use the land?

We can sort out the details about how later. First, we should talk about how to take the state out of public land. Clearly, a privatization that puts a huge and extremely well located plot of land in the hands of a consortium of developers is unjust.

And the government doesn’t have any legitimacy to sell them off and exclude the rest of the population of the possibility to homestead the area. Unfortunately, the details of such a process of taking the land out of the control of the government can be messy.

So, I’d like to advance a modest proposal.

In Brazil, it is calculated that between 200 and 250 thousand families have been evicted from their houses because of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Many have gotten laughable compensations for their property while others haven’t received rent assistance at all, or it has been insufficient to pay for any decent place to live.

I propose a solution: Developers can build all the skyscrapers they want in the area, but the apartments should be occupied by people who were violently evicted from their homes by the government.

It seems fair: If the government conducts an excluding process of privatization, it’s only natural it should favor those who were previously excluded. Land for the people.

If the victims of the World Cup benefit from it, we can think about urban impact later. What do you think, Urban Rights people?

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