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LEDUB: The Laboratory for Studies of Transformations in Brazilian Urban Law

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On August 11, the Brazilian School of Higher Studies (CBAE) hosted the launch of the Laboratory for Studies of Transformations in Brazilian Urban Law (LEDUB), “a point of convergence for students, professionals and specialists who consider urban law a fundamental piece in the functioning of Brazilian cities.” The project was developed by Professor Alex Magalhães of the Urban and Regional Planning Research Institute (IPPUR) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and counts on a group of young researchers and numerous collaborators from urban and legal fields. Due to the nature of the topic, LEDUB brings an interdisciplinary dialogue to the table, welcoming all those who wish to explore the legal dimension of the urban phenomenon, regardless of their formal educations or titles.

The event began by paying homage to lawyer and Professor Ricardo Pereira Lira, ex-director of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) Law School, where starting in 1987 he focused on what later would be described as Urban Law. This topic later turned into a post-graduate course at UERJ in 1991. At the beginning of the event, a video was shown of an interview with Lira in which he spoke about his academic and professional trajectory. He declared in the interview that his greatest doctrinal contribution was his book, Elements of Urban Law (Elementos de Direito Urbanístico).

One of the important elements cited in the video was his preoccupation with the upgrading of the favelas, which led him to formulate, in 1979, an academic thesis on the need for the return of surface rights within Brazilian jurisprudence. As he affirmed in his interview: “Surface rights existed within the Brazilian legal system until a certain point and afterwards stopped existing because the first Brazilian mortgage law did not list surface rights among the real rights included in the law. So it fell out of usage. So I created this thesis, focusing on the return of surface rights in the Brazilian legal system, concerned with the fundamental idea that the right to the surface be used as a means to establish titles in the favelas. This was my first inspiration, my first link with urban law.”

Ricardo Lira relates in the interview that after he defended his thesis, a friend alerted him that surface rightswhich constitute a temporary right for a determined or undetermined amount of time—could create the conditions for the gentrification of favelas because after “the right to the surface ended, these lands, this plot of earth would return to the grantor of the surface, involving true white removal (local term for gentrification).” He recounts that after hearing this critique he began to worry about the possibility, and that after reflecting he had “another plan: on ending the surface contract, you would give the resident on the surface the option to buy, not for the market price, but for the social price, such that he would be able to have the ownership of that area.”

As a note, the City Statute, a policy instrument for urban development, reinserted surface rights back into the Brazilian legal code in 2001, but it was only implemented in practice with the Civil Code of 2002.

After the video and homage, four guest lecturers spoke with respect to the concept and guidelines of the new laboratory.

Lawyer and Professor Miguel Lanzelotti Baldéz—who for decades has advised popular movements that fight for the right to land and housing, and who is a reference on theories associated with how law derives from the people—highlighted how the history of Brazil is one of a country that was invaded, colonized, and instituted with a deeply embedded slave-holding logic, with these elements aggravating the current socio-economic situation: “We’re living today through a coup. Our land was first constituted for housing under Portuguese possession, partitioned by white and Catholic Europeans.” He gave evidence for the clear distinction between the socio-ethnic values of the colonizers and those of the colonized. Baldéz reinforced the “importance of the question of land as a political struggle… We need to debate and encourage the urban struggle for the construction of a democratic country.” He declared that he felt proud to be a lawyer for the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and community of Horto.

Next, geographer Jailson de Souza Silva, founder and director of the Favelas Observatory, brought to the discussion his personal experiences of working to get young people from the Maré favela into university and his intense search for the rights of the marginalized. He also pointed to the adverse conditions in the real estate market and in public transport which affect the majority of working class people from the periphery: “It’s not enough to create a metro exit in Complexo do Alemão. The city should be prepared to receive these people.” Silva, born and raised in North Zone favelas, recognizes that racism is institutional and present in diverse structures of power that work for private means. Furthermore, these private institutions have a negative vision of the favelas and their residents. “One of the presumptions is the paradigm of absence, denoting everything that the periphery lacks from the bourgeois point of view,” Silva said. He continued: “Every favela resident is a potential criminal from the dominant point of view that does not permit us to see reality.”

Jailson de Souza Silva recognized the force of various social movements such as women’s, black and LGBT collectives searching for equality in the urban space. “We live in a coup dynamic in which, in the middle of the darkness, strong groups are emerging in the fight for democracy and social radicalization,” he said. He continued: “In the context of aesthetic norms imposed by a minority, to maintain one’s black hair unstraightened is already a revolutionary act.” Affirming that one of the privileges of living in urban space is to coexist with differences, Silva expressed that “we need to stop understanding the favela as a problem, and instead understand it as an integral part of the city. And the State should, within its power, recognize it as such, fortifying the principle of territorial equality.”

Next, lawyer Letícia Marques Osório of the Ford Foundation in Rio centered her discussion on the concept of the right to the city in the context of the UN’s New Urban Agenda and its guidelines, which she said are usually revoked and practiced incorrectly. She also spoke about sensitive questions related to housing rights. Letícia stressed the importance of discussing the private sector’s position as the principal modifier of public space, entailing changes to the social conjuncture: “The burden of modifying private space is going to the real estate sector, the majority of State resources are frozen. We need to return to [instituting] land regularization to realize its social intent.” According to Osório, the current situation results in the gentrification of favelas and in public properties being privatized. She also highlighted that “we need to incorporate civil society movements, in addition to empowering women who, currently, own only 1% of private property.”

The dialogue concluded with the participation of Professor Ricardo Pereira Lira himself. He reemphasized the importance of not allowing the City Statute to follow the same path as the City Master Plan, which is under municipal jurisdiction and has had its regulations defanged. Lira affirmed that “the landowner has duties to society and this notion permeates the whole City Statute,” invoking a collective and social mentality in which all landowners must keep in mind their contributions to the preservation of the environment and social equality, in accordance with the guidelines of the City Statute. The professor spoke of the difficulties of putting the City Master Plans into practice because, according to him, many municipalities are created “out of the desire to access state and federal funding. They do not have a social reality.” And as he affirmed in the video interview that was shown, “often [these created municipalities] do not have a Master Plan or they buy a specific model from the Brazilian Municipal Administration Institute.”

At the end, LEDUB founder, lawyer, writer, and urban planning professor, Alex Magalhães, approached the table thanking the lecturers for their presence and presented the guidelines of the LEDUB project, kicking off the celebratory part of the event. LEDUB begins its initiatives with a focus on correctly implementing urban law in the streets and in the everyday life of the city. Its objective is to remove any inaccessible aspects of urban law, in order to make it popular and emancipatory.

Follow LEDUB on Facebook and sign up as a member here. International collaborators are welcome and membership is free.