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Land Rights in the Urban Global South

Regularization and Land-Ownership Policies in Low-Income Neighbourhoods

by Armelle Choplin & Éric Denis & translated by Oliver Waine, on 18 May 2018

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In choosing to focus on the Global South, Metropolitics turns its attention to a key aspect of contemporary cities: land and land rights. By shedding light on situations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world, this series analyses land-rights strategies deployed by residents of low-income neighbourhoods to access land, and the way these populations benefit – or not – from land reform and from land-titling policies.

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Despite a slight slowdown in demographic growth, large-scale urban sprawl is still a fact of life for cities in emerging and developing countries, and represents a pressing issue to which solutions must be found. The extension of these cities is reflected in the appearance of new neighbourhoods of varying legality in terms of land-tenure status. The control and valorization of land has therefore become a key lever of urban policy. Public authorities seek to take advantage of this resource by increasing property taxes, and by increasing the value of public assets. Incentivized by financial backers and international institutions who favour the balancing of local finances, [1] they put in place reforms and regularization policies for areas of illegal occupancy, which are now often home to the majority of their cities’ populations. The residents of these low-income neighbourhoods implement different practices in order to gain recognition of their land rights. Obtaining a plot of land, legally or otherwise, and then constructing a dwelling by laying cinder blocks day after day, is one of the means used to legitimize their presence in the city. This series proposes an overview of these land-access policies, in particular those that involve the distribution of individual land titles, and on their effects in the cities where they are implemented.

Regularizing, securing, titling

By looking to recent research, this series questions the theories of liberal economist Hernando de Soto (2001), who advocates the formalization of informal housing in order to foster inclusion through the market. In his view, regularizing illegal land occupancy through land-titling schemes provides access to assets in the form of land – hitherto “dead capital” – and thus helps to combat poverty via entrepreneurial means. His virtuous model has been promoted by international institutions and financial backers – and in particular the World Bank – which have supported programmes aimed at achieving land security, access to credit, and the protection of private property. The various contributions to this series offer post-facto analyses of these titling policies and their effects, which have been widely criticized (Gilbert 2002; Payne et al. 2009). By adopting nuanced stances, the authors of these papers demonstrate that, very often, land titling does not necessarily go hand in hand with land security or even the end of informality. For example, David Sims explains that the inhabitants of Cairo do not necessarily need land titles in order to be recognized as legitimate, to be assured of the security of their dwellings and settlements, and to access urban services. Kareem Ibrahim and Deena Khalil arrive at the same conclusion, explaining that land titling should not be perceived as an end in and of itself, but as a tool like any other, with its shortcomings and inefficiencies. These broad tendencies should not blind us, however, to specific situations such as that endured by Egyptian citizens, who are more than ever living in an authoritarian regime where arbitrary evictions are becoming more and more frequent, as occupation of a place, building, apartment or property is increasingly contested.

In Rio, Cairo and Delhi, a number of regularization programmes have been initiated without truly achieving their final objectives. The procedures are often long, costly, and even impossible to complete in some cases, and consequently leave vast neighbourhoods in a state of flux while awaiting an official tenure status, oscillating between illegality, laissez-faire, and the hope of future recognition. In both India and Sudan, the authorities use these nebulous regularization procedures to their advantage in order, ultimately, to maintain control over the most strategic spaces, and typically concede only conditional and limited rights.

Registration: all the better to control – and tax – you with

In addition to being often inefficient and rarely implemented on any scale larger than localized pilot experiments, these land-regularization policies are not neutral. In the case of Ethiopia, reforms carried out enable the public authorities to reinforce their control and oversight over the land. Regularizing these parcels of land involves bringing them on to the market – and thus taxing their now legal owners, as in the case of Benin. These land-rights reforms therefore aim to raise local taxes, and to achieve this are often accompanied by addressing schemes, as has been extensively studied in sub-Saharan Africa and in India (e.g. Bhoomi programmes in Karnataka, cf. Benjamin and Raman 2011). These reforms and addressing operations involve the creation of new digital land registers and cadastres, which do not only record and update details of land ownership but also modify ownership. Recent works have highlighted the extent to which local knowledge of property ownership and land use is ignored, forgotten and ultimately eradicated as a result of efforts to apply simplified international standards that aim to comply with the creation of an individualized, absolute, incontestable and unified form of property ownership (Raman et al. 2016 ; Pritchard et al. 2015). These efforts to secure, register and levy charges do not, moreover, prevent the continuing massive existence of vast numbers of situations informal land-use situations; consequently, we must look beyond the limitations of a dichotomy between the legal and the illegal.

Towards a city of papers

This series discusses the links between land titles, access to services and a feeling of security. Several articles show that documents attesting the occupancy of a space (in particular written and registered title deeds) do not always provide solid guarantees, owing in particular to the overlapping of competencies between central government, local authorities, and other customary powers and bodies, as can be clearly observed in postcolonial situations, such as in Benin and Sudan. Alice Franck shows the extent to which official land titles remain “unstable” in Khartoum since the split into North and South Sudan, amplifying inhabitants’ distrust of the state and local authorities. Certain political connections or relationships of trust provide much better guarantees of ownership than a formal title deed.

Furthermore, these reforms and regularizations, which tend towards the recognition of individual ownership only, create new forms of exclusion and discrimination, in particular for tenants and the poorest populations, who are not in a position to assert their rights. Through the example of the privatization of collective land in outlying districts of Mexico City, Jean-François Valette shows that the distribution of land titles is a new source of inequality between the newly “titled” and the rest, who are excluded from the process. Laure Criqui makes a similar observation (in French) in the case of Delhi in India, where “provisional regularization certificates” have become simply one form of proof of legitimacy among others. Possessing these papers has established new kinds of differentiation, further weakening the situation of those who have not managed to obtain them.

These regularization procedures, in addition to being often long and costly, are therefore also the source of new categories, brought into existence by the issuing of official papers. These contexts incite inhabitants to collect any and all documents that might attest to their right to occupy a given space in the city. It is therefore important to consider the forms of contractualization involved, the physical establishment of proof, the kinds of papers that change hands – including those produced by inhabitants themselves with a view to being officially recognized (neighbourhood plans, census data, bills, fines, etc.) – and the pragmatism of negotiations and routines (Hull 2012). In this way, a “city of papers” is established, where every document is preciously saved, ready to provide justification when necessary, and exchanged in order to guarantee ownership (Raman et al. 2006).

The practices and sociolegal norms that establish the right to occupy a space in the city therefore form a continuum, rather than a binary opposition between the written and the oral, let alone between legality and illegality. It is no doubt possible and necessary to move beyond notions such as the informalization of the production of the city (Roy and Sayyad 2004), or even the notion of urban planning by exception (as, in practice, everything – or almost everything – in every urban operation, however large or small, is subject to waivers and exemptions), in order to shed light on an ad hoc form of urban development that reinvents itself from day to day.

Hoarding and land capture: the sterilization of land

The decision to focus in this series on low-income neighbourhoods is justified by the importance of land for the poorest sections of society. As Éric Denis explains in his article, any analysis of the profit-making potential of land cannot be confined to studying the actions of major institutional actors in the real-estate sector. This public stranglehold over land also concerns ownership among low-income populations through titling programmes that individualize and regularize property (cf. de Soto and his critics), “evictions by the market” (Durand-Lasserve and Royston 2002), and forced displacements and other rehousing operations (Raman 2015). The centrality of land-tenure issues can also be seen in the implementation of all “slum-free city” programmes throughout the world (UN‑Habitat 2003). Land distribution therefore becomes a new resource, and one that directly contributes to speculative bubbles. The registers used in the different articles in this series reflect the prevalence of land capture, a common trait of large institutional actors and residents of low-income neighbourhoods alike: “predation”, “control”, “lease revenue strategies”, etc.

This is all the more visible given that land monetization concerns even the poorest populations, owing to the lack of sophistication and inclusion of emerging countries’ financial systems. In India, in 2011, only 35% of households had a bank account. Land monetization is therefore a means of insuring against widespread uncertainty: land becomes a reserve for protecting capital – however limited – from inflation, and for facilitating borrowing (typically through “informal” mortgage arrangements, involving a simple written agreement between an occupier and a lender). Parcels of former farmland become financial reserves that can, if necessary, be ceded (quite easily, almost like liquid assets) to pay for a wedding, for studies or for hospital fees, for instance.

This very powerful dynamic radically shakes up land use in whole villages, but remains largely undocumented. Vast swathes of fertile land are sterilized as a result, without necessarily being built upon. For low-income groups, while the strategies deployed to access land are a barrier against uncertainty, they are also increasingly the expression of urban desire, as Éric Denis explains. For many of these urbanites seeking recognition as citizens, access to land is a first foothold and consolidates their integration into the city, and consequently into society.

Towards alternative forms of recognition of land rights?

Through case studies from different parts of the world, this series reveals land-tenure situations that are much more complex than a legal/illegal dichotomy. Indeed, non-codified practices at the crossroads between traditional norms and positive law but which guarantee a rarely contested status of ownership have been destabilized by recent reforms seeking to clarify tenure. These reforms have very often complicated the situation without providing greater security. This series therefore calls for reflection on other possible experiments as alternatives to full individual ownership within the context of regularization programmes. Different forms of land-related measures are possible, such as residents’ cooperatives or collective ownership. The article on the commons by Irène Salenson and Claire Simonneau, for example, seeks to explore some of the innovative approaches that are opening the way to recognition of the right to stable settlement in the city.

Articles in this series:

See also on Métropolitiques (in French):

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  • Benjamin, S. and Raman, B. 2011. “Illegible claims, legal titles, and the worlding of Bangalore”, Revue Tiers Monde, no. 2, pp. 37–54.
  • Denis, É. 2011. “La financiarisation du foncier observée à partir des métropoles égyptiennes et indiennes”, Revue Tiers Monde, no. 2, pp. 139–158.
  • de Soto, H. 2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, New York: Basic Books.
  • Durand-Lasserve, A. and Royston, L. 2002. Holding Their Ground: Secure Land Tenure for the Urban Poor in Developing Countries, London: Earthscan.
  • Gilbert, A. 2002. “On the mystery of capital and the myths of Hernando de Soto: what difference does legal title make?”, International Development Planning Review, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 1–19.
  • Hull, M. 2012. Government of Paper. The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Payne, G., Durand-Lasserve, A. and Rakodi, C. 2009. “The limits of land titling and home ownership”, Environment and Urbanization, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 443–462.
  • Pritchard, S. B., Wolf, S. A. and Wolford, W. 2015. “Knowledge and the politics of land”, Environment and Planning A, 16 September.
  • Raman, B., Denis, É. and Benjamin, S. 2016. “Everyday practices of titling: the pragmatic politics of popular urban groups and the materiality of papers in securing their land possession”, Planning and Urbanization.
  • Roy, A. and Sayyad, N. 2004. Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia, Lanham/Oxford: Lexington Books.
  • Shawkat, Y. 2016. “Property market deregulation and informal tenure in Egypt: a diabolical threat to millions”, Architecture_MPS, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 1–18.
  • UN-Habitat. 2003. The Challenge of the Slum, Nairobi.


[1Between the 1980s and the 2000s, these countries were the subject of large-scale structural-adjustment programmes set up by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in order to reduce debt.

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To cite this article:

Armelle Choplin & Éric Denis & translated by Oliver Waine, “Land Rights in the Urban Global South. Regularization and Land-Ownership Policies in Low-Income Neighbourhoods”, Metropolitics, 18 May 2018. URL: https://www.metropolitiques.eu/Land-Rights-in-the-Urban-Global-South.html
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