During the Language of Liberty Institute’s Liberty Seminars in the south of Brazil last May, the attendees were treated to a talk about freedom and human prosperity. Using the Economic Freedom of the World report CATO’s Latin America expert Juan Carlos Hidalgo made a convincing case for (economic) freedom as a prerequisite for human progress. One of the points he made about underdeveloped countries relates to how poor protection of property rights stifles economic growth.
In Brazil this lack of recognition of property rights is most pronounced in the infamous favelas. In the years and months leading up to the World Cup the evictions generated some press, but now that the international spotlight has shifted elsewhere it is business as usual. While major sporting events in third world countries have become somewhat notorious for leading to these practices, they certainly are not a requirement.
One state over from Rio de Janeiro is Minas Gerais, epicenter of Brazilian coffee and milk production. Its capital and largest city Belo Horizonte boasts the third largest metropolitan area in the country after Rio and São Paulo and is a major financial hub in South America. Consequently it has attracted swaths of lower-class jobseekers who, lacking the financial resources necessary to buy a home in the city, opted to build their own communities on the outskirts of town. Now, local authorities are threatening to forcibly evict the 8,000 families who have taken up residence there.
Leaflets spread over the region announced military police would – absent a court decision – follow their orders to repossess the land “in accordance with the constitution and the fundamental principles of human rights”. Residents of the three communities, however, have unanimously decided to stay in their homes after the state government pulled the plug on negotiations with them. The land is said to be wanted for development and projected to be worth $6.5 billion, providing plenty of incentive to evict the locals even if it means rendering them homeless. Without any legal recourse they are left with two choices: leave, or face the jackboot of the state.
Reports from human rights organizations confirm the situation in Belo Horizonte is hardly the exception. Since the 1970s many people from Brazil’s poorer north have been migrating to the south and southeast in search of opportunity. Needless to say, the majority ended up in much the same situation as the aforementioned 8,000 families. For decades the issue was of no importance but as we know, multi-billion dollar deals have the power to make politicians dance to a completely different beat. The poor they always profess to care so much about cannot be allowed to obstruct lucrative projects that can be used to one’s political advantage.
Ending the current situation of legal ambiguity with regard to property rights is paramount both to the lot of the poorest in society and to the cause of liberty. Left-leaning critics of libertarian thinking often accuse proponents of the free market of being mere shills for corporate interests. While many Brazilians are still unfamiliar with libertarianism injecting issues like these into the public debate can do a lot to take the wind out of the sails of those detractors. After all, if there is one thing that makes our attitude towards the poor unique it is our focus on empowerment rather than dependence. If the most down-trodden can be reached with that message real change can be made.