Informality through the state: How overregulation and tolerance shape informal land development in metropolitan Brazil

24 Jan 2024, 9:23 a.m.
João Tonucci

The relationship between the state and informal land development in Global South metropolises has yet not received much attention in urban studies. Concerning that knowledge gap, in this paper I investigated how the state regulates and inspects irregular and clandestine land subdivisions in the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte (MRBH). Since 2009, the metropolitan authority – MRBH Agency – has been responsible for land development control in the 34 municipalities that comprise Brazil’s third largest urban agglomeration. Despite a comprehensive regulatory framework and land development control powers, informal land development is still a widespread phenomenon, as informal subdivisions continue to push the boundaries of the region into far out peri-urban and rural areas.

Through a mixed-methods case study exploring the inner workings of the land development control policy led by the MRBH Agency from 2009 to 2018, the study provides novel evidence of the relationships between inspectors, developers, and prosecutors, among other actors. By delving deep into the intricate nexus of a changing and messy regulatory landscape and the bureaucratic, street-level and everyday enforcement practices by officials, it reveals how the state directly and indirectly shapes informal land development in metropolitan Brazil. This builds on and extends the scholarship looking at the state-informality nexus. In contrast to literature focusing on the agency of residents and communities, on the state’s role in displacement and eviction, or in regularisation and upgrading of informal settlements in urban settings, this paper provides a detailed understanding of the complex relationship between state actors and informal land developers operating on the rural-urban fringe.

The study revealed how land development control unrolls through a contradictory combination of overregulation on one side and tolerance with informality on the other. While overregulation refers to a messy regulatory regime of strict, overlapping and contradictory norms that create significant barriers to formality, tolerance for informality is fostered through weak inspection, lax law enforcement, and expectations of regularisation, lowering the costs and risks for informality. Therefore, land development control is better understood as a fragile and ambivalent state compromise between the need to regulate urban expansion and the market-driven interests behind informal urbanisation. In light of this, I argued that, as land development control evolves without effectively tackling the land question and the structural drivers of land informality, the state becomes paradoxically entangled in the production of the same forms of informality it is expected to curb, undermining planning.

This study concludes that, by creating opportunities for rent extraction and capital accumulation which are explored by informal land developers, the state has been crucial for sustaining a regime of property-led informal urbanisation in metropolitan Brazil. This has sustained a sprawling, splintered and unsustainable form of urbanisation which has been worsening conditions of access to land and housing, creating new forms of social and racial segregation, and producing environmental injustices. This growing commodification of informality calls for further investigation of the intricate ways by which informal urbanisation is constituted not outside but through the operations of the state.


Read the full paper on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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