Main content area

Sustainability and Land tenure: Who owns the floodplain in the Pantanal, Brazil?

Chiaravalloti, Rafael Morais, Homewood, Katherine, Erikson, Kirsten
Land use policy 2017 v.64 pp. 511-524
anthropology, case studies, ecology, environmental protection, floodplains, land tenure, ownership, people, politics, poverty, property rights, public policy, wetlands, Brazil, Pantanal, Paraguay River
In seeking to achieve poverty alleviation and environmental conservation, public policy has often centred on guaranteeing land titles to local peoples. However, such approaches have brought unintended outcomes, replacing small-scale economies and natural areas by intensive exploitation of resources with no clear improvement in local people’s wellbeing. To understand this, we go beyond a general political ecology framing to consider relations between sustainability and land tenure, focusing on the intersection of economics, ecology and anthropology to understand how land tenure, property and use play out on the ground. We draw together different concepts including bundle of rights, de facto and de jure resource use, property regimes, density-dependence and non-equilibrium theory. The significance of this three-discipline view is illustrated through a case study of the Pantanal wetland, Brazil, where conservationists, the government and the local population contest ownership of the Paraguay River floodplain. Government sought to address conflicts around tenure and access through a narrow view of property, which failed to encompass the overlapping layers of land tenure, property and use on the ground and only served to create further legal battles. This article concludes that a more complex view combining the three perspectives is needed in the case of the Pantanal, and in other cases of contested property rights, in order to resolve conflicting claims and foster sustainability. We dissect both the power plays involved between different groups competing for control of a valuable resource, and the legal frameworks which can and should provide checks and balances in the system. The more nuanced grasp that emerges of local systems of tenure and access, of how these diverge from western property concepts, and of their environmental implications favours a better understanding of local realities, allowing for better management policy and consequently contributing more effectively towards poverty alleviation and environmental protection.