This paper presents the results of the research program “Communs fonciers pour l’habitat dans les Suds” (landbased commons for housing in the Global South), led by the UMR Géographie-cités and conducted in collaboration with researchers on the field.
This program is led by Eric Denis, director of the UMR Géographie-cités, with the collaboration of Claire Simonneau, received funding from the French Development Agency (AFD) from 2017 to 2020, and is part of AFD’s reflections on the interaction between commons and development.
Despite a renewed interest for the notion of “commons” within academic, professional and political spheres over the last ten years, little work has been done about land and housing issues in cities of the Global South. Yet access to urban land is a major issue for dwellers of these rapidly growing cities and a determining factor for the improvement of their living conditions and for their access to “adequate housing”, according to UN terminology. The mainstream approach about urban land tenure, based on individual private ownership and free market tends to generate speculation and land grabbing, and exclusion of the most precarious households.
The critical dimension of the commons notion opens up innovative ways to produce housing in the Global South, according to plural perspectives that take into consideration the inhabitant’s needs and their agency abilities.
The research team have conducted eight case studies, representing three types of mechanisms:
- collective production of housing, such as housing cooperatives in Uruguay and Burkina Faso, and a Community Land Trust in Kenya;
- socio-legal processes of collective claims about land rights (“commoning”), especially collective mobilization to get individual land rights in Bangalore and Nagpur in India, and collective acquisitive prescription in Brazil
- real estate development projects on collectively held land, such as developments on Kanak customary land in New Caledonia and on ejidal land in Mexico.
A comparative approach allowed us to draw several analytic points. Thus, this research paper highlights the diversity of hybrid, permeable, evolving commons within space and time. These commons aim at getting and securing access rights to land and housing and associated services, which often arise from unexpected opportunities.
The paper looks at innovative ways of holding land: commonly held, with a housing function and in a nonspeculative perspective (when the transfer of land is carried out according to a framework decided beforehand by a community, without any capital benefit). Commons can then be understood as a social housing policy which offers access to housing to the most vulnerable social groups. Moreover, they can provide an alternative path to classical public housing policies which favor individual private property. Indeed, even though these initiatives emerge from dwellers organizations, they might be supported and framed by national governments, such as the inhabitants’ cooperatives in Uruguay.
Often acknowledged, supported and even presented as standard to be followed, the commons have drawn increased attention recently from dwellers federations, associations, NGOs and international institutions that document their functioning and contribute to the international circulation of these alternative ideas. Alongside these actors, this paper intends to contribute to the international advocacy about the commons, with a critical perspective.