Over 15,000 families have benefited to date from the Bento Rubião Foundation’s pioneering work with the Right to Land and Right to Housing programmes in Rio de Janeiro. These programmes address issues of land tenure and urban regularisation, as well as innovative approaches to housing provision. In addition to empowering communities to improve their living conditions, FBR is also working successfully to influence both local and national government policy.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

  • To ensure the right of the poor to dignified housing by providing technical assistance for housing construction through mutual aid and participatory processes.
  • To provide legal assistance to ensure access to land tenure.
  • To raise awareness of the housing crises through educational activities, such as workshops, seminars and publications for knowledge sharing.
  • To influence the formation and implementation of housing policy.

Brazil’s current housing deficit is 6.5 million housing units, 84 per cent of which is accounted for by families with a monthly income below $258. These are families who either share the same housing unit; live in precarious housing conditions, on the streets or in high-risk areas; or commit an excessive percentage of their earnings in rent. At least 30 per cent of the population of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas or irregular land subdivisions, without access to secure land tenure or adequate infrastructure.

The Bento Rubião Foundation deals with a wide range of housing related problems ranging from the lack of housing and inadequate housing conditions to the informal ownership of land and the threat of eviction. The organisation was established in 1986 by a group of slum leaders and technical professionals and seeks to address the lack of government actions aimed at the poorest sectors of the population and the impossibility of these households to have access to housing and basic infrastructure through traditional market systems.

The three main fields of action of the organisation include mobilising and strengthening community-based groups, defending the rights of children and adolescents and addressing issues relating to land, housing and livelihoods. Bento Rubião targets the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the population such as families living in favelas, without access to secure land tenure. The Foundation’s activities include slum upgrading and housing construction through mutual aid and participatory processes, regularisation of land tenure, education and knowledge transfer and the formulation of housing policy.

The programme acts on two fronts: the ‘Right to Land’ project deals with issues of land tenure and urban regularisation, and the ‘Right to Housing’ project works to develop alternative housing approaches.

The Right to Land project involves the provision of legal, social and urban advice and access to secure land tenure to groups who are either homeless, under threat of eviction, or eligible for land tenure regularisation under modern legislation that has been developed at municipal and national level. The Right to Land project has benefited 11,589 households to date. In the last two years, the number of families helped annually has increased from 1,000 to 4,000 and is expected to increase to 5,500 families per year in the next triennium.

The Right to Housing project involves housing construction through mutual aid and the formation of cooperatives. Technical assistance is provided by the Foundation’s interdisciplinary team and land is kept in collective ownership for the community. The cost of housing is 30 – 50 per cent cheaper than commercial housing and residents make payments into a Revolving Fund, which is then used to support similar experiences in other communities. A total of 1,358 dwellings have been built through the Right to Housing project.

Conventional, locally available building materials such as brick and concrete block were used in the housing construction. Where possible, materials were purchased from small companies employing people from the local area. The project provides improved access to water and urban infrastructure. Adequate daylight and cross-ventilation contribute toward energy savings as well as improvements in health.

Residents are actively involved in all stages of the project. Bento Rubião provides technical assistance and legal advice to residents on issues related to design, planning, development and management of the project. The self-management of resources is an important component of the programme and is designed to empower residents, promote active participation and create ownership of the process within the community. Through the mutual aid process, residents acquired construction skills and many community members, including women, have since obtained formal employment in the construction industry. The organisation is currently working in partnership with three NGOs in the training and capacity building of 50 leaders of slums, housing cooperatives and community-based groups.

The average cost per unit for new housing construction is $4,500, and the average unit cost for land tenure documentation is $35. Resources for the project have been obtained through partnerships with the public sector, organised social movements and international donor agencies. The project is currently funded by Novib, Misereor, the Inter-American Foundation, the Brazilian Ministry of Cities, CAIXA Federal Development Bank and the municipal government of Rio de Janeiro. Residents contribute with labour as well as making monthly payments of circa $26 into a revolving fund over a period of 10 to 12 years. This compares with a monthly rate of $50 over 20 years within the public funding system, for a house of inferior quality in terms of design as well as construction.

The Foundation continues to receive funding from international donor agencies as well as local and national government. Funds deposited by residents into the Revolving Fund are used to support similar experiences in other cooperatives. Funding is in place for the next three years.


Why is it innovative?

  • Bento Rubião is the only NGO in Rio de Janeiro working in the area of land regularisation and the provision of legal assistance to vulnerable groups affected by land tenure problems. The Foundation also pioneered the system of mutual help for social housing production in Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s.
  • Land ownership is collective and is considered a community asset.
  • The Revolving Fund allows for funds collected from instalments paid by the participants of one cooperative to be used to support similar experiences in other communities.
  • Housing construction is characterised by lower cost and superior quality in terms of architectural design and construction in comparison to standard social housing construction.
  • Bento Rubião works on both ends of the spectrum, from direct grassroots action to the formulation of housing policy.
  • The Foundation has developed an innovative piece of legislation in partnership with the municipal government of Rio de Janeiro for housing construction and regularisation of land tenure in squatter settlements, which ensures that regulations are tailored to the specific physical and social conditions of these communities and projects are carried out by community residents through a participatory process.


What is the environmental impact?

The project incorporates a range of environmentally sustainable features including the production of biogas from organic waste, the application of alternative systems of sewage treatment and the separation of waste products for recycling, as well as ensuring the rational use of energy and water resources. Additional environmental aspects of the programme include the creation of green spaces in urban areas and the implementation of a community vegetable garden for consumption in a community kitchen.


Is it financially sustainable?

As a result of the project, housing has become affordable to vulnerable groups who were living in precarious conditions, unable to buy a home through market systems and without access to credit or secure land tenure. Through the Foundation’s Land and Housing Programme, residents contributed both financially and with their labour, and homes were built through a process of mutual aid, with technical assistance from the Foundation, at a lower cost and higher quality compared to standard social housing.

The formation of work cooperatives has helped to generate income for the communities and the project also involves training and capacity building for young people, women and community leaders. In the projects carried out by the Foundation, land ownership is collective and is considered a community asset.


What is the social impact?

Greater community co-operation and integration is a primary focus of the project. Residents work together on housing design, planning, development, construction and management. Participatory workshops are carried out and communities receive support from the Foundation with the social as well as technical aspects of the project.

Bento Rubião actively supports urban popular movements struggling for basic rights to land and housing and works to mobilise and empower community groups to take an active role in society. Organised social movements in Brazilian cities have achieved significant results, both locally and nationally, in terms of housing policy and legislation and access to land and housing.


  •  Delays were caused by the difficulty in explaining complex legal concepts, especially to illiterate members of the community.
  • A heavy workload amongst the technical team members often meant that there was not enough time for discussion and training.
  • Individual interests of community leaders often conflicted with collaborative efforts and cooperation.
  • External barriers were encountered such as urban violence, drug dealing and organised crime in the slums and communities as well as the bureaucracy and extended waiting periods for judicial processes.
  • Structural issues of inequality and poverty reinforce the uneven distribution of land and income in the country.

Lessons Learned

  • The participation and mobilisation of community-based groups around urban housing issues produces more adequate solutions to their needs, generates a sense of belonging and empowers the community as well as providing the necessary skills to improve their living environment.
  • Despite all difficulties and barriers faced, it is certainly worthwhile to face economic and political problems, organised crime and the effects of poverty in order to defend the right of excluded groups to land and housing and to work to reduce social and economic inequities. Lives are transformed as people gain a formal address, legal title to their land and a home.



The Land and Housing Programme is continuously monitored by the Foundation through an integrated institutional planning, monitoring and evaluation system.

The project and its approach have led to great improvements to the quality of life of the residents through the provision of high-quality housing and access to secure land tenure. Increased levels of confidence, the creation of employment and income generation opportunities, the strengthening of social networks and reduced vulnerability are some of the impacts identified.

The project has had an impact on municipal legislation and created mechanisms for the regularisation of land tenure that will affect residents of informal settlements in the metropolitan area as a whole.



The work of the organisation has informed municipal and national housing policy, particularly in the area of land tenure. At the beginning of 2004 an agreement was signed between Bento Rubião and the Ministry of Cities for the regularisation of land tenure in Rocinha, one of the largest and most visible slums in Brazil. The Foundation actively participates in the organisation and executive coordination of the Ministry of Cities’ cycle of Conferences of the Cities (participatory forums for the discussion of urban issues and land and housing policy at local, regional and national levels).

The project has been replicated locally by other communities who, after seeing the results obtained by the project, have formed their own groups and requested the assistance of Bento Rubião. This was the case, for example, with three of the 19 community-based organisations participating in the programme: the experience of the Shangri-lá cooperative led to the creation of the Herbert de Souza cooperative, which in turn led to the Esperança cooperative.

Numbers of groups and families assisted annually by the Right to Land project have increased from an average of 1,000 to an average of 4,000 per year, primarily through word of mouth and the fact that Bento Rubião is the sole NGO in Rio working in land tenure regularisation.

The experience of the Right to Land project has been taken up by the municipal government of Rio de Janeiro through its programme ADP-Rio for the regularisation of land tenure in favelas.

The Foundation is working with national NGOs such as FASE and IBASE as well as CBOs who are carrying out similar work elsewhere in the country. The work of the Foundation has contributed toward new national legislation regarding land tenure regularisation, which is a current priority of the Brazilian Ministry of Cities.

Transfer of some elements of the project has taken place at Latin American level following the participation by members of the Foundation in seminars and workshops in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Cuba and Mexico.



NGO, CBO, Local Community, National Government