The University of Arizona

Trees and springs as social property: a perspective on degrowth and redistributive democracy from a Brazilian squatter community

Jonathan DeVore


Abstract Questions concerning the maldistribution of property and productive resources continue to inform debates about how to bring about societies that are livable, equitable, and ecologically sustainable. In the diverse imaginaries of revolutionary, utopian, socialist, and anti-capitalist politics—together with their adversaries— the notions of "collective" and "private" property have often been conceived as mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternatives. Drawing from several years of ethnographic research with rural squatters in the cacao lands of Bahia, Brazil, the author brings together alternative ways of conceptualizing property that can help overcome this lingering dichotomy and fruitfully inform new political projects. The article examines local practices of property-making through two cases focused on the private ownership and stewardship of natural springs, and the processes whereby squatters convert forest into agroforest. The analysis highlights the ways in which these "private" properties are intersected by "public" interests and "collective" practices, while considering the different kinds of relations that these intersections afford among people and between humans and the non-human environment. Based on these cases, the author suggests that current conversations about "degrowth" may benefit by drawing together frameworks from political ecology, economic anthropology, and property jurisprudence. The presentation concludes by highlighting potential synergies between concerns for degrowth and claims for property democratization. Key Words: degrowth; redistributive democracy; squatters; agroforests; water resources; property rights; private property; commoning; cacao zone; Atlantic Forest; Brazil

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