San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Handling the Land Problem

A family’s desire for a piece of land and a house is as old as civilization itself. Through the centuries, the pressure of this desire has grown as the world’s population has soared. The problem is more acute in some countries than others.

The founders of the governing National Liberation Party in Costa Rica recognized this pressure shortly after the 1948 revolution that brought them to power, and three decades ago they set up the National Urban Housing Institute (INVU) to arrange for low-cost housing and the Institute of Lands and Colonization (ITCO) to handle land distribution.

Because neither of these organizations could solve the growing problems of subsistence families living in slums, the Mixed Institute for Social Assistance (IMAS) was set up 20 years ago.

All three – IVU, ITCO and IMAS grew steadily in bureaucratic structure, even though their planning often fell short of meeting growing demands for low-cost housing and available parcels of land.

Costa Rica has long been plagued by problem of squatters, individuals or families who casually move on to a piece of land – sometimes public, sometimes private – and remain unless they are forcibly ejected.

The Constitution guarantees the inviolability of land ownership, and also provides that expropriated land must be paid for immediately and at a fair price. But if squatters manage to live for one year on land they have occupied, they then can remain on the property.

In recent years, the practice of squatting has grown into a tactic employed by displaced labor groups or political movements.

The violence in the southern area of Coto Brus is but one of numerous such instances that has plagued this and previous administrations.

President Luis Alberto Monge’s government seems inclined to solve such crises by expropriating the occupied land so that it can be turned over to the squatters – who most certainly need some place to live. The negotiations are being carried out under direct supervision of the Council of Government.

This policy is not only complicated and expensive for a government in deep financial trouble, but also seems to bypass the three well-staffed institutions – INVU, IDA, and IMAS – which were created specifically to deal with such problems. One is tempted to ask what they are doing, and why their planning had not foreseen such emergencies.


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