De Facto and De Jure Property Rights: Land Settlement and Land Conflict on the Australian, Brazilian and U.s. Frontiers

Lee J. Alston (University of Colorado and NBER)
Edwyna Harris (Monash University)
Bernardo Mueller (University of Brasilia)

Abstract: We present a conceptual framework of the emergence of de facto property rights for land on frontiers and the subsequent assignment by governments of de jure property rights. Potential rents associated with more exclusivity drives “demand” for commons arrangements but demand is not a sufficient explanation; norms and politics matter. Enhanced scarcity eventually drives demand for more exclusivity beyond what can be sustained with commons arrangements. Claimants petition government for de jure property rights to their claims – formal titles. Governments may not allocate de jure rights to first possessors. Moreover, governments may assign de jure rights but be unwilling to enforce the right. This generates potential or actual conflict over land. We examine land settlement and conflict on the frontiers of Australia, Brazil and the U.S. Our analysis indicates the emergence of de facto property rights arrangements will be relatively peaceful where claimants have reasons to organize collectively (Australia and the U.S.). The settlement process will be more prone to conflict when fewer collective activities are required. Consequently, claimants resort to periodic violent self-enforcement or third party enforcement (Brazil). In all three cases the movement from de facto to de jure property rights led to potential or actual conflict because of insufficient government enforcement.

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