Almost everyone who owns a home in the city of Petropolis — where the Brazilian royal family once had a summer palace — still pays tax to the descendants of the former rulers.
Here is a eye-popping statistic from Brazil: 1 percent of the populationcontrols almost half the land. The country is one of the most unequal places in the world in terms of land distribution. And one reason is colonial-era laws that are still on the books.
At an office in central Rio de Janeiro, where real estate sales in this area get notarized, the notary reads to us a list of families who are owed a percentage of all real estate transactions in certain parts of the city.
Among them is Orleans-Braganza — the name of the former Brazilian royal family.
The system is called enfiteuse, and practically speaking, it means that some people in Brazil still have to pay property taxes to former Portuguese royals and nobles.
The Brazilian royal family, pictured in 1887, included, from left to right: Antonio, Isabel, Pedro, Luís (seated), Augusto, Emperor Pedro II, Gaston, Empress Teresas Cristina and Pedro Augusto. Under the Brazilian system of enfiteuse, which grants land rights forever, descendants of the family are entitled to receive tax today.
Here’s the history: Enfiteuse is believed to have started in ancient Rome. It was taken to Brazil when Portugal colonized the area in 1500.
“In colonial times, private property didn’t exist in Brazil. All the lands were considered property of the Portuguese crown. The king would give concessions over the land to friends of the court,” recounts Alex Magalhães, a professor at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Some of these concessions were vast. After all, Brazil was practically the size of a continent.
Those nobles — and the Catholic Church, which also received land — could earn rent by allowing other people to build on the property but keeping the land rights for themselves.
Shades Of Feudalism
It emulates a kind of feudal system that was popular in many parts of Europe centuries ago. Unlike the leasehold system in England, enfiteuse grants land rights forever.
Magalhaes says that, back then, it made sense: It was a way of supporting the whole colonial enterprise, and no one person could develop enormous landholdings.