PETROPOLIS, Brazil, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
W ith its colonial mansions, landscaped gardens and ornate
fountains, the town of Petropolis, a traditional haunt of
Brazil's last monarch Dom Pedro II, retains a grandeur that has
not faded since he was forced into exile in 1889.
But beneath the opulent surface of the former summer
imperial capital, resentment simmers against a special tax, the
proceeds of which continue to go directly to the king's
descendants - more than a century after he was ousted.
For many of the 300,000 people living in the hill town, a
2.5 percent tax on real estate transactions is a symbol of
social injustice in Latin America's biggest country where
inequality has widened amid its worst recession on record.
Brazil is one of the world's most unequal places for
property distribution with almost half of the land owned by one
percent of the population. Colonial-era laws exacerbate the
problem, analysts said.
"People aren't happy to pay this tax," Isabela Verleun, who
works at the Imperial Museum of Petropolis, told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation. "It shouldn't exist."
Petropolis, known as the Imperial City, is the closest
mountain resort to Rio. Just 65 kms (42 miles) northeast of
Brazil's second biggest city, it's a favoured getaway for Rio
residents with its forested hills and waterfalls.
It is well known for its 19th century architecture and home
of the Imperial Museum, one of Brazil's most visited museums.
Dom Pedro II and his family spent summers there after 1845
to escape the sweltering heat of then capital Rio de Janeiro.
Inside what is now a tourist attraction, children slide
along wooden floors as adults marvel at a grand dining room
complete with crystal chandelier.
"ANCIENT AND HEREDITARY"
The town's special property tax - known as laudemio - dates
back to before Brazil's independence in 1882.
The tax was imported to Brazil by its former colonial master
Portugal to ensure land was passed from European settlers to
their heirs. In colonial years, Brazil's land was deemed the
property of the Portuguese crown.
Despite becoming an independent republic in 1889, the
special tax has never been repealed and is now criticised for
continuing to earn money for a few privileged families.
"This ancient tax is hereditary and perpetual," said Vitor
Fernandes, a property law expert at the University of Campinas.
Marco Antonio de Melo Breves, a senior official with
Brazil's federal tax department, could not provide figures on
how much revenue is paid annually under the royal property tax
or how much it costs the average homeowner.
"There is not a unified database where it's possible to
obtain this," Breves told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Payments are generally made through notaries, or private
lawyers who certify documents, Breves said, so the government
doesn't have information on how many royal descendants are
receiving benefits from property taxpayers.
Dom Joao Henrique de Orleans e Braganca, a businessman and
photographer popularly known as Prince Bishop Johnny, is the
great-great-grandson of the final monarch, and counts prominent
politicians and artists among his friends.
In an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Valor, Braganca
acknowledged some resent the royal family's continued perks.
The prince said he received "very little money" from
Petropolis under the special tax, without giving an amount, but
added payments must continue as they are part of a "legal
contract" in the city.
A fan of the British TV series "The Crown" which showcases
the hectic schedules of the UK royal family, Braganca said that
he does useful work "travelling all over Brazil doing talks in
favour of respect for democracy and citizenship".
The former royal family is not the only institution to
benefit from the laudemio and a related land tax known as
enfiteuse. The navy and the Catholic Church also levy similar
property taxes, said Ely Machado, a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro who
helps clients navigate Brazil's complex housing rules.
A lack of clear property ownership and complex land
registration policies are ongoing problems in Brazil, government
Half the population cannot prove full legal ownership of
their homes, according to the Ministry of Cities.
While taxing homeowners based on colonial history may seem
archaic, removing the special land tax would require a series of
complex legal changes, said Ana Paula Bueno, a lawyer with the
Land Governance Group at the State University of Campinas.
When Brazil emerged from military dictatorship and launched
a new constitution in 1988 some people pushed for the tax to be
abolished, said Verleun, but their lobbying was unsuccessful.
"We have to live with it," Ana Paula Bueno told the Thomson
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Katie
Nguyen and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights,
climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)