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Brazil: Land reform or deforestation boost for the Amazon?

National land will be donated to Brazilians in a program called ‘Terra Legal’ (Legal Land), a package of measures to boost the government-backed redistribution of land and to establish rules for those who have lived and cultivated national land without being its legal owners.

The bill passed through Brazil's Chamber of Deputies last month and was approved in the Senate last night. It now heads for the President's signature. If approved, the move will grant land title to 300,000 properties illegally established across some 600,000 square kilometres of protected Amazon forest.

The rules set by Provisory Measure (MP) number 458, signed by Brazilian President Lula da Silva in February 2009, target mainly areas of the so called Legal Amazon – Brazil's largest socio-geographic area – raising major concerns and coming in for significant criticism from different groups within society.

On one hand, government members say that the project is going to help the forest out of deforestation; on the other hand environmentalists argue it is going to benefit land owners only, and that it will be the last straw for an Amazon rain forest already on its way to destruction.

Ana Cota/Creative Commons

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

Ana Cotta/Creative Commons

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

Ana Cotta/Creative Commons

Ana Cotta/Used with permission. A series of photos titled: "The beginning, the middle and the end"

Provisory Measure 458 allows the Government to transfer, without official bidding, up to 1.5 thousand hectares of its properties to settlers of the Legal Amazon areas. In a report published on Amazonia [pt], a website specialized in forest matters, Flávio Bonanome points out some problems:

Contrariando as últimas declarações polêmicas do Ministro do Meio Ambiente, Carlos Minc, que colocou a Medida Provisória 458 como uma “Vitória Ambientalista”, o especialista em ocupação humana e conflitos agrários na Amazônia e professor do Departamento de Geografia da Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, criticou a medida e afirmou que “A MP fere o princípio constitucional de função social da terra” (…)

Durante sua exposição, que durou cerca de 30 minutos, Oliveira criticou também os projetos fundiários do governo na Amazônia Legal. “O Estado não deveria alimentar assentamentos na Amazônia. Não há esta necessidade. O problema é que o Estado não criou mecanismos para regular suas próprias terras. Estão ao sabor das elites”, afirmou o pesquisador.

Contrary to the last controversial statements by Environment Minister Carlos Minc who has given assurances that Provisory Measure 458 is an “Environmental Victory”, the specialist in Amazonian human land occupation and agrarian warfare at the Department of Geography of São Paulo University (USP), professor Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, has criticised the Measure and declared that: “The MP harms the constitutional principle of the social function of the land”. […] 

During his presentation, which lasted 30 minutes, Oliveira also criticised the Legal Amazon, the government land program. “The State should not encourage settlements in the Amazon. There is no need for this. The problem is that the State has not created mechanisms to rule its own lands. It has been up to the elite to decide”, said the researcher.

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

For some analysts, the main problem with the law is that it does not differentiate between those who want to work on the land; settling down and moving in with their families – typically low profile rural workers such as “posseiros” (peasant squatters); and those who only want to speculate on the land, getting as many plots as they can and then selling them at high prices. There are also “grileiros“, land-grabbers who make use of violence in order to not be informed against when breaking laws.

Former Environment Minister (2004-2008) and PT Party Senator for the Brazilian state of Acre, Marina Silva has written articles and voiced her concerns in an interview for Notícias da Amazonia [Amazonia News, pt] which has been reproduced on some blogs. She says:

Primeiro, dificilmente a pessoa vai declarar que a posse é ilegal, que a ocupação não foi mansa e pacífica. Outro aspecto é que, para passar a terra pública para um particular, há dois requisitos constitucionais: quando se trata de altíssima relevância social e quando cumpre com a função social da terra. Os que entraram ilegalmente e usaram violência não cumprem a função social, e quem tem posses e não há nenhum problema social a ser atendido também não cumpre esse preceito.

Além disso, foi estabelecido que, após três anos, pode haver a venda da propriedade. Isso cria uma espécie de processo de enxugar gelo. Quem assegura que ele não vai grilar nova terra para, daqui a alguns anos, outra MP legalizar o acesso novamente?

First of all, it is unlikely that the person is going to declare that they got the land in an illegal way, then say that the occupation was not done in a peaceful and cordial way. In addition, there are two constitutional requirements for the transfer of public land from the Government to private hands: the transfer is a top social priority or the land transfer fulfils the duties of a social function. Those who arrived at the land illegally and made use of violence do not make use of the land to fulfil the duties of a social function, and those who have possessions and don’t have any social problems to address don’t meet these requirements for needing land either. 

Furthermore, it has been established that after three years, the land can be sold. This creates a law with no practical effects. Who can be sure that those who benefit are not going to sell (“grilar”) the land they receive, and then, in a few years, another law will legalize it?

Marina Silva continues in the same article:

Quem estuda a situação fundiária sabe que, no caso da Amazônia, em menos de dez anos a terra é novamente concentrada nas mãos de poucos. Há um processo muito grande de concentração, até mesmo em projetos de assentamento. E também sabemos que há a figura do laranja, que divide uma propriedade com o cunhado, com o vaqueiro…

Those who study land issues know that, in the case of the Amazon, the land has again concentrated in the hands of a few people in less than ten years. There has been a huge process of land gathering, even in settlement projects. We also know that there are “laranjas” [people whose name appear as the owner of a business or property for legal purposes, but the real owner of which is in fact someone else] , who share the property with their brother-in-law, with a cowboy…
Ana Cotta/Creative Commons

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

The Provisory Measure has been modified and approved by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The MP will still need Lula da Silva's approval or veto. As it is now, MP 458 modifies the legislation governing 64.7 million hectares in the Legal Amazon throughout 436 municipalities. Currently, the government will give ownership to others using the following criteria of land dimension: donating for up to 100 hectares; selling at a symbolic price for 101 to 400 hectares; and areas of between 401 and 1500 hectares will be on sale according to market price, with up to 20 year debt payoff.

Ironically, Katia Abreu was the Senator appointed to lead the MP through the Congress. She is the leader of the rural group, which deals with land owner and farmers’ interests in the Senate. Elected by the State of Tocantins for the DEM Party, Abreu wants to increase the size of land that one person will be able to claim through MP 458, a move that has been criticized by many bloggers, such as Cândido Neto [pt]:

Aliás, a MP é problemática desde a origem. Afinal, a legislação agrária já permitia regularização de áreas até 500 hectares individualmente e outras formas de destinação com áreas maiores para populações tradicionais na Amazônia.

O aumento no tamanho de área visa atender unicamente ao setor ruralista e de grileiros, aliados do governo federal. Aliás, esta tal “regularização fundiária” nasceu com o ministro Mangabeira Unger, foi aplaudida por Carlos Minc e teve no MDA as piores idéias como a dispensa de vistorias, os títulos gratuitos e o fim das licitações em áreas de até 15 módulos. (…)

Agora, Kátia Abreu já fala em estender a área para 2,5 hectares, e ainda tornar a terra no preço “exeqüível”. São todas medidas absurdas, do começo ao fim.

In fact, the MP has had a lot of problems from the start. After all, the land legislation already allowed regulation in areas of up to 500 hectares individually, with more options for bigger areas available to the traditional people of the Amazon. 

The increase in the size of land only aims to meet “grileiros” and the rural sector's demands, both of them allies of the Federal Government. Actually, it was the Strategic Affairs Minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger who came up with this ‘land reform’ idea, which has been acclaimed by current Environment Minister Carlos Minc and received its worst suggestions from the Agrarian Development Ministry such as the exemption of official inspection, land donations and an end to the need for bidding on areas up to 1.5 thousands hectares. [...]

Now, Kátia Abreu is talking about increasing the mark area to 2.5 thousand of hectares, as well as making the land prices ‘undermost'. They are all absurd measures from beginning to end.

For the blogger from Azul Marinho com Pequi [pt] blog, Senator Abreu's ideas are harmful:

A senadora pelo Tocantins: Kátia Abreu do DEM mau assumiu a relatoria da MP 458 no senado é já inicia manobras no sentido de entregar as terras da amazônia ao agronegócio e ao capital internacional, ou seja aos grileiros das terra federais!!

Soon after the Senator for the State of Tocantins Katia Abreu (DEM) stepped into her position as the ‘speaker’ for MP 458, she started her manouvres to give Amazonian land to agrobusiness and the international capital, in other words to the ‘grileiros’ of the federal lands.

There is another MP – number 452 – which has been worrying the Brazilian society because it declares that there will be no need for previous environmental assessment or official environmental inspection before the construction of roads through areas in the Legal Amazon. Both MPs (458 and 452) are part of Lula da Silva's Growth Acceleration Program (known as PAC).

A group of non governmental organizations and artists have created a manifesto called Amazônia Para Sempre [Amazonia Forever, pt], in which they appeal to the Senators not to approve these MPs. Through their website they are calling Brazilian people to sign the manifesto to be sent to the Senators by e-mail. So far, 1 million people have signed the petition.

Cândido Neto‘s [pt] concludes that, should the package of rules make it into law, the following will have happened:

Inverte-se a prioridade de destinação de terras públicas que é pela ordem deve ser terras indígenas, unidades de conservação e assentamentos rurais.

They have inverted the priority when it comes to public land, which should meet the following criteria: first indigenous land, then conservation areas, and last as rural settlements.
Ana Cotta/Used with permission

Ana Cotta/Used with permission

  • Maureen

    This is the worst thng that could have happened. The death of the Amazon Forest is now iminent. I have lived in Brazil nearly all my life and consider this a tragedy. The meat lobby is so powerful here even the well intentioned Carlos Minke cannot hold them back. What I find ironic is that most of the meat produced in the Amazon region goes to Europe! Land grabbers must be allready heading north!!

  • http://lougold.blogspot.com Lou Gold

    Thanks Thiana for bringing this lawlessness-into-law to global attention. I think that it’s important to understand exactly what is driving not only the illegal land-grabbing in the Amazon but also the illegal deforestation that comes with it.

    It’s COWS. It’s COMMODITIES. It’s even the possibility of landowners receiving payments for protecting the forest and its ecosystem services. In brief, the land of the interior of Brazil is becoming more valuable. I recently did a short description of a bunch of the contradictory forces at http://lougold.blogspot.com/2009/06/slaughtering-amazon-in-series-of-high.html

    All things considered, the most significant current driver of deforestation is the expansion of beef industry. Greenpeace’s new report SLAUGHTERING THE AMAZON found that, “The cattle industry is now the driving factor in deforestation in the Amazon, with cattle pastures now occupying land the size of Iceland. Cattle raising in Brazil is responsible for 14% of all the tropical deforestation in the world, and is their largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

    It also found that Brazilian beef companies are important suppliers of raw materials used by leading global brands, including Adidas/Reebok, Nike, Carrefour, Eurostar, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Toyota, Honda, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, IKEA, Kraft, Tesco and Wal-Mart, among others.

    That’s the bad news. The better news is that there’s actually something that GVO readers and our friends might do.

    A few years ago a campaign targeting large agricultural corporations actually caused the major soya producers to declare a moratorium on planting in any land that had been deforested illegally.

    Now, something similar can be done. Tell Nike, Timberland, Adidas, Reebok, Clark’s, and Geox that you don’t want your shoes contributing to global climate change by increasing deforestation in the Amazon. (According to Greenpeace, “Cattle raising in Brazil is responsible for 14% of all the tropical deforestation in the world, and is their largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”)

    I reposted a bunch of material pulled together by treehugger about the next steps that we can take at http://lougold.blogspot.com/2009/06/next-steps-according-to-treehugger.html

    Thanks again for doing a round-up about this and thanks also for introducing us to the photography of Ana Cotta whose photostream is worth checking out at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ana_cotta/

  • http://www.marinasilvapresidente.org Eduardo Rombauer

    Thiana,
    Congratulations for your report, very necessary to bring this issue internationally. Marina Silva is the main stakeholder for the Amazon today here in Brazil. It is worth supporting her. There is a fast-growing movement of citizens working on promoting Marina Silva’s name for candidate for the presidency: http://www.marinasilvapresidente.org.

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