- The researchers found that agrarian settlements, which comprise just 5.3 percent of the 5 million square kilometers (over 1.2 billion acres) of Brazilian Amazon, contributed as much as 13.5 percent of its deforestation recorded to date.
- Agrarian reform settlements began in the 1970s as a means of occupying the vast expanses of forest in the Amazon.
- The authors recommend halting further expansion into forested areas, and improving enforcement of current land protection laws.
A Brazilian policy meant to allocate land to the rural poor in a socially responsible manner has led to inordinate rates of deforestation, according to a recent report.
Researchers with the Camara dos Deputados (Brazil’s lower legislative body) and the University of East Anglia studied nearly 2,000 agrarian settlement projects that have moved as many as 1.2 million settlers to the Amazon in an attempt to quantify their contribution to deforestation and forest degradation. The results of the study have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers found that the settlements, which comprise just 5.3 percent of the 5 million square kilometers (over 1.2 billion acres) of Brazilian Amazon, contributed as much as 13.5 percent of all deforestation recorded to date. Forest cover in the settlements declined, on average, to about 44 percent.
“It is known that migrant farmers worldwide catalyze the expansion of tropical deforestation frontiers,” one of the study’s co-authors, Carlos Peres of the University of East Anglia, said in a statement. “But contrary to common-sense notions that Amazonian deforestation is merely a product of rampaging capitalist development unleashed by free market forces — it is primarily a governance problem that is deliberately designed and deployed by government, and financed by Brazilian taxpayers.”
Agitation for land reform began in earnest in Brazil in the 1960s, after five centuries of unequal land distribution stretching back to Brazil’s days as a colony under Portuguese rule. The agrarian reform settlements began in the 1970s, when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, as a means of occupying the vast expanses of forest in the Amazon, lead author Mauricio Schneider, a legislative advisor for the Camara dos Deputados, told mongabay.com in an email.
The reallocation efforts later shifted to a land reform program aimed at reducing the concentration of land ownership in Brazilian society under both Social-Democrat and Worker’s Party governments reacting to the country’s landless peasants movement, according to Schneider.
“People (including myself) tended to be more sympathetic to land reform in the past, but the violent tactics adopted by land squatters (including murder, burglary and destruction of GMO research parks), and the cost of the program to the national treasury made public perception more skeptical,” Schneider said. “Most of the settlements have very low productivity and are economically inefficient, making it hard to defend agrarian reform unless from an ideological point of view.”
While the settlement rate has gradually fallen over time, even during the last three Worker’s Party administrations, Schneider notes, they are still politically important to the federal government’s agenda.
Several studies have already called attention to the high deforestation rates in agrarian settlements, Schneider said, but Brazil’s agrarian agency, the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA), contends that most of the deforestation happened before the settlements were established, an attempt to shift the blame to previous farmers and land grabbers.
That’s why Schneider and Peres undertook what they believe to be the first study to analyze land cover changes before and after the new settlers arrived on the scene. They put INCRA’s assertion to the test by analyzing satellite imagery of the 1,911 agrarian settlements allocated to 568 counties across the entire Brazilian Amazon in order to quantify rates of forest conversion across the settlements. They then compared fire incidence and deforestation rates before and after the official occupation of the settlements.
“Contrary to claims by Brazil’s Agrarian Reform Ministry, the timing and spatial distribution of deforestation and fires provides irrefutable chronological and spatially explicit evidence of rapid deforestation by resettled farmers both inside and immediately outside agrarian settlement areas,” Peres said in his statement.
While the results were somewhat expected, they’re still necessary to challenge the government’s assertions about the agrarian reform program, because ultimately it is the government driving this deforestation through its agrarian reform policies, Schneider told Mongabay.
The Brazilian government’s environmental, agricultural and social policies are supposed to be “harmonized,” Schneider said, but central government ministries frequently compete against each other and “the Ministry of Environment seems to be the ‘weakest link’ whenever it confronts the agrarian reform program.”
So what recommendations do Schnedier and Peres make in the report for addressing the problem?
For one thing, they write that INCRA should be avoiding frontier expansion into forested areas and instead prioritizing the allocation of the 30 million hectares (over 74 million acres) of degraded, low-productivity pastures that are available across Amazonia. Appropriate landscape-scale settlement design could preempt potential conflicts between legally protected forest reserves and indigenous lands, the authors write. The report also urges that more effective land-use practices be enforced in resettled areas.
And finally, the simplest measure would be to enforce the law. While Brazil’s federal environmental agency has repeatedly fined INCRA, which technically owns the lands allocated to settlers, according to Schneider, it has never fined the settlers themselves and nobody has ever been jailed for violating conservation laws meant to keep the Amazon forest intact.
“Law abiding is the most obvious recommendation to INCRA, and much more damage may be done if the settlement policy doesn’t change,” Schneider said.
- Schneider, M., & Peres, C. (2015). Environmental Costs of Government-Sponsored Agrarian Settlements in Brazilian Amazonia. PLoSONE, 10(7): e0134016. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134016.