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Brazil land reform head fired amid push to legalize cleared Amazon land

Illegal Amazon logging on Pirititi Indigenous lands in Roraima state, Brazil, May 2018. Image by Felipe Werneck / IBAMA.

  • Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has fired army general João Carlos de Jesus Corrêa as the head of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a position he held since February of this year.
  • Critics say the move yields to pressure from the powerful farm lobby to push legalization of cleared land in the Amazon, which could lead to increased deforestation in the region.
  • According to news reports, Corrêa’s removal is tied to disagreements regarding the Bolsonaro administration’s plan to ease the process to regularize about 750,000 land deeds through the end of the year.

Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has fired the head of the federal agency in charge of the country’s land reform, a move critics say yields to pressure from the powerful farm lobby to push legalization of cleared land in the Amazon — and further increase deforestation in the region as it could create incentives to clear forest land.

On Oct. 1, army general João Carlos de Jesus Corrêa was discharged as the head of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a position he held since February of this year. While the Brazilian government did not immediately confirm the decision, Corrêa told local magazine Veja: “I’m leaving with the peace of mind of having done an excellent job with my team.”

Army general João Carlos de Jesus Corrêa, who was fired as the head of the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a position he held since February of this year. Image by Elza Fiúza/Agência Brasil

José Líbio de Moraes Matos, an economist who according to a local report was involved in the Eldorado do Carajás massacre where 19 landless farmers were killed in 1996, was nominated INCRA’s interim head on October 2.

The decision about Corrêa’s dismissal followed an hour-long meeting on the afternoon of Sept. 30, hosted by Bolsonaro with leading agribusiness figures in his government, including Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias and Luiz Nabhan Garcia, who leads the ministry’s land affairs department, according to news reports.

“There is a huge concern that these processes will legalize irregular occupations,” said Adriana Ramos, policy director of Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental. “First you deforest in order to occupy the land, then you request regularization,” she said.

INCRA, an agency created in 1970 to regulate land reform and register rural properties, led the colonization of the Amazon during the military dictatorship, and more recently redistributes and entitles rural properties to landless settlements and farmers. In the Amazon, claims for titles are often on deforested land, raising questions about whether the measure will legalize cleared land and encourage further land grabbing.

There are around 800,000 rural properties throughout the country without definitive land titles, according to government estimates. Corrêa’s dismissal will make the push for the government to meet its target to issue 750,000 land deeds this year easier under a proposed interim measure, according to Reuters. So far, fewer than 2,000 land titles were regularized through 2019, far less than the government’s goal, the report said. Corrêa and Nabhan have reportedly been butting heads on the issue for months. In his interview with Veja, Corrêa suggested there was friction with Nabhan: “I don’t want to comment [on him]. It won’t help. We can’t be destructive.”

Nabhan, who also leads the powerful right-wing lobby group Democratic Rural Association, is actively pushing for the approval of an interim measure that would allow farmers to self-assess their land titles, making the process automatic. “Why create difficulties if we have the conditions, with georeferencing technology, to make it self-declared?” he said, comparing it to tax self-assessment, in the Reuters report.

For Antônio Galvan, Garcia’s ally and vice president of Brazil’s soy farmers’ trade association, Aprosoja, Corrêa’s dismissal is a “necessary evil” to meet Bolsonaro’s ambitious goal of a fast-paced land regulation program. “If there isn’t a competent and dedicated team, the president won’t reach his goal of regulating a minimum of 600,000 land titles,” he told Mongabay. “This is a demand by rural producers and people living in rural settlements.” According to Galvan, the goal is to reach 750,000 approved land titles, but 600,000 is an established minimum.

Ramos says the proposed measure makes the legalization of irregular land plots easier and may affect indigenous and quilombola communities. “This would make regularization easier in irregularly occupied areas, including those in territories claimed by traditional communities that still haven’t been recognized,” she added.

INCRA is in charge of demarcating and issuing land titles to settlements known as quilombos, areas to where African slaves escaped from harsh working conditions. But even though Brazil’s 1988 Constitution enshrined the property rights of descendants of runaway slaves who live in quilombos, most of them have no formal deeds to prove ownership of their land.

Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias and President Jair Bolsonaro in a ceremony in Brasília. Image by Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

Corrêa’s dismissal is the latest in a wave of controversial measures by the Bolsonaro administration to undermine environmental regulations to bolster economic activities in the Amazon region, including agribusiness and mining.

In August, Bolsonaro fired the director of the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE) after denying data showing a sharp increase in deforestation in the Amazon. Agents from environmental bodies like Brazil’s environmental agency (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio), which protects the nation’s federal conservation units, have also faced routine sacking and intimidation since Bolsonaro came to power in January.

Banner image caption: Illegal logging on Pirititi Indigenous land, in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.

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