Conservation news

Bills before Brazil Congress slammed for rewarding Amazon land grabbers

  • Two bills, one each in the upper and lower houses of Congress, would grant invaders of public forests with land titles, instead of punishing them and returning the land to the state.
  • The proposals also increase the area of properties eligible for regularization without an on-site inspection, and risk exacerbating land conflicts in Brazil.
  • Both bills were born from an executive order from President Jair Bolsonaro that expired in May last year.
  • The backers of the bills say they would facilitate the regularization of the lands of small farmers, but environmental and land issues experts say the main beneficiaries will be land grabbers and large farmers.

Imagine you have invaded a public land in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, cut the forest down and, after all that, you get the papers that certify you as the rightful owner of that area. According to experts, that’s what’s going to happen with the passage of two bills currently before the Brazilian Congress.

Both proposals have a common root: Executive Order 910, known as MP 910 or MP of Grilagem, from the local term for a land grabber. The executive order was signed in 2019 by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. As it wasn’t approved on time by Congress, however, the rule expired in May last year. Legislators came up with two new pieces of legislation to replace it: bills 2633 and 510.

The new legislation would apply to so-called federal public forests, areas that belong to the Union and haven’t been designated for any specific purpose yet, such as for conservation units, Indigenous territories or land reform settlements, for instance. According to IPAM, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, almost 19 million hectares (47 million acres) of land in the Amazon fits this description — an area nearly twice the size of South Korea. Almost 80% of it is already illegally claimed by private owners through the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), a self-declared land register that anyone can fill out online.

According to Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA), this is the first step toward legalizing land invasions. “These are illegal operators who claim large areas of usually government land and then, by various means, often illegal, they manage to get the title to it. And whether or not they get the title, they subdivide and sell the land to ranchers, migrants or whoever is interested in buying it,” he said. Usually, these lands are deforested to clear pasture for livestock.

Senate bill PL 510, from Senator Irajá Silvestre Filho, is almost as permissive as the executive order it derives from. It would allow the regularization of lands up to 2,500 hectares (6,180 acres) occupied until 2014; under the current law, the cutoff is 2011. To receive the title to the land, there wouldn’t even need to be an on-site inspection; the verification would be made only through satellite imagery. Under the current law, such an exemption of on-the ground inspections only applies to areas smaller than 400 hectares (990 acres).

The other bill, PL 2633, is before the lower house of Congress, known as the Chamber of Deputies. Proposed by Federal Deputy José Silva Soares, better known as Zé Silva, it’s a bit less generous with land invaders. It would maintain the current cutoff time for regularizing occupied land but raise the maximum area for exemption of on-site inspection to properties up to 600 hectares (1,480 acres). “The difference from our project to MP 910 is clear as oil and water. We are giving a new message for ourselves and for the international market that it is not worthy to occupy public land in Brazil, as we are keeping the temporal milestone,” Silva told Mongabay.

Aerial view of burned areas in the Amazon rainforest, in the municipality of Porto Velho, Rondônia state in August 2019. Fires are used as a tool by land grabbers to clear rainforest on public lands which can then be sold to cattle ranchers at a hefty profit. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.

Titling

The most contentious parts of the bills, however, concern areas that don’t meet titling requirements. The evaluation is from Brenda Brito, a researcher from Imazon that is among the largest specialists in the Amazonian land situation. Both bills state that properties occupied after a certain cutoff date (2011 for PL 2633, and 2014 for PL 510) may be put up for sale by the government. In Irajá’s proposal, the invader of the area would be given preference to buy the land.

“Why should this land stop being public, if it was illegally occupied?” said Brenda Brito from Imazon, a leading research institute on the Amazon. She said that besides favoring privatization as the means for resolving the status of these areas — rather than conservation units or Indigenous territories, for example — the bills open space to the legalization of areas invaded after the cutoff dates. “We are not talking about lands invaded in the past, but about lands invaded now and in the future. It will force the areas that are being illegally occupied to be put for sale. If it happens, we can say goodbye to public forests,” Brito said.

The easing of rules to legalize invasions of public lands in Brazil isn’t a recent phenomenon. It started in 2005, under the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, deepened under his successor, Michel Temer, in 2017, and has taken a more urgent turn under Bolsonaro. “We have these successive flexibilizations. It’s endless. The end is when we don’t have more forest to be cut,” Brito said.

“It is like drawing a line in the sand,” Fearnside said. “If you are a land grabber it means that you rather grab your land now and wait a few years until the line moves and you can legalize it.”

Illegally logged trees transported on unmarked trucks through the Amazon rainforest. New roads open pristine forest via a typical progression from illegal loggers, illicit miners and land grabbers, to cattle ranchers and agribusiness. Photo by Sue Branford.

Land conflicts may increase

Increasing the size of the areas eligible for legalization without an on-site inspection, as proposed in the bills, may trigger new conflicts in a country where land grabbing already drives a litany of crimes. According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic Church-affiliated organization, in 2019 Brazil registered 1,833 conflicts in rural areas. That was the highest number since 2010, and resulted in 32 murders.

Imazon’s Brito said doing away with on-the-ground inspections increases the risk that land still under dispute is granted a title. “Remote detection can be used to check many things, but not if the occupation of the land is peaceful,” she said.

Proponents of the bills say it would accelerate the legalization of land to small farmers, since the government doesn’t have enough personnel to visit the areas. “We have to separate the criminal, the land grabber, from the producer [farmer],” Silva said. “The producer will be the great fiscal to preserve the environment.”

The problem, according to Fearnside, is what the legislators consider to be a small farm. He said the current law already allows the exemption of on-site inspections for properties up to 400 hectares. Anyone who owns that much land “is already a small entrepreneur rancher, not a poor family,” Fearnside said. “Obviously, someone who has 2,500 hectares [as proposed by PL 510] is not a small farmer.”

PL 510 is under discussion in the Senate and PL 2633 is before the Chamber of Deputies. Since February, the speakers of both houses have been closely aligned with Bolsonaro, which increases the prospect of the bills being passed. “That completely changes the scenario and these bills can move forward very fast,” Fearnside said.

Senator Irajá didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for an interview.

Banner image: Archer Daniels Midland silos and soy dominate where rainforest once flourished in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. Image by Thais Borges / Mongabay.