- Forests in the Brazilian Amazon not designated as Indigenous territories, conservation parks, extractive reserves or other types of protected areas span an area the size of Spain and Portugal combined.
- These forests have not been designated for both technical reasons, such as the need for a management plan, and political ones: standing forest is seen by many in power as an impediment to economic activities like cattle ranching and mining.
- More than 18 million hectares (44 million acres) of this land has been illegally claimed as private property, with the number of claims surging by 232% since 2016 — a strong indication of land grabbing.
- New legislation at the federal and state levels now promises to legalize these land grabs, effectively rewarding environmental violators with legally recognized land ownership.
About 14% of the Brazilian Amazon, an area the size of Spain and Portugal combined, falls under the category of non-designated public forests, or NDPFs. These are state or federally owned forests for which no specific use has been decreed yet.
By giving them a clear designation, Brazil could potentially slash illegal deforestation in the world’s biggest rainforest by a third, a new report says.
“We could quickly reduce deforestation inside the Brazilian Amazon over 30%, by my calculation, if we were to designate a large portion of these nearly 60 million hectares [148 million acres] of public lands,” says Paulo Moutinho, co-founder and senior researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). “The dynamic of designation changes the way land grabbers see the landscape, resulting in immediate and substantial drops in deforestation rates.”
In a recently published technical note, IPAM calculates that 32% of all illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2020 occurred inside NDPFs. That proportion rose to 33% in the first half of 2021.
Since 2006, Brazilian law has determined that public forests should be designated for the creation of conservation units prioritizing sustainable use by local communities. In practice, however, this has not been the case, and without designation, public lands have been the target of land grabbers.
Moutinho says there are two main factors impeding designation of these forests. The first is technical: When an area is given a designation, a state or federal agency — such as IBAMA, the environmental protection office, or ICMBio, which manages national parks — must assume possession and responsibility for its infrastructure, protection and management.
“With the deforestation we’ve been seeing not only in the last two years but also in previous years, it would be very difficult for IBAMA and especially ICMBio. These agencies are too underfunded and understaffed to be able to take care of all that land,” Moutinho says.
The second factor is political, with standing forest perceived as an impediment to the growth of economically important industries like cattle ranching and mining. Lawmakers and the more conservative recent administrations “still think like it’s the 1940s or ’50s, that that which is preserved has to be cut back to make way for so-called progress.”
This mindset was summed up in an exhortation last year by the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, to “run the stampede” through environmental regulations while the country was preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic. Salles resigned in June this year after being named as a subject in two ongoing investigations into illegal logging.
Antonio Nobre, a Ph.D. in Earth sciences at INPE, the Brazilian space agency, which is also responsible for monitoring forest cover, told Mongabay in a 2019 interview that “the ideology coming out of the mouths of politicians directly influences what happens in the forest.”
This map shows undesignated public forests. Almost 30% of the area was registered illegally as privarte property through the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR).
Self-registering stolen land
Much of the theft of NDPF land occurs through the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR). Created under the 2012 Forestry Code, the registry was meant to be used by landowners through 2014 to file self-declared land claims, which the federal government would then validate or reject. But the deadline was extended indefinitely, and the CAR has since been used by land grabbers to stake their claims to publicly owned land as private property.
Even then, the Forestry Code requires that landowners in the Amazon leave 80% of the property untouched, an area known as the legal reserve. But the land grabbers cut down the forest anyway, often exceeding the legal reserve, to create cattle pasture in a show of ownership and productivity; cleared forest is worth much more than standing forest on the real estate market. Valuable hardwood trees are removed from the area and sold at the start of clear-cutting to finance the rest of the deforestation process.
The number of claims filed in the CAR has grown by 232% since 2016, in what experts say is a clear indication of land grabbing. From 2016 to 2020, incidents of both deforestation and fire outbreaks inside NDPFs were greater in areas with CAR claims than in those without. By the end of 2020, more than 18 million hectares (44 million acres) of NDPFs — or 32% of total NDPF land in the Brazilian Amazon — had been illegally claimed as private property. That same year, 72% of the deforestation inside undesignated forests occurred on land with a CAR claim. The percentage rose to 79% in the first quarter of 2021.
While a self-declared CAR claim is not a land title, it still allows holders to access financing that in turn enables deforestation. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office estimates that it costs from 800 to 2,000 reais ($150-$380) to clear-cut a hectare of forest (or about $60-$155 per acre). More than 40% of CAR claims are for large rural properties that average at least 1,140 hectares (2,817 acres). By clear-cutting 269,000 hectares (665,000 acres) in 2020, land grabbers may have generated more than 215 million reais ($41 million), according to IPAM.
“People are, at times, clear-cutting 1,500 hectares [3,700 acres],” Moutinho says. “You need millions [of reais] to do this. These aren’t small farmers, Indigenous people or even small mining operations doing this.”
Given the high costs, land grabbing is taking on a new profile. “What we have today is an interface between land grabbing, illegal gold mining, and trafficking of weapons and drugs in the region,” Moutinho says. “These three markets are beginning to work together and finance one another. When public land is sold, the resources are reinvested in illegal mining, for example. The price of gold is very high on the international market.”
Institutionalized land grabbing
Despite the fact that it’s illegal to sell public land that has been obtained this way, it still goes on, including on the internet. During a bike trip on the Transamazonia Highway in 2017, Moutinho says, he encountered numerous “for sale” signs with Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo phone numbers. A BBC documentary in February of this year showed land for sale illegally on Facebook.
In addition, “land grabbing has been feeding off the hope in recent years that the legislation will change,” Moutinho says. Bill 510/2021, currently being deliberated in the Senate, is one example of legislation that would grant amnesty for criminal land occupation that occurred through 2014. And a study by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA, or Socioenvironmental Institute) points to another bill, 2633/2020, as a means of legalizing the theft of public land.
A prime example of local legislation ostensibly meant to resolve land ownership conflicts is a law approved by the Rondônia state government, which lopped off 167,000 hectares (413,000 acres) from the Jaci Paraná Extractive Reserve, leaving it with a mere 10% of its original land area, and 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) from Guajará-Mirim State Park, reducing it by nearly a quarter. As a sort of compensation, the state created five other reserves.
“Cutting up two conservation units and saying you will create others holds no logic in environmental legislation,” says Edjales de Brito, a representative of the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defense Association. “Are you cutting up a park [or reserve] in order to justify land grabbing inside it? They are different spaces with distinct environmental relevance.”
De Brito says the areas stripped of protection form an ethno-environmental corridor — “a buffer zone for Indigenous land, including those that are home to people living in voluntary isolation.”
Aside from the fact that the new areas do not compensate for the social and environmental services offered by the other areas, they are already under attack in the Rondônia state legislature via the approval of two bills: one revoking the creation of the Ilha das Flores State Park and the other reducing the area of the Limoeiro Sustainable Development Reserve.
The first half of 2021 was the worst for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2016, with 17% more land deforested than in the same period in 2020. The Deforestation Alert System (SAD) from conservation organization Imazon, which monitors forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon, documented the worst month of April for deforestation in a decade. That was the same month in which U.S. President Joe Biden convened the Leaders Summit on Climate, where President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil promised to end illegal deforestation by 2030.
“It is political rhetoric contradicting concrete facts, signifying complete governmental schizophrenia,” Moutinho says.