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Agrarian reform agencies and national land registry systems in the Pan Amazon

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

Rural real estate markets in the Pan Amazon are regulated by institutions that are a legacy of the agrarian reform movements that played a prominent role in domestic politics during the last half of the twentieth century. Prior to World War II, the region was characterised by a quasi-feudal land tenure system, with ownership concentrated among affluent families of European extraction. In Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, large estates were dependent on the labour of Indigenous peasants (campesinos) with ancestral ties to the land, while in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, the rural labor force was composed of individuals with a contractual relationship with the landowner. The states of the Guiana coast were in the early stages of post-colonial rule, and the relationship between landlord and tenant was in a state of flux, but landless peasants were the majority in an economic system that was overwhelmingly rural.

This inherent inequality was a political tinderbox that was exacerbated by the expanded influence of Marxist philosophies and the explosion of radical movements after Fidel Castro consolidated the Cuban Revolution. Governments throughout the region responded by enacting agrarian reform legislation. Unsurprisingly, these policies were unpopular with conservative elites seeking to protect their financial patrimony. The decades following the Cuban Revolution were dominated by military governments; these governments varied in their adhesion to the principles of genuine agrarian reform, but all seized upon a solution originally championed by Abraham Lincoln: colonise public lands on the frontier.

Distributing public lands in wilderness areas was popular; better yet, it avoided the politically perilous measure of violating the property rights of the landowning elite. Governments created agrarian reform agencies as a response to claims for social justice, but they simultaneously delegated to these agencies the task of dispensing public lands in their Amazonian provinces (see table below). The United States supported these initiatives via the newly created United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Alliance for Progress, a programme launched by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Ironically, legitimate concerns about social inequality in Latin America catalyzed one of the great social and environmental disasters of the twentieth century: the invasion of Indigenous lands and the deforestation of millions of hectares of tropical forest.


Agrarian reform in Brazil was initiated by the Estatuto da Terra in 1964, a law that created two entities: the Instituto Brasileiro de Reforma Agrária to address the unequal distribution of land and the Instituto Nacional de Desenvolvimento Agrário to manage colonization processes getting underway. In 1971, these two institutions were fused to create the Instituto Nacional de Colonização y Reforma Agraria (INCRA) as an autonomous entity within the Ministry of Agriculture. INCRA’s administrative functions can be divided into three main categories:

  1. The redistribution of land by agrarian reform,
  2. The allocation of public lands through settlement programmes and
  3. The creation and management of a national rural land registry.

The first category has always been politically difficult, while the second has been beset with inefficiency and corruption. The third is INCRA’s most important function because rural real estate markets, which mediate investment in agricultural production, depend on a functional land tenure system that guarantees property rights. A dysfunctional registry not only impedes investment, it undermines efforts to promote sustainable land use and combat land grabbing.

INCRA as an agrarian reform programme

INCRA was created in response to Brazil’s long-standing inequality in the ownership of land. Statisticians use a metric known as the ‘Gini Coefficient’ to measure inequality. Usually, it is employed to evaluate wealth, but it can be applied to land ownership. In Brazil, the Gini Land Coefficient is 0.87, well above the regional average and among the highest in the world. Despite INCRA’s efforts to redistribute land and to populate the Amazon with small farmers, the concentration of land in Brazil has increased over the last half-century. This inequality, combined with rural poverty, nurtured peasant movements throughout the mid-decades of the twentieth century; these were consolidated in 1984 as a national organization: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). The MST currently has 1.5 million members, representing 370,000 families residing on approximately seven million hectares (17.3 million acres) of encampments acquired by a combination of non-violent civil disobedience and legal combat.

The demand for land and the political power of the MST has motivated successive administrations to embrace the first leg of INCRA’s institutional mission. Since its founding, INCRA has redistributed ~4.3 million hectares (10.6 million acres), benefitting about 130,000 families in the consolidated rural landscapes in the South, Southeast and Central-West regions. Those numbers are not large in the context of Brazil’s rural land assets, however, and have not materially alleviated inequality of land ownership. The limited impact of these policies, which are largely achieved by the purchase or expropriation of private estates, explains the political importance of INCRA’s second institutional pillar, which is largely dependent on the forest landscapes of the Legal Amazon.

Central Rondônia was settled by tens of thousands of settlers in the 1970s and 1980s on 50-hectare parcels distributed by INCRA in Projetos de Colonização (PC). The vast majority are small-scale livestock producers who retain the lowest proportion of remnant forest within the Brazilian Amazon (see Annex 4.7). The large blocks of remnant forest are Indigenous territories. Credit: Google Earth.

INCRA as a colonization institute

INCRA’s approach to distributing public land has changed over time. Known as terras devolutas, they were largely the domain of state governments until 1971, when the military dictatorship decreed that state land situated 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) either side of a national highway was the domain of INCRA. This was the era of Programa de Integração Nacional – PIN when thousands of kilometers of roads were under construction.

The original law was based not on the highways that were under construction but on the proposed national highway system, including hundreds of kilometers of roads in remote regions that were never actually built. Pará, Mata Grosso, Amapá and Roraima relinquished about seventy per cent of their surface area, Acre lost about ninety per cent, and Rondônia and Tocantins literally ceded all their territory to the central government. Only the state of Amazonas retained control over significant parts of its territory. The newly obtained federal land bank was divided into subunits referred to as glebas, which are periodically opened for settlement, sold or allocated to a specific public category based on ecological, social and economic criteria.

In the 1970s, INCRA initiated its Amazonian settlement programme by organizing Projetos de Colonização (PC) as part of the POLOAMAZONIA programme. Between eight and twelve million hectares (19.7 to 29.6 million acres) were allocated for distribution as fifty to 100-hectare (247.1 acres) holdings adjacent to highways under construction in Rondônia and Acre (BR-364), Roraima (BR-175), Mata Grosso (BR-163), Pará (BR-230) and Maranhão (BR-316). The colonization programme was widely criticized because settlers were encouraged to migrate to remote landscapes and then left to fend for themselves. The land bank available to smallholders during the PC era had the capacity to accommodate about 120,000 families but INCRA succeeded in attracting only about 25,000 participants in the early stages of the programme.

INCRA modified its procedures in 1984 and began taking a more coordinated approach to building pioneer communities, which were now referred to as Projetos de Assentamento (PA). Like the previous policy, these explicitly favored landless peasants, but INCRA now provided extension support and subsidized credit, while facilitating the delivery of public services by federal, state and municipal authorities.

Over time, the system evolved to include state and municipal settlement projects. The PA system remained in place until 2000, allocating ~25 million hectares (61.7 million acres) that currently benefits ~433,000 families. Within these territories, each family was granted a provisional right-of-use contract (Contrato de Concessão de Uso [CCU]) for a fifty-hectare plot; after five years, these are converted into a permanent right-of-use contract (Contrato de Concessão de Direito Real de Uso [CCDRU]) and, eventually, a title deed (Título de Domínio [TD]).

PA landholders can be transformed into owners (proprietários) after they have paid INCRA a nominal sum for their land and liquidated outstanding debts from credit programmes. Theoretically, the entire settlement can be ‘emancipada’ if fifty per cent of the inhabitants opt for title deeds and vote to dissolve their settlement. This requires them to set aside land for public utilities (schools, clinics. etc.) and comply with norms dictated by the Forest Code; it also ends their access to INCRA-subsidized credit programmes and technical assistance. A fast-track emancipation process was approved in 2018 and the option is being promoted by the Bolsonaro administration as part of its policy of privatizing public assets and promoting a market economy.

Southern Acre was settled in the 1970s and 1980s by pioneers who established homesteads along BR-317. Most are small- to medium-scale ranchers (white polygons) and many reside in INCRA sponsored PA-type settlements. The settlement zone is bounded to the north by the Reserva Extrativa Chico Mendes (blue polygon), a sustainable-use conservation unit populated by families reliant on the annual harvest of Brazil nuts; most have cleared small patches of forest to generate cash income from micro-scale livestock operations. Data source: Google Earth and INCRA (2020).

Following the shift in environmental and development policies at the turn of the millennium, INCRA modified its land allocation paradigm to create Projetos de Assentamento Ambientalmente Diferenciado (PAAD). Unlike their agriculturally-oriented predecessors, these settlements are predicated on the sustainable exploitation of timber and non-timber forest products, fish and wildlife. The difference in management philosophy has led INCRA to create larger land units with less dense human populations. Shifting agriculture is tolerated, but the emphasis is on sustainable production models informed (theoretically) by a management plan based on technical criteria elaborated via a consensual process.

As of 2020, INCRA had accommodated ~127,000 families within PAAD settlements covering ~13.5 million hectares (3335 million acres). Unlike the individual plots allocated to residents in the PA settlements, however, these have a communal tenancy regime. In most cases, residents are immediately granted a permanent long-term concession (CCDRU) because INCRA is essentially recognizing the prior use-rights of established communities. Beneficiaries are never granted a full legal title, although they may sell their long-term concession to individuals who meet the legal conditions for participating in INCRA sponsored land projects. Concessions within both PA and PAAD programmes can be passed on to heirs at the death of the beneficiary.

The Instituto Nacional de Colonização y Reforma Agraria (INCRA) oversees two broad categories of settlement: agrarian communities (PA-type) established prior to 2000, and environmentally differentiated (PAAD-type) communities with sustainable-use management plans established after 2000. Data sources: INCRA (2020) and MapBiomas (2021).
Forest cover reflects category type but also geographic location. Data sources: INCRA (2020) and MapBiomas (2021).

The PAAD settlements are similar to multiple-use protected areas managed by the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio), an agency within the Environmental Ministry. INCRA ‘recognizes’ these conservation units within its institutional mission, which ensures their residents enjoy the same legal rights as beneficiaries in the agrarian reform settlements and have access to subsidized credit and key public services. Because they are part of the protected-area system, they are subject to a greater level of scrutiny and, by many accounts, more institutional support. They also enjoy a larger forest area to support their livelihoods, averaging about 500 hectares per family compared to only 100 hectares within the PAAD system. The difference in population density will be an important factor in determining whether these sustainable-use land-management units succeed in conserving the forest estate within their borders.

Forest monitoring programmes have identified the INCRA settlements as a significant source of deforestation. The earliest PC-landscapes in Rondônia and Mato Grosso have a mean forest cover of less than ten per cent although settlements with a similar history in Acre, Roraima and Pará retain between twenty and forty per cent.

Similarly, PA settlements in eastern Pará have retained only vestigial areas of remnant forest (< 5%), while those in remote landscapes of Amapá and Amazonas retain as much as ninety per cent of their forest cover. Deforestation in PAAD settlements has been limited (0–10%), but is not insignificant. Forest conservation in both PA and PAAD landscapes is not necessarily a consequence of management criteria: remoteness, isolation and history also determine their fate as forest reserves. The annual deforestation rate within all the INCRA settlements fell from about 450,000 hectares between 2003 and 2005 to less than 70,000 hectares by 2015.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 4 here:

Chapter 4. Land: The ultimate commodity

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