A bill on the regularization of the illegal exploitation of public lands raises fears in Brazil of a worsening of deforestation and agrarian conflicts, in particular in Amazonia, in a context of questioning of environmental standards by the Bolsonaro government.
The disorderly occupation of some 600,000 km2 of public land (an area equivalent to that of France) was mainly stimulated from the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which favored the installation of peasants and farmers , without always granting them title deeds.
This legal uncertainty has whetted the appetite of speculators, who monopolize and deforest this land in order to resell it with a fraudulent title, a method called “grilagem”, which is the source of uncontrolled deforestation and violent territorial disputes.
To remedy this historic problem, the Lula government had launched in 2009 the “Legal Land” program, which provided for the establishment of 150,000 facilities open until 2004, and was primarily intended to benefit family farming.
But only 20% of them have won a title deed and regularizations have been almost suspended since the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro in power in 2019. The new text provides for even more flexible rules and goes with another project of the extreme right president aiming to authorize the mining and agricultural exploitation of indigenous lands, on which parliamentarians must also rule.
Fewer on-site inspections
“If the government’s objective was really to help small farmers, there was no point in changing the legislation” because what was needed was “more resources and political will”, says the AFP Elias Borges, secretary of agrarian policy of the National Confederation of Rural Workers (Contag).
Mr. Borges particularly criticizes the fact that the exemption from prior field inspections, which originally only concerned small farms of up to 440 hectares, can benefit properties of up to 1,650 ha. then doing it by satellite.
The rapporteur of the project in the Chamber of Deputies found a compromise solution, at 660 ha, but it is only a “strategic setback”, because the government “continues to press” for changes to be made , says Juliana de Paula Batista, lawyer at the Socio-environmental Institute.
This expansion worries Brenda Brito, a researcher at the Institute of Man and the Environment in the Amazon.
“Agrarian conflicts are not verifiable by satellite, and are not all recorded by the authorities. There is also no robust verification process for databases, for example at the level of the rural environmental cadastre, where domains overlap. The priority should be to strengthen this control, ”she says.
“Crime pays off”
The researcher is also concerned about the ease with which we could get away with environmental crimes, with operators in violation only having to sign some sort of good conduct agreement. Approval of the law “would mean that the crime pays off”, and will encourage further invasions, while aggravating deforestation.
The text could be voted in the coming days in the House, where the committees have seen their activities reduced by the pandemic. The Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles had affirmed, during a ministerial meeting on April 22, wanting to take advantage of “the opportunity of the fact that the press is focused on the coronavirus” to “pass reforms and soften the rules”, in particular related to the protection of the Amazon.
The main British distribution chains, Tesco, Marks and Spencer or Waitrose, “concerned” about the project, threatened in May to boycott Brazilian products, if adopted, because it “would endanger the survival of the Amazon “
In the first quarter of 2020, deforestation in the Amazon increased by 51% compared to the same period in 2019, a third of which was recorded in unallocated public land, notes the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (Ipam) .
The land conflicts registered in Brazil in 2019, which increased by 11.6% compared to the previous year, are concentrated (60%) in the Amazon region, according to the last report of the Pastoral Land Commission.