By Sarah Coursey, Editor

Aerial view of Amazon deforestation, photo by Samuel M. Beebe/Ecotrust.
Aerial view of Amazon deforestation, photo by Samuel M. Beebe/Ecotrust.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Reports on the amount of deforestation in the Amazon read like European geography lessons. From an area the size of France or Iceland, to annual levels of 40% the size of Belgium, one thing is certain – the world’s most environmentally rich area is being destroyed at a rapid rate.

Many of deforested lands are used to graze cattle and set up slaughterhouses, as Brazil is the world’s chief exporter of beef. The government is actively seeking to remain in pole position in the international beef market, and has taken measures to stimulate growth in this area. Until now, the Amazon has been the chief source of land for the industry. A controversial law known as Terra Legal (Legal Land) may serve to exacerbate the problem.

On June 19th, Terra Legal went into effect. 300,000 illegal landholdings covering an area of 230,000 square miles of previously protected forest will now be given rights to the lands that had been squatted. Essentially, those that have already claimed land will be legalized, with the opportunity to sell in three years.

Before gaining the final signature of President Lula, the bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate, with 37 in favor, two against and one abstaining. It includes all properties up to 3,700 acres illegally occupied before December 1st, 2004.

Occupants with less than 989 acres will either be given the land at no cost or be asked to pay a symbolic price, depending on the size of the property. Those with larger holdings will be charged a market price and given a 20 year mortgage. There is to be no official bidding on the land.

According to Valter Pereira, from the Federal District of Mato Grosso do Sul, quoted on Twitter, “Thousands of people who have been land squatters will now be farmers.” He also added, pointing out safety concerns, “Land disputes have often been resolved by bullets. Many of these conflicts have been due to the lack of agricultural land regulation.”

A key justification for legalizing the lands has been to balance the power paradigm between squatters and corporations. The obvious victims of illegal land holdings are the squatters, and the social conditions leading to their position have been poor at best. Despite the picture of an emancipated farmer allowed to till his land, the reality is that Terra Legal allows them to sell to cattle farmers, further destroying the Amazon.

Another issue is that the law doesn’t take into consideration is that not all people holding lands are “posseiros” (peasant farmers). There are also “grileiros” (land-grabbers) who use violence to obtain and maintain control over their holdings.

Some believe that the government’s poor administration of Amazon lands is to blame. “The State should not encourage settlements in the Amazon. The problem is that the State has not created mechanisms to rule its own lands. It has been up to the elite to decide,” commented professor Ariovaldo Umbelino de Oliveira, the Amazonian human land occupation specialist at São Paulo University.

Terra Legal may solve the current problem of squatters working without legal rights, however the real victim of the land-grab may be the Amazon itself.


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