A new paper published in June in the journal “Land Use Policy” maps land grabbing in undesignated public forests in the Brazilian Amazon. Of the 49.8 million hectares of forests under state and federal responsibility, but not yet allocated to any use category, 11.6 million hectares, or 23%, were illegally registered as ‘private rural properties’ in the Brazilian Environmental Rural Registry (CAR, in Portuguese). The area is equivalent to half of the United Kindgom.
The impact of land grabbing easily translates into deforestation. In such areas, researchers identified 2.6 million hectares deforested by 2018 — an area larger than Turkey. Such destruction resulted in the emission of 1.2 billion tons of CO2 — the main greenhouse gas. Eighty percent of the deforested area (2.1 million hectares) is registered in the CAR, which proves the intention to use a public area privately.
If all the areas registered as private property to this day were legalized, 2.2 to 5.5 million hectares could be deforested in the coming years — following the deforestation limits defined by the Brazilian Forest Code, when deforestation is often greater than allowed.
In the last few years, land grabbing of undesignated ended forests has increased. In 2019, it was the landholding category where the most forest was cleared in the Amazon, according to data from the deforestation alert system (DETER) of INPE (Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research). The trend continues in 2020.
Step by step
To carry out the analysis, the researchers first cleaned up the overlapping of the undesignated forests in the National Forest Register of the Brazilian Forest Service, which has 62 million hectares, with other areas in the Amazon landholding base. That led to 49.8 million hectares of public forests, close to the size of Spain, which have not yet been designated for environmental protection or sustainable use of its natural resources, as established in the Public Forest Management Act of 2006. Of this share, the states of the Amazon have a larger area (32.7 million ha) than the federal government (17.1 million ha).
Land grabbing in these areas is often aimed at land speculation. “We have observed the following dynamic the Amazon: a land grabber (grileiro, in Portuguese) enters the public area and registers it as his or in the name of a fall guy (known as laranja – “orange” – in Portuguese); then he clears the area, puts some cattle there to say he is a cattle rancher and tries to regularize everything, or waits for an unsuspecting person to buy the land. Once sold, this land enters the agricultural production system. The new owner and his products carry this liability. In contrast, the land grabber moves on to the next area,” explained researcher Paulo Moutinho, from IPAM (Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon), one of the main authors of the study.
The CAR, as a record of environmental regularity of the property, self-declared by the occupier, enters this equation as an attempt to forge a regular occupation. Therefore, it is necessary to stop the validation of these false entries in the system. “These records are in the government’s database. To take action against illegality, it is essential that public authorities work to, at least, assess the legality of the occupation of these areas, as this is a case of theft of public assets,” said Moutinho.
Researcher Claudia Azevedo-Ramos, from UFPA (Federal University of Pará), who led the study, highlights the role of these forests. “It is necessary to assign these forests as environmental protection and sustainable use. Preserving these ecosystems means respecting the rights of traditional and indigenous populations, who are often removed from the area by land grabbers, in addition to keeping the rain and climate stable, which are essential for agricultural production in the Amazon.”
Despite the Brazilian legislation defining potential categories of destination for public forests, and protecting these areas as public domain, the authors point out that, since 2019, all programs for designating a purpose to these areas have been dismantled by the federal and state governments. “These forests belong to the Brazilian people. Governments are responsible for protecting them and ensuring that they are not left to speculation and usurpation of their natural resources. To preserve public forests is to ensure that the Amazon maintains its climatic and socio-environmental functions, with benefits for the entire planet,” alerted Azevedo-Ramos.