WEAK Land Rights = WEAK Preservation

By Leitão, Sergio; Mortazavi, Tania | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

WEAK Land Rights = WEAK Preservation


Leitão, Sergio, Mortazavi, Tania, Americas Quarterly


Modern Brazil's Transition to Democracy and a Progressive Constitution Have Done Little to Change Archaic and Abusive Land Policies. That's Bad News for Environmentalists Around the World.

Although Brazil is among the 15 largest economies in the world, its land policies remain stubbornly stuck in a state of limbo between the modern and the archaic. Technological advances in agriculture have turned Brazilian farms into some of the world's most productive; yet we have continued a pattern of exploitive rural settlement that dates back to the early era of colonization. While the transition to democracy from military rule has strengthened the basic rights of the urban population, millions of rural Brazilians-many of them indigenous-are still awaiting their turn. Now, emerging confl icts between workers and rural landowners have put the issue of land development squarely at the center of the national political agenda. At the same time, with concern about global climate change rising, the government's failure to apply land-use protections that are already enshrined in our revised constitution to the Amazon threatens the fate of the planet.

It's time to bring justice to the Brazilian countryside.

Understanding the current chaos requires a brief look at both Brazilian history and geography. Brazil's 3.1 million square miles (8 million square kilometers) comprise six separate natural habitats or biomes: Amazonia, Pantanal, Cerrado, Caatinga, Mata Atlântica, and Pampa. These biomes are spread in a non-homogenous manner across fi ve geographic regions of the country: North, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, and South.

How these biomes were settled is intimately related to their environmental destruction and to the social conflicts that persist today in Brazil's regions. The history of Mata Atlântica in particular provides a painful and telling example.

The Mata Atlântica is a tropical rainforest almost 700,000 square miles (1.1 million square kilometers) in size, spread across Brazil's Atlantic region, where the majority of the country's population live. Eightynine percent of its area was destroyed during the colonial period beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. In colonial times, the Portuguese Crown awarded land concessions in the Mata Atlântica to private interests for economic exploitation without concern for the indigenous peoples who lived there or for environmental sustainability. Once natural resources were depleted, these lands were typically abandoned, leading to the exploitation of new areas where the process would repeat itself.

Historically, land in Brazil has been publicly owned. But much of this so-called public land gradually found its way into private hands through unlawful means. In practice, a would-be settler fi rst occupied a given piece of land, expelled anyone who was living there, and then began clearing the forest to demonstrate that the land was now under cultivation- which under the rules meant that the settler could make a claim for ownership. It wasn't rare for these actions to be accompanied by the forging of documents or the bribing of government offi cials to obtain deeds, a practice that resulted in the coining of a new expression, grilagem de terras, meaning the fraudulent seizure of land.

* Land and Political Power

The resulting spread of the great latifundios across the country explains much of Brazilian political history. The steady privatization of public lands translated into a concentration of political power in the hands of large landowners. Brazil's first constitution, in 1824, limited the right to vote and to hold offi ce to those whose income could be measured in agricultural produce (kilos of manioc)-giving rise to the expression democracia censitária (census tract democracy). Non-landowners, particularly indigenous peoples, ex-slaves (slavery was finally abolished in 1888 in Brazil), and poor peasants were the losers in Brazil's agrarian policies, and had no political power whatsoever. …

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