If Brazil Allows Terra Legal Changes, Land Grabbers Win and the Amazon Loses

A landless peasant occupation near highway BR 163 and the town of Novo Progresso in Pará state, Brazil. The Terra Legal program instituted in 2009 was meant to give landless peasants a chance to buy small plots of land. The altered Terra Legal program, as now proposed, would give large landowners a chance to dramatically increase their land holdings, likely leading to a major conversion of rainforest into grazing and crop lands. (Photo: Thais Borges)A landless peasant occupation near highway BR 163 and the town of Novo Progresso in Pará state, Brazil. The Terra Legal program instituted in 2009 was meant to give landless peasants a chance to buy small plots of land. The altered Terra Legal program, as now proposed, would give large landowners a chance to dramatically increase their land holdings, likely leading to a major conversion of rainforest into grazing and crop lands. (Photo: Thais Borges)

The political turmoil continues in Brasilia, as President Temer, having survived an attempt to impeach him in May, now fights off accusations made by the bosses at JBS, the world’s largest meat processing company, that he approved illegal payments to a leading politician.

In the midst of the mayhem, Congress has aggressively moved forward a bill that would rejigger an existing government program meant to benefit landless peasants, in order to benefit wealthy land thieves wanting to get their hands on large areas of rural land in Brazil — particularly in Amazonia.

Provisional Measure (MP) 759, now converted into a bill and called the Conversion Law Project (PLC) 12/16, would introduce significant alterations to an existing program called Terra Legal, introduced in 2009 by President Lula. President Temer has until 22 June to approve or to veto, wholly or partially, the new legislation.

The Terra Legal program — originally touted as a means of enabling peasant families to gain ownership of their small land plots — had already been criticized for being widely used by the powerful to gain legal rights to public land they had stolen.

Critics fear that the new law, if approved next week, will make the situation much worse, with calamitous impacts on the rural poor and the environment.

If the revisions to the Terra Legal program are approved by President Temer next week, analysts say that anther 20 million hectares (77,200 square miles) of the Amazon biome and 40 million hectares (154,440 square miles) of the Cerrado (savanna) could legally be cleared. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)If the revisions to the Terra Legal program are approved by President Temer next week, analysts say that anther 20 million hectares (77,200 square miles) of the Amazon biome and 40 million hectares (154,440 square miles) of the Cerrado (savanna) could legally be cleared. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)

The changes made by Congress, some introduced at a late stage by the bill’s rapporteur, Senator Romero Jucá, include extending the maximum size of individual irregular land occupations that can be regularized from 1,500 to 2,500 hectares (5.8 to 9.6 square miles). This increase makes it easier for big farmers and agribusiness to gain access to the land in agrarian reform settlements.

Gerson Teixeira, president of the Brazilian Agrarian Reform Association (ABRA) and one of Brazil’s leading land experts, said that, by signing the law, President Temer would “in a single stroke of his pen” be “sounding the death knell for settlers and for Brazil’s public land.”

Marco Antônio Delfino, Public Prosecutor in Mato Grosso do Sul state, and Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer with the NGO, Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), said in a joint article that the law’s changes turned a program of land regulation into a program of land deregulation.

Not all agree with this analysis. Federal Deputy Izalci Lucas, who played a big role moving the bill through Congress, said that Brazil now had “a law that is complete, definitive and fully discussed with society.” The deputy was largely referring to the impact of the measure in Brazil’s cities, where shanty-town dwellers, along with real estate companies, will gain some land ownership benefits.

The revamped Terra Legal program could open the way for cattlemen and soy growers to make major land gains across the Amazon and Cerrado. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)The revamped Terra Legal program could open the way for cattlemen and soy growers to make major land gains across the Amazon and Cerrado. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)

Others supporting the law were aware of the impact in the countryside, and a group of large landowners went to Brasilia to pressure the Senate for approval. Senator Hélio José, a leading member of the bancada ruralista, the agribusiness lobby in Congress, said the new law would mean the “end of deforestation,” adding that “We are going to make a grand Pact for Peace.”

Despite the senator’s assertion, studies have shown that those areas where the Terra Legal Program had been most active have recorded the highest deforestation rates, creating fears that an extension of the program will accelerate forest cutting. Analysts say the program will allow another 20 million hectares (77,200 square miles) of the Amazon biome and 40 million hectares (154,440 square miles) of the Cerrado (savanna) to be legally cleared.

There are also fears the new law will negatively impact Brazil’s agrarian reform settlements, many of which were set up due to pressure from Brazil’s globally known landless movement (MST).

Gerson Teixeira said that the new law, if passed, will remove a stipulation that allowed peasant families to delay paying for their plots until the land is supported by adequate infrastructure. “Most of the settlements are in a precarious condition,” Teixeira said. “They don’t have rural credit or infrastructure. Some have existed for 20 years and don’t have a single well.”

If peasant families must start paying for their plots immediately, many will have no option but to sell, because without rural credit and adequate roads, they can’t farm profitably, Teixeira added, “Big landowners want to get their hands on the 80 million hectares [308,882 square miles] given over to agrarian reform. Making settlers start paying for their plots will give agribusiness what it wants — land for sale.”

A blue and yellow macaw. The rushed Terra Legal decision by the Temer administration and the Congress could do massive long term harm to Amazon biodiversity. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)A blue and yellow macaw. The rushed Terra Legal decision by the Temer administration and the Congress could do massive long term harm to Amazon biodiversity. (Photo: Rhett A. Butler)

Among other changes, the new law would allow a single farmer to acquire multiple plots, something currently banned. As a result, land ownership will become more concentrated and the families losing their land will likely be forced deeper into the forest onto currently unoccupied lands and then clearing them, thus escalating the cycle of deforestation.

The new law will also abolish the rule by which the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) allows settler families to pay much less for their land than big farmers. All now will pay the lower price, greatly benefiting big landowners. Delfino and Batista, give an example: “A land claimant legalizing an irregular occupation of up to 2,500 hectares in the district of Brasnorte in Mato Grosso will have the value per hectare it pays reduced from R$10,800 to R$1,100.” (US $3,294 to US $335.)

According to Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST), the new law will “generate a progressive increase in social convulsion in the countryside.”

Deborah Duprat, Prosecutor for Citizen Rights in the Office of the Attorney General (PFDC), commented: “Among numerous unconstitutional elements, MP 759, which was approved in the midst of protests, transfers into private hands an enormous stock of public land. With this, various policies that guarantee land for peoples, the environment and conservation units, are going to become completely compromised. We have to be prepare for a situation in the countryside where, as a result of the bankruptcy of public policies, violence will grow exponentially.”