Who owns Brazilian lands and why does it matter?

Archive Photo: A man cuts down a tree with a chainsaw in a forest near the municipality of Itaituba, Brazil August 7, 2017. Picture taken August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The wildfires raging through the Amazon have grabbed headlines, but Brazil was already in the spotlight thanks to an alarming rise in deforestation

In 2019, nowhere embodies global concerns about the impacts of food production on biodiversity, the climate and human rights more than Brazil.

The wildfires raging through the Amazon have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, but Brazil was already in the spotlight thanks to an alarming rise in deforestation to make way for farming and mining in some of the most biodiverse, fragile and carbon-rich ecosystems in the world. 

Brazil has also been the site of numerous violent, often deadly, clashes over land rights. A 2018 report found that almost a million people had been involved in land conflicts in Brazil during the year. 

But the story is not all bad.

Between 2005 and 2012 deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell off sharply. This success, which won Brazil widespread acclaim from the international community, was driven in great part by a campaign by the government of the day to strengthen the enforcement of Brazil’s environmental laws. That coincided with a boom period for the Brazilian economy and underlines that the recent uptick in deforestation is neither inevitable or necessary to support the development of the country. 

The environmental laws protecting private land in Brazil remain some of the strongest in the world and are a cornerstone for establishing a sustainable agricultural sector. Yet they are under increasing threat of being diluted, downgraded or even abolished by the current administration, which is also drastically cutting funding to agencies responsible for their enforcement. This assault is being met with resistance not only from civil society, local communities and indigenous groups, but also from leading voices in agribusiness who see the sustainability of Brazilian agriculture, and its reputation abroad as being fundamental to its success.

Mapping land ownership

As environmental regulations and their enforcement come under threat, perhaps the most basic ingredient for their success – knowing who actually owns land – remains fraught with uncertainty.

Official records of land ownership are fundamental not just for settling land disputes and enforcing forest protections, but also to give landowners the confidence to invest in more efficient, sustainable farming methods. But in Brazil, nearly 200 years after the country’s independence, land ownership is still often far from clear.

The problem is particularly bad in the deforestation frontiers of the Amazon and the fragile Cerrado savannah. Uncertainty over land rights is encouraging wealthier investors to buy up or illegally claim and clear areas of remaining forest and wait for its value to rise – usually occupying it with only a handful of cattle. This kind of activity has been a major cause of the recent surge in deforestation and fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A new study, “Who owns Brazilian lands”, offers the first ever countrywide mapping of Brazilian land ownership – pieced together from fragmented datasets held by different government agencies. It is publicly available and reveals some of the fundamental reasons why ownership is so uncertain.  

According to the research, some 36 percent of Brazilian land is publicly owned – by states or the federal government. A further 44 percent is registered as privately owned, from small family plots up to huge farms and ranches.

Perhaps the most startling finding, is that for as much as one-sixth of the country – an area three times the size of Paraguay – no owner is registered in any official database. Some of this land is almost certainly occupied by traditional communities, who have been poorly represented in the design of land tenure systems in Brazil.

Of the public land mapped, 13 percent is indigenous reserves, and 11 percent is in conservation areas. However, the study found that a sizeable share - an area the size of France – had no designated function. Most of this undesignated public land is in the Amazon biome. This represents another major blind spot in the ability of the Brazilian government to effectively ensure that public land is sustainably managed to the benefit of all Brazilians.

Although Brazil’s 2006 Forest Law outlaws any deforestation on undesignated public lands, the lack of controls and management has meant that they are typically some of the biggest hotspots of deforestation and land conflict. These gaps and overlaps highlight the urgent need for improvements in the mapping and registration of private land tenure in Brazil in order to enforce public policies such as the Forest Code or avert and settle land conflicts. 

The CAR – a source of hope …

Brazil is at a crossroads in the governance of its immense natural heritage. While Brazil’s existing laws and regulations offer, on paper, fairly robust protections for its ecosystems, understanding land ownership is critical to making them work. 

For all the challenges it revealed, the mapping exercise was only possible thanks to the major progress Brazil has made in recent years in mapping land tenure.

Perhaps the most important innovation has been the Cadastro Ambiental Rural (CAR; the Rural Environmental Registry). The CAR is an invaluable tool to facilitate a shift towards more sustainable land management.

The registry provides a de-facto assessment of the ownership of private land and settlements  – even if many people who hold a CAR registration lack a formal deed of land ownership – and thus helps to fill the huge gaps in official land tenure data. The CAR’s main purpose, though, is to verify land owners’ compliance with the Forest Code.  

The putative landowner must submit a land management plan, including the extent of their holding and how much they have reserved for native vegetation (different percentages are legally required in different parts of Brazil), and make a legal undertaking to fix any shortfalls in native vegetation. If everything then checks out, state authorities will certify that the claimant is in full legal compliance with environmental legislation.

… now also under threat

But the future effectiveness of the CAR is also in question. The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has put a bill before parliament that would oblige state authorities to certify full legal compliance automatically if they cannot identify any irregularities within three days. 

Given the kind of detailed checks that need to be made to identify illegal deforestation or other irregularities, environmental groups are deeply concerned that this represents a backdoor attempt to undermine enforcement of the Forest Code. If the bill becomes law, a tool that was intended to help protect Brazil’s rich natural heritage could thus become an effective license for deforestation. 

When it comes to sustainable land management, Brazil needs more, not less, control over who owns land and what they do with it. And in such tumultuous times it has never been more important to answer the simplest of questions: who owns the land?

Vivian Ribeiro and Toby Gardner are researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute

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