How the Brazilian government is paving the way for deforestation in the Amazon

By Gabriel Cardoso Carrero and Cynthia S. Simmons and Robert T. Walker 6 minutes Read

Imagine a group of politicians decide that Yellowstone National Park is too big, so they shrink the park by a million acres and then sell that land in a private auction.

Excessive? Yes. Unheard of? New. It is happening more and more often in the Brazilian Amazon.

The most well-known threat to the Amazon rainforest is deforestation. A new study by European scientists released on March 7, 2022 finds that the felling of trees and less rainfall over the past 20 years has made more than 75% of the region less resilient to disturbance, suggesting that the rainforest is nearing the tipping point for death. † Fewer trees means less moisture evaporates into the atmosphere to fall again as rain.

We’ve studied the Amazon’s changing hydroclimate, the role of deforestation and evidence that the Amazon is being pushed to a tipping point — and what that means for different regions, biodiversity and climate change.

While the increase in deforestation is clear, the sources driving it are less well understood, especially the way public lands are turned into private ownership in a land grab that we’ve studied over the past decade.

Much of this land is being cleared for cattle ranches and soy plantations, posing a threat to biodiversity and the Earth’s climate. Prior research has quantified how much public land has been taken, but only for one type of public land, called “undesignated public forests.” Our research provides a complete overview of all classes of public land.

We looked at Amazonia’s most active deforestation frontier, the southern state of Amazonas; starting in 2012, when deforestation began to increase due to relaxed regulatory oversight. Our research shows how land grabbing correlates with accelerated deforestation, led by wealthy interests, and how the Brazilian National Congress, by amending laws, legitimizes this land grabbing.

Three stages of deforestation: cleared land where the forest has recently been burned to create grassland; Meadow; and forest is burned. [Photo: Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Getty Images]

How the Amazon land grab started

Brazil’s modern-day land grab began in the 1970s, when the military government began offering free land to encourage mining industries and farmers to relocate, arguing that national security depended on the region’s development. It confiscated land that had been under state jurisdiction since colonial times and allocated it to rural settlements, granting poor farmers 150 to 250 acres of land.

Federal and state governments eventually designated more than 65% of the Amazon for various public interests, including rural settlements. For biodiversity, they created conservation units, some of which enabled the use of traditional resources and subsistence farming. Leftover land from the government is generally referred to as “empty or undesignated public lands”.

Follow the land grab

Studies have estimated that by 2020, 32% of “undesignated public forests” had been cleared for private use. But this is only part of the story, as land grabs are now affecting many types of public land.

Importantly, land grabs are now affecting protected areas and indigenous areas, where private property is banned.

Livestock on land cleared in 2020 in the Jamanxim National Forest [Photo: Marco Antonio Rezende/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Getty Images]We compared the boundaries of self-proclaimed private property in the government’s nationwide environmental registration database known as CAR with the boundaries of all public lands in southern Amazonas state. The region has 50,309 square miles of conservation units. Of these, we found that 10,425 square miles, 21%, were “seized” or declared private on the CAR registry between 2014 and 2020.

In the United States, this would be as if 21% of privately owned national parks disappeared.

In Pará state, neighboring Amazonas state, deforestation in the 1990s was dominated by poor family farms in rural settlements. On average, after a few decades, these households have built up 120 hectares of farmland by opening 4 to 6 hectares of forest every few years in clearings visible on satellite images as deforestation spots.

Since then, the size of parcels in the region has skyrocketed, with most of the deforestation taking place on illegal farms whose patches are much larger than on legal farms.

Large areas of deforestation indicate the presence of rich grabs, given the cost of clearing land.

Landgrabbers take advantage of this by selling the wood locally and dividing what they have found for sale into small lots. Arrest records and investigations by groups such as Transparency International Brasil show that many of them are involved in criminal enterprises that use the country for money laundering, tax evasion and illegal mining and logging.

In the 10-year period before President Jair Bolsonaro took office, satellite data showed two deforestation sites spanning more than 3,707 hectares in southern Amazonas. Since his election in 2019, we can identify nine huge clearings with an average size of 5105 hectares. The cleanup and preparation costs for each Bolsonaro-era deforestation patch, legal or unauthorized, would be about $353,000.


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