Brazil’s Deforestation Quagmire

By: COHA Research Associate Elizabeth Rust
  • A string of recent events indicates that Amazonian deforestation and violence against environmental activists are on the rise.
  • The Brazilian Congress’s lower house approves a bill that weakens protection of the rainforest—which may explain the drastic increase in deforestation, as land clearers anticipate amnesty for their crimes.
  • Given Brazil’s historical disregard for the Amazon rainforest’s global importance, and the legislature’s evident lack of commitment to resolving the issue, a strong and long-term executive response is urgently needed.


In the last few weeks, a series of major events has signaled the urgent need for constructive change to Brazil’s current policies regarding the Amazon rainforest. On May 19, 2011, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) released satellite images indicating that deforestation increased from 103 km2 in March and April 2010 to 593 km2 in the same period of 2011, a sixfold increase from a year ago.[1] Not long after, on July 1, 2011, the INPE announced that this increase was not just a temporary aberration: deforestation in May 2011 stood at 268 km2, twice the amount of clearing as in May 2010.[2] On May 25, 2011, leading forest conservationist José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were killed in the Amazon state of Pará; this event was followed by the murders of environmental and land reform activists Adelino Ramos on May 28 and Obede Loyla Souza on June 15.[3] And on the same day as da Silva’s murder, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the National Congress’s lower house, voted 410-63 in favor of a bill that would allow individual states to lower the legal reserve requirement, the percentage of land that a landholder in the Amazon is obligated to preserve as rainforest.[4]

Dilma Rousseff’s administration has decried the series of events, and articulated a number of government responses that are already in progress. Soon after the dramatic jump in deforestation was announced, Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira stated that the government was creating a ‘crisis cabinet’ to investigate the causes of the increase; President Rousseff has ordered a federal investigation of the Amazon assassinations, even though homicides are normally handled at the state level; and Rousseff considers the bill’s passing a major setback in her agenda, while promising to veto certain provisions if the bill is approved by the Federal Senate, Congress’s upper house.[5]

After decades of virtually ignoring the importance of the Amazon, it is a relief that Brazil’s executive branch finally acknowledges the need to respond to crimes committed in the region. But these responses, while necessary, are weak and shortsighted. In order to permanently and dramatically reduce the rate of deforestation in the Amazon and ensure the safety of environmental activists, Brazil must determinedly prosecute the alleged Amazon-based criminals. Of equal importance, Brazil must effectively address the underlying causes of deforestation in Brazil, which are the result of a combination of political and economic forces. Controlling these forces is easier said than done, but a good start would be to reverse decades-long policies that encourage deforestation in the Amazon—policies that may continue if Congress passes this latest measure.


History and Background on Deforestation in Brazil

The Amazon rainforest has faced constant deforestation since it was first colonized on a grand scale in the 1960s; before then, access was largely restricted due to a lack of public infrastructure. The infrastructure that eventually arose throughout the region was designed and built by none other than the Brazilian government, in an effort to encourage settlement and expand the country’s agricultural sector. One of the government’s largest projects was the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway in 1972, which proved to be a massive failure when poor crop yields drove the families that settled along the highway into debt, and when the road itself proved unstable for having been built on sedimentary land.[6]

Since then, Brazil has continued to encourage the destruction of the Amazon, even if it has ceased direct destruction of the Amazon through state projects. Today, one of the most significant causes of deforestation is Brazil’s inability to appropriate land in a way that preserves the health of the rainforest. Of course, there are a number of factors that contribute to deforestation that are not under direct control of the Brazilian government. Tropical land is notoriously nutrient-poor, and can only live through a few crop cycles before new land must be cleared. Thus, the expansion of soybean production, for example, hastens slash-and-burn clearing due to soybeans’ natural tendency to deplete the soil’s nutrients at a much faster rate than other crops. Global prices of crops and livestock are also largely out of the government’s hands, determined mainly by market factors. So when global beef prices increase, cattle ranching expands, accelerating deforestation.[7] Still, these largely uncontrollable elements are exacerbated by two underlying factors that are entirely within the government’s jurisdiction: policies related to land tenure, and an utter lack of law enforcement within the sparsely populated Amazon region.


“Productive Use” and the Legal Reserve Requirement

The Brazilian constitution (Title VII, Chapter III, Article 191) states that “The individual who, not being the owner of rural or urban property, holds as his own, for five uninterrupted years, without opposition, an area of land in the rural zone, not exceeding fifty hectares, making it productive with his labour or that of his family, and having his dwelling thereon, shall acquire ownership of the land.”[8] This provision, originally intended to promote development in the Amazon and provide a livelihood for Brazil’s poor, in fact acts as a destructive force within the region and does little to aid the underprivileged.

The “productive use” of this provision is interpreted to mean that anyone who settles on land and clears it for cattle ranching or agriculture, in addition to fulfilling the other provisions of the article, is eligible to earn tenure rights to that land. In other words, deforestation is basically codified within Brazil’s constitution as an ideal vehicle through which one can attain land. In contrast, Brazil’s 1965 Forest Conservation Law requires that all landowners within the Amazon preserve 80 percent of their property as rainforest. Ostensibly, the only way for the rural landless to attain land ownership in the Amazon while complying with both of these contradictory laws is to clear as much land as possible without cutting into the 80 percent legal reserve requirement. But with such a narrow basis to comply with the law and scanty enforcement of the legal reserve requirement, much less than 80 percent is preserved in practice.


Latifundios, Minifundios, and the Landless

This problem is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of privately owned Amazonian land is not possessed by small rural families but by large landowners (latifundistas). In the late 1990s INCRA (Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) estimated that only 12 percent of Brazil’s rural land is settled by small producers owning 100 hectares or less, yet those parcels produce 80 percent of the nation’s food. In contrast, 43.5 percent of rural land is owned by latifundistas.[9] Most of the remaining land is public, unclaimed territory that could be settled at any time; the rest are indigenous lands, extractive reserves, and national and state forests.

It is most likely that since INCRA released its report, the discrepancy between the percentages of land owned by large vs. small landowners is even greater, as all signs point to the fact that more land is falling under the control of fewer individuals. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that latifundistas have more workers who can clear larger areas of land. Since land clearing acts as a vehicle for land ownership, the result is that, as a squatter in Pará has stated, “Here the biggest title is the biggest ax.”[10] While the constitutional usufruct article only applies to small landowners (minifundistas) hoping to acquire no more than fifty hectares, when their wealthier counterparts clear the land, they acquire it de facto, because they prevent the sem terra (those without land) from being able to clear the area and acquire it for themselves.

Some latifundistas even go so far as to claim land that a minifundista is already in the process of clearing and putting into “productive use.” Reclamation is usually done by force, and such illegal land grabs are responsible for much of the rural violence that plagues the Brazilian Amazon. When minifundistas are thrown off their land, they move deeper into the Amazon rainforest and the process repeats itself: small landowners clear more land in an attempt to attain it permanently, and large landowners once again claim that same land by force. The statistics reflect the Amazon’s complex and murky land ownership situation. A study from Imazon, a non-profit research organization, states that only 14 percent of privately owned land is backed by legal title; the remaining titles are counterfeit or non-existent.[11]

Under such a poorly defined system of tenure, the Amazon rainforest suffers for two main reasons: 1) potential landowners attempt to lay a stronger claim to the land by clearing more forest and replacing it with tangible forms of property (crops, cattle, etc.), and 2) public areas and unclaimed land are treated poorly, in the same way that public goods in general are treated poorly; when one clearly owns his own land, he will tend to preserve it better. For these reasons, former Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc stated in 2009 that “Land regularisation is of fundamental importance for halting deforestation.”[12]


Rural Violence and Environmental Activism

The same large landowners and agribusiness interests behind much of the Amazon’s deforestation and the eviction of small landholders are likely to be behind the murders of environmental activists. While tragic, the deaths of the da Silvas, Ramos, and Souza are by no means unprecedented. A 1991 Human Rights Watch report identified hundreds of murders in the Amazon associated with land conflict and environmental activism since 1985, and by most accounts, the number of murders per year has increased over the past 20 years. That same report indicated that these murders are often “assassination-type killings targeting specific leaders,” carried out by “private gangs of thugs or gunmen hired by the landowners.”[13] This modus operandi is exactly what authorities suspect happened in the Amazon’s most recent assassinations. In all cases, the victims received death threats from loggers and cattle ranchers in the months and years leading up to their murders. In the case of the da Silvas, even more evidence points to the hiring of gunmen: each body was found with one ear missing, presumably for their assassins to point to as proof to whomever hired them that they indeed killed the activist and his wife.[14]

Many assassinations of environmental activists and rural dwellers go unpunished in the scarcely policed Amazon rainforest. Most police chiefs do not have a law degree, a requirement in other areas of the country, or any training in investigative techniques or forensics. But corruption and a simple lack of interest are more pertinent factors than a lack of credentials. Most often the local judicial system takes slow action or none at all in the investigation of these murders, either due to indifference or animosity toward rural activists.[15] The result is a shocking degree of impunity. Of the thousands of killings that have occurred since 1988, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court. Only about 80 hired gunmen have been convicted. Fifteen of the men who hired those gunmen have been found guilty, and only one of them is still serving a sentence today.[16] Given these shocking statistics, and Rousseff’s spoken commitment to punishing those behind the recent string of assassinations, it is no wonder that the President has ordered a federal, rather than state or local, investigation.


The New Bill and Its Backers

Since powerful agribusiness, logging, and ranching interests are behind much of the Amazon’s deforestation as well as the silencing of activists, one might suspect Congress’s new bill—which proposes to essentially suspend the legal reserve requirement, allow farmers and ranchers with small holdings to clear land closer to river banks and hilltops, and offer amnesty from harsh fines on farms and ranches of any size on land cleared before July 2008—to have been introduced and backed by those same interests.[17] Surprisingly, the bill was actually introduced by Aldo Rebelo, the leader of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCDoB). Rebelo holds that the 1965 Forest Conservation Law needs a serious update, and that some of the current regulations prevent owners of small tracts of land from growing enough crops to lift themselves out of poverty.[18]

Rebelo’s claim to speak for Brazil’s rural poor is rather puzzling. Given that the legal reserve requirement is barely enforced in the first place, it is hard to believe that it contributes significantly to the poor’s inability to advance socioeconomically. Admittedly, in 2009 the executive branch began threatening to subscribe to more stringent enforcement of the legal reserve requirement, so perhaps Rebelo acts in anticipation of this proposed change in policy. But his choice to “represent the poor” by doing away with the legal reserve requirement will likely do nothing but preserve the status quo—exactly the opposite of what the rural poor want and need. If the reserve requirement is eliminated and previous offenders are awarded amnesty, the government is likely to postpone a thorough investigation of the Amazonian land situation, as it has done so many times before, and allow latifundistas to continue to dominate the state of affairs in the Amazon. Given this, it is no surprise that agribusiness, logging, and ranching interests in the Chamber of Deputies have favored the bill so fervently. Rebelo’s proposition only amounts to a short-term economic fix for Amazonian minifundistas by allowing them to clear more forest and attempt to lay a stronger claim to their land. A sounder long-term solution requires the upholding of laws and law enforcement, so that illegal land grabs and the constant threat of eviction are no longer a concern for the rural poor.


Other Solutions

Strengthening law enforcement and cracking down on environmental crimes are much easier said than done. The sudden levying of fines and arrests would meet a great deal of resistance, so any increase in law enforcement must be gradual. Unfortunately, given the dramatic rise in deforestation, a gradual change in policy might not be enough to slow the rate of slash-and-burn clearing. What other solutions might Brazil pursue, in conjunction with the careful imposition of law enforcement? One potential, less controversial measure would involve an expansion of protected areas, indigenous reserves, and national and state parks, instead of leaving large areas of unclaimed forest vulnerable to clearing on the part of prospective owners. Of course, such a measure would need to accompany physical protection of protected areas in the form of—once again—stronger law enforcement. Another, perhaps slightly more controversial approach would be to tie compliance with environmental law to financial credits: for example, cutting off financial credits to local municipalities in areas responsible for large amounts of deforestation, and tying increased financial credits to a municipality’s registration of land titles. Such a measure would take some of the burden and responsibility of sorting out the land ownership situation off the federal government, and give local authorities an incentive to sort out the issue themselves. This measure has already been implemented, with modest success and in conjunction with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Nature Conservancy, in the previously deforestation-prone municipality of Paragominas. The town’s mayor has called for a halt to deforestation by 2014 and so far the goal still seems feasible.[19]



What underlies nearly every problem and every solution to the Amazon’s deforestation problem is the critical need for land regularization and a stronger justice system that punishes illegal land grabs and assassinations. Slowing deforestation permanently requires Brazil’s permanent attention to these needs. Ironically, punishing violators of the legal reserve requirement is less critical. Doing so would do little to address the underlying causes, will be met with considerable resistance from the majority of Amazonian dwellers, and may risk punishing lesser offenders before greater ones. What makes Congress’s new bill so devastating is what it represents: an utter lack of commitment on the part of Brazil’s legislature to adopting change that would reduce deforestation. Their favoring the new bill represents an interest in encouraging the national government to step away from the Amazon and allow the region’s myriad problems to continue unabated. If the Senate passes the bill, they may well send the message that nothing in the Amazon need change. So far, the country’s generosity of vision has not matched the depth of commitment required to carry out its enormous responsibility. Fortunately, Brazil’s executive branch is finally demonstrating a readiness, albeit shaky, to embark on a campaign for much-needed reform. The world is depending on that pledge—let us hope that it does not veer off course.


References for this article can be found here.