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Amazon land law debate heats up

By Paulo Cabral
BBC Brasil, south-eastern Amazon

Samll ranch in the Amazon
Who owns what in the Amazon is a tangled question

Just over two months ago a controversial law took effect in Brazil allowing people who had illegally occupied land in the Amazon to seek proper ownership rights.

Since then, more than 4,000 farmers have been registered and the aim is to reach nearly 300,000 farmers in three years.

Decades of irregular occupation have created a situation in the Amazon often described as "land chaos".

Nobody knows who the land in the Amazon belongs to and who is farming there, so even though satellite technology makes it possible to pinpoint areas of deforestation, it is very hard to take action against those responsible.

The authorities say that land regulation in the Amazon is essential in order to gain control over the region and contain deforestation.

"We have to be pragmatic about the Amazon. It is unthinkable to remove all those farmers after 40 years of occupation," says Alberto Lourenco, one of the senior government aides overseeing the new regulations.

"So we had better regularise it to obtain some control and have a fresh start for the future."

Middle men

Paul Barreto, senior researcher for the Amazaon Institute for Mankind and the Environment
Paulo Barreto is worried the situation will worsen under the new law

However, critics of the land ownership bill fear that giving rights to people who have illegally occupied public land for many years already could encourage new occupations.

"People will come to the region to occupy public land trusting that in the future there will be another amnesty that will legalise everything," says Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher for the Amazon Institute for Mankind and the Environment (Imazon).

Here are the main points of the new land law:

  • Applies to farms up to 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) - this is quite small given that ranches over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) are common in the Amazon
  • Farmers with properties up to 60 hectares only need to show personal documents (ID, tax card and marriage certificates) and say where there land is located. They will receive a permanent land title in 90 days, at no extra cost and with no official visit provided the land is not disputed and they do not have any other property in their name
  • Farmers with 60 to 500 hectares must show documents proving land they have occupied before 2004. They will pay for the land below market price. Government agents will visit to establish with GPS technology the exact boundaries of the land
  • Farmers with 500 to 1,500 hectares will have to pay the market price to regularise their land.

Farms that are bigger than 1,500 hectares are still covered by a previous law which stipulates that public auctions should be held to legalise occupied territories.

Brazilian woman registering her Amazon land claim with government official
Lots of people have registered Amazon land claims with the government

However, environmentalists fear that the owners of big farms may use middle men to deceive the authorities, by splitting large properties into several smaller fake farms.

"That's not such an easy thing to do. We have people on the ground and even though it is far from perfect, we do have a lot of intelligence on the Amazon", says the government's superintendent for land regularisation in the Amazon, Jose Raimundo Sepeda.

"If we find out that a property which had only one house, now has 10 houses, and lots of fences, it will be clear there is something wrong," he adds.

For smaller farmers the possibility of accessing credit from public and private banks is the main incentive to register their land.

Human impact

"We have a small farm worked by our family. It is simply impossible to work without access to finance," says Cassio Barbosa, who has registered his 400 hectare farm.

Young village boy passed by articulated lorries carrying wood from the Amazon
Deforestation also has a knock-on effect on local communities

Mr Barbosa has been in the Amazon since 1982, when he sold his property in the central state of Minas Gerais to buy land (itself illegally occupied by someone else years before) in the city of Dom Eliseu.

"We kept 70% of the forest standing in our property because we had already seen what deforestation had brought to our state of Minas Gerais," he says.

For years, farmers like Mr Barbosa managed to get credit using the provisional "right to use" documents held by many in the region.

Yet in the last few years the tightening of environmental and property laws has led banks to lend only to those with all their paperwork in order.

"We do not want to destroy the forest but for that we need money to invest in modernising and expanding production.

"But to invest we need to be sure that the land is ours," says Mr Barbosa.

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