The Great Amazon Land Grab – How Brazil’s Government Is Turning Public Land Private, Clearing the Way for Deforestation

By Gabriel Cardoso Carrero, Graduate Student Fellow and PhD Candidate in Geography, University of Florida; Cynthia S. Simmons, Professor of Geography, University of Florida; and Robert T. Walker, Professor of Latin American Studies and Geography, University of Florida. Originally published at The Conversation

Imagine that several state legislators decide that Yellowstone National Park is too big. Also imagine that, working with federal politicians, they change the law to downsize the park by a million acres, which they sell in a private auction.

Outrageous? Yes. Unheard of? No. It happens routinely and with increasing frequency in the Brazilian Amazon.

The most widely publicized threat to the Amazonian rainforest is deforestation. Less well understood is that public lands are being converted to private holdings in a land grab we’ve been studying for the past decade.

Much of this land is cleared for cattle ranches and soybean farms, threatening biodiversity and the Earth’s climate. Prior research has quantified how much public land has been grabbed, but only for one type of public land called “undesignated public forests.”

Our research provides a complete account across all classes of public land. We looked at Amazonia’s most active deforestation frontier, southern Amazonas State, starting in 2012 as rates of deforestation began to increase because of loosened regulatory oversight. Our research shows how land grabs are tied to accelerating deforestation spearheaded by wealthy interests, and how Brazil’s National Congress, by changing laws, is legitimizing these land grabs.

How the Amazon Land Grab Began

Brazil’s modern land grab started in the 1970s, when the military government began offering free land to encourage mining industries and farmers to move in, arguing that national security depended on developing the region. It took lands that had been under state jurisdictions since colonial times and allocated them to rural settlement, granting 150- to 250-acre holdings to poor farmers.

Federal and state governments ultimately designated over 65% of Amazonia to several public interests, including rural settlement. For biodiversity, they created conservation units, some allowing traditional resource use and subsistence agriculture. Leftover government lands are generally referred to as “vacant or undesignated public lands.”

Tracking the Land Grab

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

Importantly, land grabs now impact conservation areas and indigenous territories, where private holdings are forbidden.

We compared the boundaries of self-declared private holdings in the government’s Rural Environmental Registry database, known as CAR, with the boundaries of all public lands in southern Amazonas State. The region has 50,309 square miles in conservation units. Of these, we found that 10,425 square miles, 21%, have been “grabbed,” or declared in the CAR register as private between 2014 and 2020.

In the United States, this would be like having 21% of the national parks disappear into private property.

Our measurement is probably an underestimate, given that not all grabbed lands are registered. Some land grabbers now use CAR to establish claims that could become legal with changes in the law.

A map of the region showing deforestation and public lands. Gabriel Cardoso Carrero, CC BY-ND

Land grabs put the rainforest at risk by increasing deforestation. In southern Amazonas, our research reveals that twice as much deforestation occurred on illegal as opposed to legal CAR holdings between 2008 and 2021, a relative magnitude that is growing.

Large Deforestation Patches Point to Wealth

So who are these land grabbers?

In Pará State, Amazonas State’s neighbor, deforestation in the 1990s was dominated by poor family farms in rural settlements. On average, these households accumulated 120 acres of farmland after several decades by opening 4-6 acres of forest every few years in clearings visible on satellite images as deforestation patches.

Since then, patch sizes have grown dramatically in the region, with most deforestation occurring on illicit holdings whose patches are much larger than on legal holdings.

Measured in millions of acres
Chart: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND Source: PRODES Terrabrasilis 2021; SICAR 2020 Get the data Download image

Land grabbers benefit by selling the on-site timber and by subdividing what they’ve grabbed for sale in small parcels. Arrest records and research by groups such as Transparency International Brasil show that many of them are involved in criminal enterprises that use the land 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 patches exceeding 3,707 acres in Southern Amazonas. Since his election in 2019, we can identify nine massive clearings with an average size of 5,105 acres. The clearance and preparation cost for each Bolsonaro-era deforestation patch, legal or illicit, would be about US$353,000.

Legitimizing Land Grabbing

Brazil’s National Congress has been making it easier to grab public land.

A 2017 change in the law expanded the legally allowed size of private holdings in undesignated public lands and in rural settlements. This has reclassified over 1,000 square miles of land that had been considered illegal in 2014 as legal in southern Amazonas. Of all illegal CAR claims in undesignated public lands and rural settlements in 2014, we found that 94% became legal in 2017.

Congress is now considering two additional pieces of legislation. One would legitimize land grabs up to 6,180 acres, about 9.5 square miles, in all undesignated public forests – an amount already allowed by law in other types of undesignated public lands. The second would legitimize large holdings on about 80,000 square miles of land once meant for the poor.

Our research also shows that the federal government increased the amount of public land up for grabs in southern Amazonas by shrinking rural settlements by 16%, just over 2,000 square miles, between 2015 and 2020. Large ranches are now absorbing that land. Similar downsizing of public land has affected Amazonia’s national parks.

Satellite images over time show how deforestation spread in the Amazon.

What Can Turn This Around?

Because of policy interventions and the greening of agricultural supply chains, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell after 2005, reaching a low point in 2012, when it began trending up again because of weakening environmental governance and reduced surveillance.

Other countries have helped Brazil with billions of dollars to protect the Amazon for the good of the climate, but in the end, the land belongs to Brazil. Outsiders have limited power to influence its use.

At the U.N. climate summit in 2021, 141 countries – including Brazil – signed a pledge to end deforestation by 2030. This pledge holds potential because, unlike past ones, the private sector has committed $7.2 billion to reduce agriculture’s impact on the forest. In our view, the global community can help by insisting that supply chains for Amazonian beef and soybean products originate on lands deforested long ago and whose legality is longstanding.



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  1. Bart Hansen

    Many years ago I studied Latin American Studies at Gainesville. They impressed on us that the Amazon had nearly all its fertile richness in the trees themselves; that the soil itself was not very fertile. My thought now is that large amounts of harmful fertilizers must be required to grow those soybeans going to China.

  2. Peter

    So let me get this – the lunatic President of Brazil is going to destroy his country and in the midst of it likely make money to very rich people so that they can build big houses which will give them the benefit??? of drowning in a nice, beautiful, huge death trap? Seems to be obviously INSANE and could only be conceived by someone who is totally clueless and absolutely unaware of reality. There is a few lines from the song “Beware of Darkness” by George Harrison that are applicable.
    Watch out now, take care
    Beware of greedy leaders
    They take you where you should not go

  3. dcblogger

    why mystifies me in all this is the role of the Brazilian electricity lobby. As I understand it most of Brazil’s electrical supply comes from a big dam on the Amazon, and if water levels fall too much it won’t work. So why doesn’t the electricity lobby, which is must be formidable, protecting the forest?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Whatever else the electricity lobby in Brazil may represent, it represents Brazilian rich people. And they may well share the cultural hatred that Brazilian rich people have for Indians, Indian Treaty Lands, Indian Treaty Rights, trees, beauty, living growing things, etc.

      If that is so, then the members of the electricity lobby may feel that seeing hydropower dam profits on the Amazon go to zero is a price worth paying in return for being able to turn the Amazon into a sterile desert to show that Brazilian Western Man has Civilized the Amazon.

    2. Peter

      Good Point. But the KEY thing to remember is that the Amazon Forest is the LUNGS of the Planet – burn the lungs?? An unbelievably ignorant, mindless, moral act that is literally waging war with the planet we live on – I cannot conceive of an act that is more mindless. Humans are becoming more and more like mindless creatures – Love of Money is truly the root of ALL evil.

  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    Assuming the Bolsonaranons are able to turn the Amazon into a million square miles of soybean plantations . . . . CommuNazi China will buy every bean.

    Pray the ChinaGov CommuNazis do not escape the terminal global warming they are working so hard to bring about.

  5. John Hartmann

    How can the rest of the world stand back and watch this planet killing act of deforestation. We need to act! I hear so little about this from the US government. We need to act!

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Brazil is evenly divided between Lulistas and Bolsonaranons. I don’t know which group is bigger. I also don’t know how big the ” don’t care anymore” demographic is within Brazil.

      The Bolsonaranons support Operation Destroy The Amazon. The Lulistas support Operation Protect The Amazon. Depending on which half of Brazilian society can get its political preferrences elected, the resulting BrazilGov will pursue one of those two approaches.

      So I suppose that if the Lulistas actually ask for assistance from well-meaning foreigners to get elected, those foreigners can give that assistance with a hope of getting Save the Amazon people elected. That might be a short-run something for individual persons and groups to focus on.

      I wouldn’t expect any sincere action of any sort from governments. And I would expect Communazi China to pull every possible string and lever to get Bolsonaro re-elected so as to “make Amazonia Chinese” in practical effect. Making China so poor that it can no longer afford to buy so much as one soybean from Brazil might delay the destruction of Amazonia. But who is going to do that?

      You can’t bite the hand that feeds you when it is wrapped around your throat.

  6. Skunk

    A tragedy that can’t be put into words. When science falls on tin ears, what’s the point of it? Of course, we have to keep doing it anyway.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Its not the fault of science that the ears are tin.

      One thing the Big Governments could do is pass legislation ahead of time right now and standing ready to forbid so much as one single climate refugee from Brazil from moving to any other country which passes such a law. Make the Brazilians understand ahead of time that they will have to live in whatever abandoned strip-mine desertscape they turn their country into.

      One thing concerned people outside of Brazil could do is to create huge popular campaigns across EUrope, Japan, and Canadamerica and such to identify and buy the sort of products which are wild-harvested in Amazonia and which support local economy-loads of Amazonian Brazilians . . . . things like Brazil nuts and acai berries and babassu oil and etc. And also at the same time organize deeply entrenched culture-wide boycotts against Brazilian products which could be used to launder Amazon jungle beef and jungle soybeans and so forth. So a total peoples’ boycott of all Brazilian beef and leather because it could provide cover for jungle beef and jungle leather. And a total boycott of all companies which get any soybeans from Brazil, because Brazilian soybean exports could be used to hide and launder Amazonian jungle soybeans.
      And a boycott of Chinese goods and services so painful it could actually torture China into boycotting Brazilian soybeans, beef, etc. until all land conversion and privatisation and etc. in Amazonia were instantly dead-stopped. And such a behavior-changing torture-cott against Chinese economic activity would have to be so deeply torturous that the torture would indeed torture China into boycotting Brazilian beef/beans/etc. Because Great Han Lebensraum Communazi China is deeply committed to the Bolsonarian project of turning Amazonia into a Chinese Beef-Soy plantation. And it would take a lot of economic torture to torture Communazi China into backing off of that deeply held commitment.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I understand that feeling and I sympathise. But invasions rarely work and would certainly fail in a country as huge as Brazil. And Brazilians of all political tendencies would rally around the flag to resist and reject any invasion. So if anyone is seriously considering this, however sneakingly, they might spend a moment to reconsider it.

      If an invasion were attempted, what would happen beyond the predictable things? Here are two predictions from me which most people might not have thought of, but which were the two very first things to come to my mind.

      Thing One: Communazi China will give Brazil all the aid it needs to defeat any such invasion attempt because the Communazi Chinese agenda for the Amazon is to burn down every single tree from the Atlantic to the Andes and turn it all into soybean plantations for the Great China One-Ball One-Chain Co-Prosperity Borg.

      Thing Two: If it looked like a “save the Amazon” invasion would actually succeed despite all the most desperate help that Communazi China would give Brazil in order to make it fail, the Bolsonarians would send hundreds-to-thousands of special arson teams to the Amazon to burn down every tree, in the same spirit that Saddam Hussein blew up every oil well in Kuwait as a “parting gift” to the victorious Allies of Operation Desert Storm.

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