“Integrate so as not to surrender.” With this slogan, the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985) justified the exploitation of the north to protect the Amazon against “internationalization.” Since then, the world’s largest tropical rainforest has already lost 20 percent of its original forest cover, and is well on the way to becoming a green desert if radical changes do not take place.
Containing at least 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest brings moisture to all of South America, influences rainfall in the region, and helps stabilize the global climate. It represents a major carbon sink—an effect that has acted as a brake on the planet’s warming process, but which, thanks to severe environmental damage, has decreased significantly in recent years.
In 2020, it was found that the Amazon is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs as a result of fire (intentional and otherwise) and deforestation. Yet the Brazilian government wants to give even more leeway to the environmental criminals that have devastated this immeasurably precious resource. Bills pending in the Brazilian Congress—one of them introduced by President Jair Bolsonaro—are poised to legalize the actions of land grabbers and miners, threatening Indigenous areas.
Brazil’s failure to establish and adequately enforce land control systems has allowed Amazon territories to be captured for agricultural purposes. According to environmentalists, this occurs in part because of a lack of data and resource sharing between inspection agencies and the three levels of government (municipal, state, and federal). In addition, ineffective land administration means that it is common to see documents that indicate multiple owners for the same farm. Without an efficient control system, several different speculators may take ownership—a kind of robbery of a previous robbery, always looking to acquire lands to sell for higher values later on.
To make matters worse, the federal agency that fights illegal deforestation has been disempowered, with a 40 percent reduction in spending on inspections since 2018. Therefore, those who seek to deforest and destroy the Amazon are enjoying nearly unfettered access, with the Brazilian government’s tacit and explicit support.
Illegal deforestation in the Amazon is strongly associated with land grabs and real estate price speculation on lands located in public forests. In Brazil, criminal land seizure is known as “grilagem,” deriving from the word for crickets (grilos, in Portuguese). In the past, criminals forged land tenure documents by artificially aging papers inside boxes full of the insects. Now appearing yellowed and aged, the documents gave the impression that they were old and therefore authentic, allowing for the legitimization of land theft in notary offices and government programs.
The “grileiros”—land grabbers—chiefly target land in public forests that has not yet been transformed into conservation units, which together add up to an area of 575,000 km², larger than Spain. By 2020, about a third of these forests (or 186,000 km²) had been destroyed. Grileiros invade these forests, cut down the trees, and clear the area for cattle grazing. By making the land “economically productive” in this way, it can now sell at a much higher price. Thanks to these incentives, a destroyed Amazon rainforest is rendered far more valuable than one that preserves irreplaceable biodiversity.
Driven by Internet trading and the arrival of slaughterhouses and large producers of soy, corn, and cotton in the Amazon region, farm prices have exploded in the last decade. According to Greenpeace, the lucrative online market offers thousands of hectares of forests in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Pará, Rondônia, and Roraima, moving billions of dollars. Even on Facebook, you can find lands for sale that are located within protected areas in the Amazon. Some of the most biodiverse places in the world are heralded as ideal for cattle raising and logging.
Such “slash and burn” practices are ostensibly illegal without a land title document and a special permit. Still, vast areas of the Amazon rainforest are destroyed every year—both illegally and with government support. In 2020, the yearly deforestation rate reached more than 11,100 square kilometers (km²), an increase of 9.5 percent over the previous year, according to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research. That represents an area the size of Connecticut, or Qatar.
The invaders of public lands are convinced that by keeping up this pressure, they will normalize the occupation and continue to bring in obscene profits. Today, the system has evolved, and much of the devastation is government-sanctioned, allowed both de facto and de jure. No longer is it necessary to forge documents with crickets to guarantee the legalization of these crimes against the natural world.
For 15 years, Brazil land tenure agendas consisted of initiatives to privatize federal public areas through a series of laws and provisional measures, enacted in successive governments: from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Michel Temer (2016-2018) to the current administration of Jair Bolsonaro (since 2019). Together, they are labeled with the euphemism of “land regularization.” Under the cover of this generic name, legal security is guaranteed to land thieves.
Government legitimization of ownership enables property titles to be granted without public bidding—in concert with legislation that offers amnesty to criminals. In 2017, for example, landowners who illegally invaded public parts in the Amazon with an area of up to 25 km² between 2005 and 2011 were granted amnesty. In 2019, research by the Imazon Institute showed that the Brazilian government ceded an area of 278,000 km² to private properties in the Amazon—altogether, a territory larger than Ecuador. If all this area were to be commercialized, it could add around $22 billion to Brazilian public coffers.
The Imazon study also indicates that medium-to-large areas have been sold by the federal government at prices as low as 33% of their original market value. “The expectation of profit from the subsequent sale of these areas purchased at low cost represents a stimulus for new invasions and land grabbing in the Amazon, which is a theft of all Brazilians’ heritage,” stated Imazon researcher Brenda Brito.
New changes have also been sought through ordinances, provisional measures, and bills, always aimed at protecting squatters in large areas and providing amnesty for crimes that are occurring on ever-increasing scales. In December 2019, Bolsonaro passed a provisional measure that was a windfall for land grabbers, as it legalized many of their territorial seizures. However, the act was deemed invalid months later, as it was not considered by the National Congress within the legal term. Subsequently, agribusiness-controlled parliamentarians began to bet on bills very similar to Bolsonaro’s original text, focused on regularizing land grabbing in conservation areas.
Currently, Brazil’s Lower House and Senate are working to pass essentially identical legal projects, both of which will lead to enormous increases in deforestation. In tandem, proposals that undermine Indigenous rights and territories are underway. In the capital of Brasilia, the seat of Brazilian politics, agribusiness parliamentarians are in a great hurry to take advantage of special procedures adopted during the pandemic to treat the passage of these laws as a matter of urgency, ramming them through without allowing public debate or review by technical committees. All of these bills will encourage deforestation, invasions, and violent land conflicts, allowing business interests to steal lands that have been occupied by Indigenous peoples and others for generations.
In addition to the sale of lands cleared for cattle grazing, the logging of felled trees is a profitable trade in Brazil. A great deal of illegally cut wood is sold as legal timber. To allow this, records are doctored to label logs as if they came out of forests where logging is permitted. Loggers can be authorized to remove more wood than physically exists in a legalized region.
This process is a parallel mechanism of environmental crime in the Amazon region. Before a shipment of wood arrives at a Brazilian port for export, it travels through a chain of corruption, which is also intertwined with the paper industry. Bribed and corrupt public agents issue documents that “legitimize” wood stolen from Indigenous lands and conservation areas.
As a result of this fraudulent scheme, countries that import wood from Brazil are led to believe that they are acquiring a 100% legal product. They are probably unlikely to question its origins, too, as fraudulently sourced wood can come at a much lower price—which also means that the few companies who do want to deal in genuinely legal wood can be easily outcompeted.
Rondônia, one of the nine Brazilian states that comprise the Amazon, is infamous for having one of the highest rates of deforestation, and for playing host to violent clashes over land issues. According to the Pastoral Land Commission (linked to Brazil’s Catholic Conference of Bishops), in the last five years alone, 46 people have been killed in land conflicts in the state.
“Poor people who effectively produce on their small lands are systematically persecuted, expelled, threatened or killed in the interest of real estate speculation,” explained Raphael Bevilaqua, the Commission’s attorney in Rondônia.
Almost entirely covered by rainforest until 1980, Rondônia has already lost almost a third of its native environment. The region continues to attract investments in agriculture and cattle raising due to astronomical land valuations. Jair Dornelas, agriculture secretary of the Vilhena municipality, stated that farm prices have increased up to 800% in just five years. Cotton and soy are the main drivers of the price inflation. The “grillonaires,” as they are called, also facilitate the destruction of the forest by creating tension and conflict in public lands, which provides a pretext for passing favorable legislative reforms. They then receive impunity for environmental crimes.
Preserved forest is increasingly rare in Rondônia. The shrinking protected areas and Indigenous lands preserve all that is left of the Amazon rainforest. And even these territories are under increasing threat. Created in 1991, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Land is home to the largest preserved area in the state, nearly equivalent in size to the U.S. state of New Jersey. It is a forest paradise that is almost completely surrounded by farms.
In fact, more than half of the deforested areas throughout the Amazon region have turned to pasture. Like timber, oxen raised in illegally deforested areas can also enter markets under the guise of legality, again facilitated by the manipulation of documents. In this scheme, cattle of illegal origin are mixed with legal ones before reaching the slaughterhouses that require land certification for animal acquisition.
If it’s left up to the current government, illegal deforestation won’t end anytime soon. In April, during the Leaders Summit on Climate, an event organized by U.S. President Joe Biden, President Bolsonaro touted his government’s commitment to eliminate illegal deforestation only by 2030. This is a meaningless and empty promise—the federal government was already obligated to eliminate clandestine logging by last year.
Instead, Bolsonaro’s Ministry of the Environment is more committed to destroying nature for the sake of profit than to preserving it, regularly denouncing and acting to counter environmentalists. One of Bolsonaro’s closest allies, Ricardo Salles, led the Ministry of the Environment since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration. But in June 2021, he left office under investigation for his alleged involvement in illegal timber exporting, and for covering up clandestine logging activities.
In 2019, the first year of Bolsonaro’s government, massive forest fires in the Amazon caught the world’s attention, worsened by deforestation and unsustainable practices. That year, Salles criticized the press and NGOs operating in the Amazon, claiming that the deforestation data was sensationalized. Since July, the responsibility for issuing fire and deforestation alerts has been shifted to the Ministry of Agriculture, which does not have the necessary tools to take measurements. That change has been challenged by experts, who suspect it has been made in part to limit data disclosures, resulting in less transparency.
At the same time, Ricardo Salles wanted to change the rules for disbursing money from the Amazon Fund, which has been supplied with donations from companies and countries like Germany and Norway that recognize the importance of rainforest protection. The fund contains more than $1 billion to finance actions to combat forest destruction. The sponsoring countries did not accept the changes proposed by Salles, and the fund is stuck in this impasse to this day—it has not financed any new project since 2019.
Under Salles, the Ministry of the Environment also overturned resolutions about nature preservation, such as those that prevented deforestation and the occupation of areas with native vegetation. Furthermore, another ordinance issued new rules that constrain the autonomy of environmental inspectors who work in the field.
After Ricardo Salles stepped down as a result of the corruption probe, he was replaced by Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite. Leite is a member of a family of coffee producers that is involved in a lawsuit against preservation measures and the Indigenous people in the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory. His appointment is certain to mean that the Ministry will remain more committed to the interests of agriculture, livestock, and capitalist profit than to environmental preservation.
The United States has been happy to let Bolsonaro and the grileiros ravage the Amazon. U.S.-based financial institutions trade in agricultural commodities that are utterly devastating to the rainforest, such as meat and soybeans. International corporate agribusiness like JBS Foods and Cargill, as well as consumer brands like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Costco, and Sysco help establish the global market for environmentally devastating products. By both these broader incentives and by direct investment, they have helped facilitate the Amazon’s destruction and promoted abuses against Indigenous peoples. According to a report by the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) and Amazon Watch, from 2017 to 2020, at least six U.S. corporations invested more than $18 billion in nine Brazilian agribusiness corporations, as well as mining and energy concerns.
Brazil’s former military dictatorship had insisted that the Amazon was Brazil’s to exploit—to “integrate so as not to surrender.” Their logic of infinite expansion and extractivism has never ceased, and the unthinkable destruction will only intensify if the land-grabbing bills pending in the Brazilian Congress are passed, This coalition of Brazilian corporations, the Brazilian government, and international interests have claimed the Amazon for themselves, consequences for the future of life on Earth be damned.♦
Lobato Felizola is a Brazilian freelance journalist interested in the environment, sustainability, and climate change. He is currently in Lisbon pursuing a Master’s degree in Communication Sciences, focusing on contemporary cultures and new technologies.