A government registry in Brazil has been used to designate millions of hectares of Amazon forest as rural lands, in a process that critics say fuels state-sanctioned land grabs and deforestation by criminal actors.
According to a survey by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia - IPAM), close to 19 million hectares were appropriated in the Brazilian Amazon in 2020, and much of these were legalized fraudulently by grileiros (land thieves), who invade properties to deforest them and sell them to third-party investors.
According to the survey, grileiros make use of Brazil's Rural Environmental Register (Cadastro Ambiental Rural - CAR). Using the register, occupants of lands not yet designated for a specific purpose, such as mining or a national park, can claim them as their own, regardless of whether portions include Amazon forests.
Once appropriated, the lands are mainly used for large-scale livestock ranching and the cultivation of crops such as soybeans, as well as for illegal logging and mining, Mongabay reported in 2019.
According to a 2020 report authored by IPAM investigators and other researchers, some 50 million hectares of Amazon forest remain in limbo while the government waits to define whom they belong to and for what purpose they will be used.
Of these, 11.6 million hectares have been illegally registered as private property.
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The Brazilian government's lack of action in the Amazon has essentially tacit support of grileiros as they ramp up land grabs.
Illegal land invasion followed by deforestation is nothing new in this region. But land grabbing of this scale is difficult to imagine without collaboration with larger interests.
Critics have sounded alarm bells since Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidency in 2018. After claiming that regulations to protect forests were "suffocating" the country, Bolsonaro declared that "there would not be a single square centimeter demarcated as an indigenous reserve."
The first sign of slackening protections came in March 2019, when plans by the Ministry of Mines and Energy made clear that the government would allow mining in indigenous territories without the consent of their populations.
According to IPAM, the Amazon indigenous territories of Ituna/Itatá and Cachoeira Seca, now see a 94 percent and 15 percent illegal occupation rate, respectively.
Brazil's decision to turn a blind eye to land grabs is a gift to criminal actors who have made it clear that they have come to the Amazon to stay.