Public prosecutors and activists have attacked a presidential decree thatsets rules for granting land titles to illegal squatters on public land - coveringan area of 67m hectares in the Amazon.

The government maintainsthat the new rules will help to organise land usage, prevent deforestationand, as President Lula da Silva declared, “end violence” in the Amazonregion. But critics say the rules go against the Brazilian constitution and,significantly, that the government does not have the necessary means toguarantee that the rules will be observed. This, they add, will onlyincrease land conflicts in the Amazon region.
The presidential decree has been controversial from the start, but cameunder increased criticism following a series of changes made by congress inthe interests of the agribusiness lobby [WR-09-23]. The changes have beenembarrassing for Lula, not least after the environment minister, Carlos Minc,publicly criticised his colleagues for supporting the changes made by congress.Yet despite the criticism from inside government, Lula has decided tosanction all but one of the changes made by congress.
Lula has vetoed the granting of ownership titles to companies that have illegallyoccupied public lands in the Amazon. However, he has sanctionedchanges that will allow any person who can prove they have been squattingon public land in the Amazon – up to 2,500 hectares – for at least three yearsto claim proprietary rights. Initially, the plan was to grant land titles to areasup to 400 hectares, which would cover 80% of the squatters that occupy anarea of 7m hectares. But in order to attend to agribusiness interests, the maximumlimit was expanded to 2,500 hectares, increasing the original area tobe regularised by 60m hectares.
Public prosecutors from several Brazilian states have criticised the sanctioningof the decree. They contest its constitutionality according to article 191of the Brazilian constitution, which forbids the acquisition of public realestate and land through squatting. Another point of legal contention is thatthe decree allows those who eventually regularise their ownership to re-sellthe land after 3 years, when under the law, the minimum time for re-sale ofregularised land is set at 10 years.
For environmentalists and civil rights activists, the government lacks themeans to monitor the terms of the decree, not least because most of the areato be regularised falls in remote areas where the state’s presence is small ornil. Environmentalists say the main problem is that the decree will grantownership of land for free to squatters of areas up to 400 hectares, while sellingland titles below market prices to squatters of areas of up to 1,500hectares. They say that having incurred no or little cost to acquire their land,new owners will have no qualms about clearing it to sell wood and thenabandoning it - therefore not complying with the legal forest-clearance limitof 20% of the total area for which a title has been granted.
For civil rights activists, the decision to grant land titles to squatters of areasabove 400 hectares will create more violent confrontation. According to astudy from the ombudsman, if all the farms registered in the Amazon region– but not regularised – are added together, the total area comes to twice thesize of the area to be regularised, meaning they are claimed by more thanone squatter. They fear the decree will prompt bigger farmers to forciblyexpel smaller farmers so they can request a title for areas up to 2,500hectares. Farmers, meanwhile, are concerned landless movements will beable to claim ownership of land that has been invaded by peasants.


Latin American Weekly Report  30. Juli 2009