Saturday, October 15, 2011

Brazil's land reform agency emerges as big deforestation offender

Today, O Globo has an interesting story describing how the government's land resettlement agency Incra has racked up a record number of fines for deforestation this year.

The Incra is charged with helping provide land to rural squatters and strengthening patchy property titles in rural areas. It has resettled thousands of families throughout Brazil in efforts to provide the rural poor with not only land but also credit, technical skills and access to markets.

This year the Incra has received close to $25 million in fines by environmental inspectors for illegal deforastation, the equivalent of 11 percent of all environmental fines levied in the country, according to the O Globo story from today. Of course it's not the Incra itself doing the deforestation, but the agency is struggling to control what goes on in isolated settlements that are supposed to be used for agriculture rather than as bases to extract wood from nearby forests.

The head of the Incra provides a decent response:

"Deforestation in settlements is committed by the property owner or by whoever is renting the land,"  said Incra President Celso Lisboa de Lacerda. "In most cases, there are timber mafias that rent land and even pressure the small landowner to deforest. They threaten to kill leaders that get in the way of their business, there's a lot of pressure from sawmills that buy that wood."

This is true, and it's not fair to blame the Incra for everything that goes on out the middle of nowhere in the state of Para or in the south of Amazonas.

But deforestation is now always a case of big chainsaw-wielding sawmill owners putting a gun to the head of landless squatters so they'll cut down trees. The business of deforestation goes from top to bottom, it involves
everyone from corrupt environment officials that bunk papers to, yes, the very settlers that are supposed to be farming that land. In fact, when this ugly incident got everyone talking about the issue of land rights in the Amazon, prosecutors opened an investigation into a number of settlements that appeared to have been created as a front for timber mafias. I would guess that a lot of people on settlements drift back and forth between small farming and shady timber-mafia linked acitivities. Neither one is a particularly great way to make a living if you're at the bottom of the totem pole. Journalist Pat Symmes tracked the value chain of Brazilian tropical hardwood and found that the fancy wood panelling that sells in high end European boutiques usually comes from a tree that was cut down in exchange for the equivalent of around $20 paid in sugar or gasoline.

Land reform, which the Incra is charged with, was supposed to be one of the big answers to this deforestation mess. It probably still is. But this sort of quandary might help explain why Dilma Rousseff has vastly slowed the pace of land reform, as I described here. Turns out she's been under a lot less pressure recently to appease the Landless Workers' Movement, or MST, than Lula was -- a lot of those folks have found work in cities where economies are growing. Land is more expensive now for the government to buy up, so the program's been put on the back burner. Good news as long as the economy boom lasts -- but unfortunately there are plenty of signs that it won't. Either way, I'm convinced the issue of land reform is not going away.

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