Brazil: Lula da Silva’s government has shown an indulgent attitude to violations of basic rights

Brazil lacks a central land register, suffers widespread forgery oftitle deeds and has a long history of squatters seizing land. A widely-quoted study by Imazon, an NGO, reckoned that only 4% of private land in Amazonia is covered by secure title deeds. Much of the rest has been grabbed in the hope of establishing de facto ownership eventually.

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The government’s new scheme is, in principle, simple. Plots of up to
100 hectares (247 acres) will be given to the people farming them.
Larger ones, of between 100 and 2,500 hectares, will be sold using
various different pricing mechanisms. Plots of over 2,500 hectares
will be reclaimed by the government, which is meant to own them
anyway. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the minister responsible for the new
scheme, believes that solving the problem of insecure land title will
“change the economic equation that has made pillage more attractive
than either preservation or production in the Amazon.” In the past,
however, similar initiatives have floundered, for a number of reasons.
First, state and federal governments have disagreed over who should be
responsible for what.

The state governors particularly dislike INCRA,
a federal agency charged with distributing small plots of land.
Eduardo Braga, the governor of Amazonas, says “INCRA abandoned the
families it settled on land in the Amazon without electricity or
infrastructure.” The agency certainly has a poor record of preventing
deforestation on the land it administers. Second, the existing laws
that govern what land can be used and what cannot are confusing and
close to unenforceable. In the 1960s and 1970s, farmers were sometimes
required to cut down trees as a condition for getting credit from the
state.

Some token efforts were made to change this regime in the
1980s, and then in 1996 a decree was issued requiring 80% of each plot
of land to be preserved as forest, with only 20% to be cultivated or
ranched. This law is widely ignored, and when the government has tried
to enforce it, it has often met with strong resistance from the men
with the chainsaws. Given this history of mutual antagonism, the
process is unlikely to be smooth. Still, some of these problems have
been resolved in the new plan, which has the force of law via a
presidential decree. On a federal level, the Ministry for Agrarian
Development will handle some of the implementation, taking it away
from INCRA, which could be described politely as troubled. Mr Unger, a
former Harvard law professor, seems to have succeeded in charming the
governors of the states in the Amazon into a more co-operative mood.

“We have Obama’s teacher here,” says José de Anchieta Júnior, the
governor of Roraima, while addressing a public meeting in the state.
“Things are looking up.” Nevertheless, there is a risk that the
scheme, by making it easier to get secure title for dubious land
claims, might somehow stimulate demand for virgin forest land, not
damp it. And, as ever, enforcing the rules will be the difficult bit.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government has shown an
indulgent attitude to violations of property rights elsewhere in the
country by the Landless Movement, making it an unlikely guardian of
them now. The new scheme is not bound to fail, but the sceptics will
take a bit more convincing.

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