Terra Legal program to regularize small property owners | Chapter 4 of “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon”

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  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

The need to fast-track the regularização of smallholder titles motivated the Terra Legal programme, which sent teams of surveyors to selected municipalities to accelerate the process for landholdings established prior to 2004. The initial goal was to review and certify 300,000 smallholdings in 463 municipalities; however, the programme collected data on only 117,000 landholdings and issued less than 23,000 CCIRs (Certificado de Cadastro de Imóvel Rural or Rural Property Registration Certificate). As of June 2021, none of these recently registered properties has been incorporated into the SIGEF databases available via INCRA’s (Instituto Nacional de Colonização y Reforma Agraria) public portal.

Although the Terra Legal system failed significantly to increase the inscription of smallholders in the SNCR, it demonstrated how a wall-to-wall effort can resolve potential conflicts among neighbors and achieve impacts at scale by engaging an entire community. That experience will be replicated in Titula Brasil, an initiative launched in 2021 by the Bolsonaro administration, that will delegate most of the administrative and technical tasks of property mensuration to the newly created Núcleos Municipais de Regularização Fundiária (NMRF). These offices are meant to function as decentralized units of INCRA and, like Terra Legal, prioritize assistance for smallholders.

The forest landscape adjacent to BR-319 south of the Amazon River near Manaus is largely intact forty years after the construction of this federal highway; nonetheless, numerous land claims have been regularized (white polygons) and more have been inscribed into the Cadastro Ambiental Rural (red polygons). Data source: Google Earth and INCRA (2020).

The Titula Brasil programme will first target the approximately 430,000 households that are resident in the INCRA’s 3,000 PA-type settlements; however, these municipal offices will be open to other small and mid-sized landholders. According to the IBGE agricultural census, there are at least 680,000 landholdings smaller than 100 hectares in the Legal Amazon, while data derived from the CAR indicates the number located outside the PA system might be as large as 500,000.

Lei de Grilagem

The effort to resolve the backlog in the regularization of small farms collides, unfortunately, with the fight to end land grabbing. Congressional representatives affiliated with conservative groups often referred to as the banca ruralista have consistently pushed for a regulatory approach that would issue CCIRs to thousands of medium- and large-scale ranchers with problematic land tenure documents. Previous policy initiatives, particularly a land law passed in 2009, included measures that would recognize the legality of landholdings settled in the 1990s and 1980s, when land acquisition rules were laxly enforced. Environmental and social advocates characterized the law as an amnesty, however, and insisted that it incorporate a quid pro quo. Consequently, the law included measures to limit the size of landholdings eligible for an expedited process to 1,500 hectares and set cut-off dates to exclude lands illegally occupied after 2004.

In 2016, an executive order by the Temer administration modified the regularization protocols by moving the cut-off date to 2009 and expanding the size of the landholding eligible for an expedited process to 2,500 hectares. The rules were modified again in 2019 by the Bolsonaro administration, first by an executive order that evolved into a legislative act known by its critics as the Ley da Grilagem. Critics contend that the recent (and proposed) changes represent another amnesty for past infractions and open the door for another round of land grabbing.

Like all legislative proposals, the final version will depend upon last-minute negotiations but, as of August 2021, opponents point out multiple deficiencies:

1) Extends the cut-off date for the expedited resolution of land claims to 2014 (rather than 2009).
2) Includes provisions to auction illegal landholdings that allow rejected applicants to participate and, in certain cases, make bids prior to the public auction.
3) Limits on-sight verification for environmental compliance for landholdings greater than 1,000 hectares (rather than 400 hectares).
4) Condones illegal deforestation by relying on (seldom enforced) future commitments to remediate past infractions (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta – TAC).
5) Weakens the ability for INCRA to recover (claw-back) landholdings that fail to comply with environmental regulations.
6) Facilitates land grabbing as a business model by allowing individuals to submit multiple applications to INCRA to regularize a landholding.
7) Inappropriately rewards speculators by extending discounts (ranging from fifty to ninety per cent of the appraised value of the land) that were originally intended only for residents within INCRA PA-like settlements.
8) Creates a mechanism for the ongoing distribution of public lands by sale or auction that would open a door for the further privatization of public lands.

Proponents of the reorganization of INCRA protocols argue that it is necessary to impose order on the chaos of the land-tenure system while providing economic justice to hundreds of thousands of rural families. Opponents contend that the law represents (another) amnesty for past illegal activity that will foster future abuse. Moreover, they contend that none of the proposed changes are needed to expedite the regularization of smallholder properties and, instead, suggest investing in the capacitation of INCRA staff and the provision of a budget commensurate with the size of the task – which all parties agree is very large and long overdue.

Underlying the debate are two opposing philosophies about the future of development in Amazonian Brazil. On the right, economists and political scientists view land as a financial asset and believe the regularization of private property will stimulate investment and create economic growth. On the left, social and environmental advocates view access to land as a human right, and seek to ameliorate the inequality that defines Brazilian society and conserve biodiversity and protect indigenous and traditional cultures in the Amazon.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 4 here:

To read earlier chapters of the book, find Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Three is here.