Kill, invade, cut, burn it down. Repeat. The sad fate of Brazilian forests at the hands of gangs of land-grabbers have just gotten another hit from President Jair Bolsonaro, who never tires of inventing schemes to replace the forest with pasture and soybean plantations. Today, as ministers gather in Madrid to make the decisions that should steer us towards a safer climate, Brazil’s far-right leader is scheduled to sign an executive order that may legalize millions of hectares of invaded land in the Amazon. That means more deforestation and of course massive emissions: up to 6.5 billion tonnes by 2020.
Land-grabbing, or grilagem, in Portuguese, is the single most important driver of emissions in Brazil. It consists of invading public lands, shooting everybody in the way, chopping down the rainforest and burning it to clear the way for cattle – then using the pasture to fake a land title, selling it and moving to the next forest. The process is done by well-funded gangs, often under the eyes of or with open support from politicians. Deforestation makes up nearly half of Brazil’s emissions, and in 2019, 35% of deforestation in the Amazon happened on invaded public land.
Since it is a criminal activity, ECO readers might think the right way to address the problem would be through law enforcement. But President Bolsonaro, who has a very particular sense of law and order, has an easier way around it: the act to be signed today might just forgive land-grabbers for their past crimes and allow their fake titles to be legitimized at no, or very little cost. Of course, when squatters find out that crime pays, they will have no qualms about invading more public land to make more money and claim more government mercy in the future.
At immediate risk are 19 million hectares that had already been designated for land tenure regularization in the Amazon. Up to 1.6 million hectares could be clear-cut by 2027, which would dump 6.5 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.
But the sky is the limit for president-sanctioned environmental crime: 44% of the Brazilian Amazon is in public land, such as Indigenous lands or undesignated forests. Bolsonaro’s aggressive pro-development speeches have already encouraged criminals to move into those lands – as the murder of two Guajajara tribesmen this week tragically shows.
Yesterday in Madrid, Brazil made the bizarre move of opposing the mention of “climate emergency” in the COP25 decision text. The decision to legalize massive illegal deforestation today might help explain that.