Burnt stumps, reminders of the former forest, are a signature of Amazon grazing lands. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
Burnt stumps, reminders of the former forest, are a signature of Amazon grazing lands. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

In April, legislators in the Brazilian state of Rondônia gathered for a hasty vote in a squat cube of a building that had sat largely empty for months. Few places on Earth had been hit harder by Covid-19 than Porto Velho, the concrete capital city, which, like everything else in the region, has been carved out of the Amazon rainforest. But on that rainy afternoon, while the city was in lockdown, the legislators felt they could not wait any longer. 

They needed to pass a bill that would slash the size of a state rainforest reserve known as Jaci-Paraná and another park further south. Once a vast expanse of sinuous streams and soaring stands of mahogany and castanha trees, Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve has been largely transformed into pasture for cattle. Roads cut into the bright red mud criss-cross the reserve, connecting hundreds of ranches where 120,000 cattle graze.

The ranches are illegal. The new law would change that. The owners would no longer have to hide the origin of their livestock to sell to big beef producers. More important, the land grabbers would have a path to legal title. Almost half the state legislators are ranchers or got elected with agribusiness money. They had long wanted to wipe the slate clean for their rural base, and now they had support all the way up to the presidential palace in Brasilia.

In a few days President Jair Bolsonaro would appear at a US-sponsored climate summit to defend Brazil’s record on the Amazon. For two years Donald Trump had been a friend as Bolsonaro dismantled protections for the rainforest. President Joe Biden most certainly would not be. The legislators’ plan could fall apart if Biden ratcheted up the pressure. “Listen well,” Ezequiel Neiva, a rancher and legislator, told his colleagues. “This is one of our last chances to vote.”

The bill passed unanimously. Coronel Marcos Rocha, Rondônia’s governor and one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest allies, signed it into law on May 20 (it is being challenged in court). Jaci-Paraná, formerly large enough to swallow Mexico City, was slashed in size by 89%, leaving only a sliver of terrain along its western edge. The other state reserve mentioned in the bill, Guajará-Mirim, lost 50,000ha.

That’s how it happened in the US. It happened in Australia. When colonisers first went out and took that virgin land, all of it came from the state
Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia

Two days after the Rondônia law passed, Bolsonaro did not let down the ranchers. He was defiant when he spoke via video link to Biden and other heads of state at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Bolsonaro praised Brazil’s work in protecting the Amazon, while pointing a finger at the developed world’s addiction to fossil fuels as the key culprit in climate change. Above all he lamented the “Amazonian paradox”. The rainforest is one of the globe’s greatest natural resources — in both the commodities it holds and its role in producing oxygen and cleaning the world’s air — and yet most of the 24-million people living in and around it are poor.

“The value of the standing forest” must be acknowledged, Bolsonaro said. “There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes to the planet at large.” The message to the world was clear: pay us to leave the Amazon alone, or Brazil will find its own way to extract that value.

There is ample evidence that the government is already doing that. A review of thousands of public documents and dozens of interviews with prosecutors, forest rangers and members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle show that Brazil’s government is engaged in an active campaign to open up the Amazon to privatisation and development — first by turning a blind eye as public and protected lands are raided and cleared, and then by systematically pardoning the people responsible and granting them legal title to the stolen lands.

Bolsonaro’s government did not invent the practice. It is rooted in the nation’s 1988 constitution, and two presidents before Bolsonaro rammed through changes that essentially amnestied about 25,000 people who had been squatting on public properties, a review of Brazilian land records shows. But Bolsonaro and his team want to accelerate the process like never before by making it easier for big ranchers to get in on the game. “All that land that’s been cleared in the Amazon, the law allowed it,” says Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, Bolsonaro’s land-policy tsar. “That’s how it happened in the US. It happened in Australia. When colonisers first went out and took that virgin land, all of it came from the state.”

One of Rondônia’s 14-million cows that graze on land that was once rainforest. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
One of Rondônia’s 14-million cows that graze on land that was once rainforest. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Nabhan Garcia, 63, is himself a rancher. He and his boss came of age during the 1970s, when the military government in Brazil viewed turning the wild expanses of the Amazon into cities, farms and mines as an imperative of national security. The dictatorship, which endured until 1985, built military bases, power plants and a network of roadways throughout the thick jungle.

Those infrastructure projects fuelled what is known as the “Brazilian Miracle”, a period of 10% annual economic growth that still stands out in many minds as the nation’s golden era. But these were some of the darkest days for the rainforest itself. Millions of people migrated inland from coastal cities, carving homesteads and huge industrial hubs out of the jungle. In 40 years, the Amazon lost an area as big as California to deforestation. Some scientists suggest the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, at which it will become a savannah rather than a rainforest. It will pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere instead of pulling them down, and so-called flying rivers — bands of moisture in the air that bring rainfall to the continent — will dry up. As many as 10,000 species may be at risk of dying off.

Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has revived the 50-year-old worldview that Amazon development and Brazilian prosperity go hand in hand. And he has stacked key land management and environment agencies with farmers and ranchers who share his vision. Jaci-Paraná is the latest example of that vision’s realisation, but it is far from the only one.

União Bandeirantes, located east of Jaci-Paraná, is a dusty blip of a farming community, a crosshatch of dirt roads and a few dozen structures surrounded by coffee plantations and cattle pastures. A little more than two decades ago, it did not exist. No roads. No ranchers. Just rainforest. Today, it is something of a model for would-be land-grabbers across Rondônia.

Farmland near União Bandeirantes, a community carved out of the jungle in the early 2000s. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
Farmland near União Bandeirantes, a community carved out of the jungle in the early 2000s. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Edmo Ferreira Pinto, 49, is proud to take credit for the transformation. Wearing trim jeans and a fitted button-down shirt, he is intense and energetic as he sits in a trendy wine bar on a recent evening in Porto Velho recounting how he and his friends hacked their way through the jungle and divvied up land that was not theirs.

Known as Dim-Dim (pronounced jeen-jeen), Ferreira Pinto was only 12 when he, his parents, four siblings and two other families piled into the back of an open-air fruit truck and travelled the 2,500km from coastal Bahia state to Rondônia. It was the mid-1980s, and the truck’s owner made a living charging a few bucks per head to ferry migrants like them to the Amazon.

For years government adverts on TV and radio and in newspapers had promised plots and prosperity for anyone willing to make the journey. The Amazon was “a land without men for men without land”, the ads declared. Millions answered the call to conquer the “green hell”, and the population of Rondônia swelled from about 115,000 people in 1970 to more than 1.1-million in 1990. Behind the boom was the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform, or Incra, a government agency the military regime created to speed Brazil’s industrial revolution.

After the military dictatorship gave way to a democracy, Incra was given a new mission. Instead of colonising the Amazon with industrial farms and factories, the agency was told to reclaim whatever had not yet been developed, dice it up into tiny lots and hand those out to Brazil’s poor for subsistence farming. It was one of the largest social welfare giveaways of all time. But the execution was bungled. No longer backed by the power of the military, Incra could not enforce its rules when conflicts over land broke out.

People rushed to claim whatever plots appeared to be free. Wealthy owners stripped of their properties fought in court to save their stakes, tying the land up for decades. Documents were easily forged or altered to make bogus titles look legitimate. A resale black market for the dubious claims proliferated. Some falsified documents have now changed hands so many times that it is impossible to determine the real owners of some parcels.

Everaldo Pandolfi and his son near their farm. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
Everaldo Pandolfi and his son near their farm. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

On December 3 1999, which locals still remember as an independence day of sorts, Ferreira Pinto and three busloads of people drove to the edge of the rainforest and set up camp. It took a year to hack through the rainforest to the spot that is now the heart of União Bandeirantes, which translates as Pioneers Union. Along the way they recruited topographers, lawyers, builders and administrators, all of them eager to fill the vacuum left by the government — and grab a slice of public land for themselves.

Ferreira Pinto was arrested twice for conflicts and invasions but was never convicted of a crime. In the end, he estimates, his group settled about 1,800 families. Current law allows anyone who developed land as recently as 2008 to apply for amnesty. The people of União Bandeirantes made a bet, and it paid off. 

Everaldo Pandolfi is sitting on a brown horse at the intersection of two dirt roads, watching his son tend to cattle in a fenced-in lot. “That’s all his now,” Pandolfi says as he points to a sweeping field in front of him where the jagged teeth of torched tree stumps still poke out from the tall grass. Behind him is a plot he transferred to his daughter; to his left is a field owned by his other son. Combined, they add up to more than 200ha. “It used to be pure rainforest,” he says. “I tore it all down.”

An original settler of União Bandeirantes, Pandolfi, 51, paid 250 reais (about $80 back then) to a surveyor working with Dim-Dim to mark his future farm. From there he followed a familiar playbook: first he went for the majestic hardwoods, hundreds of years old and as much as 3.3m in diameter. They brought in fast cash from exporters. Then he torched the land to clear the scrub, before planting a weedy grass that is a staple in cattle diets.

In a few more years, the burnt tree stumps may break down enough to make way for the payday: coffee or soya beans. “That’s the dream,” a neighbouring farmer explains. In the south of the state, where big farmers reign, the shift to soya beans is already under way. But for that you need investment: irrigation, machinery and fertiliser. The little guys rarely get there.

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, the federal regulator known as Ibama, knows all about the deforestation, but does not do much to stop it. A study by the independent news site InfoAmazonia found that between 1980 and 2019, Ibama issued 75 billion reais ($14bn) of fines, adjusted for inflation, but collected only 3.3% of the total. Pandolfi has himself been fined three times, adding up to 600,000 reais. He does not plan on ever paying it.

It would be easy to think of Pandolfi as a villain, a callous land-grabber who blithely destroyed a patch of precious rainforest. But he and his neighbours paint a picture in which policy, poverty and the world’s insatiable demand for commodities all pushed them towards the choices they have made. The only way to get credit from lenders is to use cattle or land — even untitled land — as collateral. Global markets do not buy enough sustainably produced foods such as Brazil nuts or acai to keep people afloat, whereas the appetite for beef, grains and timber seems bottomless.

Meanwhile, politicians, from local council members all the way up to the president, encourage the destruction. A cross-check of political databases and Ibama fines shows almost 1,000 elected officials and political appointees are on government blacklists for environmental crimes.

Picture: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
Picture: BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Brazil’s deforestation machine is complex, and it is impossible to know exactly who is directing its movements. A large part is certainly driven by the everyday Brazilian who longs for land, but that alone cannot explain the sheer scale of the destruction or the recent sophistication in the attacks. A few decades ago, when undesignated government land was bountiful, it was easy for a lone farmer to drive some stakes in the ground and claim it as his own. But those plots are gone; what is left in Rondônia are protected parks and territories.

Environmental crime prosecutors now describe a fraud that turns poor Brazilians into foot soldiers for criminal gangs, logging companies and industrial farming operations. “The people on the ground don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay for the kind of operations you see,” says former state prosecutor Aidee Maria Moser Torquato Luiz, who tried for two decades to stop the land grabs in Jaci-Paraná before finally giving up and moving away from the Amazon. “Someone is bankrolling them.”

Nabhan Garcia, Bolsonaro’s land-policy tsar at the ministry of agriculture, is a stout fast-talker with a bushy moustache and a penchant for khaki hunting vests. On a June day, he walks into a barbecue for ranchers at the Ji-Paraná fairgrounds in Rondônia, and the crowd gathered under a long ramada whoops and cheers. The dirt parking lot is brimming with four-wheel-drive Toyota Hiluxes and Ford Rangers and, next to it, a row of 10 forequarters of beef slowly roast over a bed of coal. In the crowd are politicians, mining executives and ranchers who have expanded into solar power and construction.

In one of the world’s most unequal societies, these are the guys who have made it big, who have built empires — who, as Nabhan Garcia tells them, “carry Brazil on your backs and sustain it with your sweat”. Some boast of properties in the tens of thousands of hectares, which is possible only if they were granted during the dictatorship or pieced together from failed smaller farms, or are untitled land grabs. These are the guys Bolsonaro wants to boost.

Under legislation the president introduced in 2019 that is now making its way through Congress, industrial-scale farmers may for the first time be able to get in on the legal land laundering and win clean titles to public tracts that were originally intended for settlements or reserves. The proposal opens the door to more farmers sitting on properties between about 300ha and 2,500ha. All combined, that is an extra 16-million hectares of Amazon land that could soon be titled, including properties that were deforested as recently as 2012. 

The most dangerous change, however, according to Raoni Rajão, a land management and environmental policy expert at the Federal University in Minas Gerais, is that the government wants to make it a no-check process, meaning Incra officials will no longer be required to go out into the field and inspect the properties before issuing titles. They will rely only on satellite images. “It works for the land-grabbers to not have Incra doing its job,” Rajão says. “It becomes an incentive to keep stealing land.”

Bolsonaro’s land-policy tsar Nabhan Garcia, top row centre, at an event for large farmers and ranchers. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
Bolsonaro’s land-policy tsar Nabhan Garcia, top row centre, at an event for large farmers and ranchers. Picture: LARISSA ZAIDAN/BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

About 167,000 claims for titles are awaiting an Incra decision. As many as 12% involve farms not currently allowed by law, making up 60% of the area being claimed. Almost 30% of the land shows no signs of use before 2018, meaning the law change is not about giving security to families who have been on the properties for decades, Rajão says. It is about amnestying more recent and bigger invasions. Once Incra approves the title, the owner essentially buys it from the federal government. In a municipality in Para state, for example, a hectare from Incra costs as little as 46 reais. It is worth more than 100 times that in the open market.

About 200 politicians in the Amazon have also filed paperwork for titles to public land, including a Rondônia state assembly member who voted for the Jaci-Parana bill. At least two of the outstanding claims are for properties inside national parks.

What is sure is that the destruction is accelerating. In recent years, Bolsonaro put the ministry of agriculture in charge of the environmental regulator, cut firefighting and management budgets, reversed plans to protect large swathes of indigenous land and proposed opening up indigenous land to mining. Roughly 10,500 km² of rainforest were destroyed in the first six months of 2021, on course to eclipse 2020’s 11-year high. A study released in July by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows that parts of the Amazon where the burns are the worst have flipped into net carbon emitters, contributing to climate change rather than helping to limit it.

Many of the land grabs go far beyond what even Bolsonaro’s administration has proposed pardoning. The thinking is that even though greenwashed titles for, say, a national park may not be in the pipeline now, it is only a matter of time before they are. With no real consequence or enforcement, why not stake the claims now?

“What’s astonishing is that these are self-confessed crimes,” Rajão says. “People go in and say, ‘I’m seizing this land,’ and they’re rewarded for it, because the lawmakers keep moving the line forward.” 

Bloomberg Businessweek. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.

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