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Progress on Amazonian Deforestation and Land Reform

President Lula’s targeted vetoes to controversial but landmark legislation mark significant progress towards protecting the Amazon forest.

The bill considered by many to be Brazil's most important environmental effort in years got a significant boost when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed the measure while vetoing several of its most controversial measures.

Provisory Measure 458 will privatize 67.4 million hectares of public land---an area about the size of France---currently occupied illegally in the Brazilian Amazon. Under the new bill, those unlawfully occupying lands of up to 1,500 hectares could receive legal title to such property if they meet certain conditions, including having peacefully obtained the land and keeping it in productive use.

The original intent of the legislation was to sort out a murky, convoluted system of tenure, in which a mere 14% of land claims are estimated to be backed by legitimate title, with the rest supported by counterfeit documentation or simply right of settlement.

Land regularisation is of fundamental importance for halting deforestation,” says Carlos Minc, Brazil’s current environment minister. As Brazil presently lacks the resources to prevent illegal logging on much of the publicly-owned land covered by the measure, supporters of the legislation argue that the bill will decrease deforestation because legally owned, titled land will be better managed than commonly owned areas, and because all private landholders must comply with another Brazilian law requiring them to maintain 80% of their land forested.

On the other hand, critics of the measure, some even dubbing it “the land grab bill,” contend that the government will be granting legal tenure to grilheiros, those who stole and now occupy land through unlawful and often violent means. With many parts of the region lying beyond the reach of legitimate law enforcement, it may very well be impossible to prove whether land was acquired peacefully or violently.

Lula’s veto

Environmentalists have praised President Lula for vetoing two especially controversial parts of the bill. The vetoes effectively prevent the transfer of public lands in the area to businesses and other legal entities, and prohibit the granting of titles to absentee landholders. Lula’s vetoes will help distinguish small family farms, which account for the majority of land occupation and economic activity in the region, from the big businesses and non-resident land grabbers. The latter two groups are frequently responsible for increased deforestation and resulting greenhouse gas emissions that become part of the estimated 72% of Brazil’s total emissions profile attributed to agricultural and forestry. Lula commented that he had exercised his veto to preserve the original objectives of the measure in the interest of the Brazilian public. "We want to be an example to the world in taking care of our own things," he said.

Provisory Measure 458 still contains other highly controversial provisions---in particular, a clause that favors the sale of large land plots over small ones (which could lead to speculation), and another that could favor current land occupants over those previously granted titles. While many remain upset that Lula did not veto these and other controversial elements, the President’s action nonetheless demonstrates a federal government that is giving higher priority to environmental concerns than it was previously.

forests, REDD

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