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The New Landless

The New
Landless

The ownership deeds for thousands of rural properties in various
Brazilian states were revoked by the government. Less than 20 percent of these properties
should be retained by current occupants. Owners have been given 120 days to defend their
claims, or lose their land.
By Adhemar Altieri

Imagine finding that 11 percent of a country’s total landmass cannot be properly
accounted for, and in fact, might have been swindled away. Owners are not always
identifiable, and when they are, they may not own the land they claim as theirs at all.
Now make that country the eighth-largest in the world, and you’ve got what happened in
Brazil in mid December.

Absurd as it may seem, the ownership deeds for 3,065 rural properties in various
Brazilian states were revoked by the Land Reform Ministry. This followed a three-year
investigation that indicates the would-be owners may be guilty of a massive land-grab that
began decades ago—of the type wealthy landowners and their ancestors have often been
accused in Brazil.

The properties involved cover a mighty respectable tract of land—about 100 million
hectares. Not familiar with hectares? One hundred of them equal one square kilometer (0.38
square mile), so we’ve got about a million square kilometers of questionable land
ownership. That’s roughly twice the total landmass of France.

The government arrived at these numbers with help from the latest technology. Ministry
technicians used GPS (global positioning) remote satellite sensoring to measure large
properties throughout Brazil. Findings were then compared to official records at local
land registry offices and the revenue department. The end result: massive discrepancies.

There are farms that only exist on paper, while others, described by investigators as
"ghost-farms", are actually much larger than what their deeds indicate—in
many cases because they illegally occupy federal lands. There were also so-called
"superimposed" farms, for which there is more than one registered owner.

There are "ghost-farmers" as well, especially one Carlos Medeiros, who is the
registered owner of hundreds of farms in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. Together,
Mr. Medeiros’ properties cover 9 million hectares of land—about three times the size
of Belgium. Trouble is officials can find no sign of this man, nor any indication that he
in fact exists. This, according to Brazil’s Federal Police, could mean farms are being
purchased and sold for money-laundering purposes. Illegal lumber extraction and exporting
are also strong possibilities.

In some cases, foreign companies are apparently involved. A 504-thousand hectare
property in the central Brazilian state of Tocantins is registered to one Universal
Overseas Holding Company—no principals were named, nor a country of origin indicated.
Other properties are registered to known Brazilian companies and individual entrepreneurs.
A total of 50 land registry offices, identified for involvement in the majority of
questionable land transactions, are now being investigated.

Most properties listed in the government findings qualify as "latifúndios"—from
the Latin latifundium (broad estate): large, single-owner, single-crop rural properties,
worked by low-income, unspecialized laborers. Over the years, the word latifúndio
has also been used in Brazil to describe large unproductive farms with questionable
ownership. The Landless Peasants Movement (MST) has often raised the legitimacy of land
ownership to justify invading rural properties to force land reform.

The "questionable ownership" argument goes back centuries, to the way land
was sometimes distributed by the Portuguese Crown during the Imperial days of Brazil’s
early history. A case in point is the Ilha Grande farm, on the westernmost tip of São
Paulo state—a region known for frequent conflicts between landless peasants and
landowners in recent years.

The owner says the farm was purchased by his father in 1922. The previous owner
supposedly received the property in the late 1800’s from Brazil’s last imperial ruler, Dom
Pedro II, as compensation for services rendered to the Crown. The Land Reform Ministry
says these claims were investigated in the 1930’s and dismissed, because documents to
support the story were found to be "useless" and "fragile".

Land Reform Minister Raul Jungmann clearly expects more of the same. He believes less
than 20 percent of all properties included in the findings will be retained by current
occupants. Owners have been given 120 days to defend their claims, or lose their land. The
government says forested areas will likely become natural reserves or parks, while farming
areas may be distributed in the Land Reform program.

This all sounds very positive and constructive, but before considering a high-tech
strike against latifúndios a historical event—which it can be if it produces
the desired results, there are major obstacles to keep in mind. Land ownership and
distribution are centuries-old problems in Brazil, so it would be simplistic to believe
that applying modern technology would be enough to make those situations go away.

Many of the landowners now being asked to justify their claims are powerful, wealthy
members of the Brazilian business, industrial and political establishment. They surely
will not roll over and watch the government walk away with their land to create parks, or
distribute plots to landless peasants whom they’ve opposed and resisted—at times
violently—for decades. Even apparently clear-cut, open and shut cases, can very
easily become long, drawn-out court battles.

On the other hand, the government findings are backed by solid, reliable data, and
support accusations made for decades about irregular land ownership in Brazil. In fact,
the findings look so good that traditional opponents of the government’s land reform
policies have now jumped on side. Raul Jungmann is getting support from CNBB (National
Conference of Brazilian Bishops) president Dom Jayme Chemello, and CONTAG (National
Confederation of Agricultural Workers) president Manoel dos Santos—both staunch
government opponents.

Whatever the outcome, it’s encouraging to watch the government step forward with what
appears to be a well-conducted investigation with convincing results, even if it exposes
the rich and powerful. If all Mr. Jungmann and the government wanted from this was quick,
short-term media exposure, they certainly got it. How they’re portrayed in the future will
depend on what he and his ministry do about these findings from now on.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com), an English-language weekly e-zine with
analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com 

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