Brazil Government and Private Registrars Blame Each Other for Land Titles Mess in the Amazon

For a farmer in Brazil’s Amazon, Manoel Freire Camurca was doing pretty well for himself until a local power broker burned down his house and took the surrounding fields he had poured his life into.

Camurca’s eviction eight months ago happened as officials were finalizing his claim to 500 hectares of land in southwestern Amazonas state where he had spent nearly three decades growing corn, sugar and beans.

“I lost everything,” 61-year-old Camurca said, wiping away tears.

“I went into town and when I came back everything was burned and destroyed.”

Half a dozen other small farmers in his village suffered the same fate after a large rancher said he was the rightful owner of the land.

Camurca’s story highlights an increasingly violent environment in parts of rural Brazil which government officials say is fueled by unclear property title deeds, local corruption and a system where competing state agencies work on land regularization.

Death in the Countryside

At least 36 people died in land conflicts in the first five months of this year, according to the Brazil-based Pastoral Land Commission watchdog.

One government official said 2017 had so far been the most violent year for land fights this century.

“Land conflicts in the Amazon have gotten worse,” said Ronaldo Santos, an official with the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a government body responsible for managing and demarcating rural land.

“Big farm operators have the power to dispense injustice,” Santos said following a public meeting with hundreds of angry farmers embroiled in land conflicts in Amazonas in northwestern Brazil.

“We have assassinations and death in the countryside.”

Conflicting Titles

Recent violence has led officials from different government agencies and privately owned land registration agents known as cartórios to trade blame over who is responsible for the conflicts.

Across Brazil, land must be registered by cartórios. They maintain property records and transfer deeds in specific regions. There is no single, centralized system for checking who owns what nationwide.

Inherited from Portuguese colonialists, the cartório system is confusing and widely abused by wealthy land owners, government officials noted.

They said unclear property ownership makes it easier for large ranchers to displace small farmers like Camurca.

“The cartórios hold the biggest responsibility for legalizing grilagem (land grabs),” said Miguel Emile, a senior official with Terra Legal, a government program for regularizing small farmers’ land titles in the Amazon.

There are an estimated 5 million landless families in Brazil, according to a 2016 Canadian study. Government officials say they are working to speed-up property allocations for the rural poor who often live on land they do not formally own.

But even lands demarcated and distributed by government officials from INCRA and Terra Legal must be registered at private cartórios to be fully legal, Emile said.

Small farmers often cannot afford cartório services, he said, and the system itself faces widespread abuse.

Wealthy ranchers can bribe cartórios to register someone else’s land, Emile said.

A common scam involves elites legally buying a small piece of property and then having a cartório register a far larger surrounding area in their name, he said.

As a result of this type of fraud in Pará, a neighboring Amazon state, four times more land has been privately registered than the state’s total area, said Jeremy Campbell, an expert on land rights in Brazil at Roger Williams University in the United States.

Trading Blame

Cartórios, however, say they are not responsible for most of the problem, blaming government agencies for weak Amazon property rights and the resulting violence.

“Grilagem is not done by cartórios,” said one cartório in Amazonas who spoke on condition of anonymity.

His office, which is responsible for maintaining local land records, is full of yellowed, time-worn books of property deeds, along with some digitized documents.

Corruption in government agencies, including INCRA, is a major driver of land scams, the cartório said, as property owners can bribe officials to hand them swaths of state land.

The government is moving to geocode new property registrations so the land is digitally registered through satellite maps but this process has been slow, he added.

Proving Ownership

Forced evictions in Camurca’s village of Bom Lugar in Boca do Acre municipality exemplify the problems with Brazil’s rural property system.

INCRA had provided Camurca with a certification of possession, known locally as a “posse title”. But the farmer said he couldn’t register this as a formal title with a cartório as the process of property demarcation had not been finalized.

This meant that despite a government agency granting Camurca rights to the land where he had lived since 1988 he still did not formally own it.

The rancher who Camurca says was behind the burning of his house could not be reached for comment.

The federal prosecutor for Amazonas state said he was investigating house burnings and displacement across Boca do Acre.

Amazonas senior security official, Sergio Fontes, said the violence affecting Camurca and thousands of others across Brazil’s largest state was due to poor management by officials.

“INCRA should resolve the farmers’ disputes with ranchers before distributing lands, otherwise all these problems happen,” Fontes said.

“(Officials) have to take responsibility for who was placed there.”

This article was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit them at http://www.thisisplace.org

Tags:

Ads

You May Also Like

Here Pelé is shown in 1971, in Paris. (AP Photo/Levy)

Netflix Documentary on Pelé Passes Up a Chance to Deal with Brazil’s Class and Race

A recent Netflix documentary about the legendary Brazilian soccer player Edson Arantes do Nascimento, ...

The NGO Rio de Paz promotes an act in Copacabana -Tânia Rêgo/Ag. Brasil

Brazil NGOs Need a New Business Model. Brazilians Generosity Might Help with That

For many years, large foreign financiers, such as foundations and multilateral funds, were the ...

Burnt communal houses of uncontacted Indians could be signs of a massacre - © FUNAI

Goldminers in Brazil Massacre Over Ten Indians from an Uncontacted Tribe

Public prosecutors in Brazil have opened an investigation after reports that illegal goldminers in ...

The Guardians of the Amazon recently destroyed a logging truck they discovered in their territory.

Brazil Logging Mafia Kills Another Guardian of the Amazon

A leader of an Amazon tribe acclaimed for its environmental defenders has been killed, ...

Without Police, Rio’s Drug Lords Show Who Are the Bosses in the Favelas

After the Brazilian government spent tens of millions of dollars securing the city of ...

Netflix star Wagner Moura - Edison Vara/PressPhoto

Goodwill Ambassador Brazilian ‘Narcos’ Star Is on a Mission: End Slave Labor

As a boy growing up in Brazil’s impoverished northeastern state of Bahia, Brazilian actor ...

A motoboy in São Paulo delivering food

Underage Delivery App Workers Way Too Common in Brazil

Cases of children working for food delivery apps in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic ...

60 percent of attackers are current or ex-partners of victims

Every Minute 8 Women Are Victims of Violence in Brazil

Details from DataFolha’s latest study, “Visible and Invisible: The Mistreatment of Women in Brazil,” ...

In Rio, Afro-Brazilian faiths are increasingly under attack by evangelicals

Brazilian Evangelical Gangs Go to War Against Afro-Brazilian Faiths, in the Name of God

The expression “evangelical drug trafficker” may sound incongruous, but in the Brazilian city of ...