Amazon forest carved up in resettlement scam

Feature story - 21 August, 2007
It was almost too good to be true. When the Brazilian government announced last week that deforestation rates in the Amazon had dropped for the third year running, it was certainly a cause for celebration. But it now transpires that one of the government's own agencies is colluding with logging companies so they can gain access to areas of high-value timber that would otherwise be off limits.

Trucks transport timber illegally extracted from a land settlement in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará.

(Jump to the update.)

As the name suggests, the National Institute of Colonisation and Land Reform (Incra) is responsible for the government's land reform programme. The distribution of land is a huge social problem in Brazil - large tracts of land are owned by just a few wealthy people, making it difficult for impoverished communities to find areas in which to settle. The system of land reform means Incra can allocate areas for these people.

But rather than moving communities onto land that has already been deforested Incra has been allocating tracts of land that are still part of the rainforest. In the state of Para, a frontline in the struggle to protect the forest, land settlements have been set aside in rainforest areas, including one that lies inside the Amazon National Park, a fully protected area.

Campaigners from our Brazilian office have also uncovered evidence showing that Incra has worked with logging companies to position these settlements in areas where sought-after timber can be found, so companies can make a profit from clearing the land as well as open up new areas of the forest for exploitation. In exchange the loggers are expected to provide infrastructure such as roads and schools. Not only that, many of the 'settlers' are not local people with a track record of using the forest's natural resources in a responsible manner - instead, they come from other parts of the country and act merely as a foothold for the loggers.

Incra is using the Amazon rainforest as an escape valve for the problem of land distribution, but this just creates more problems. Those who genuinely need the land are losing out  as communities are put in the hands of  the logging companies, and the forest is losing out when settlements should be on land already cleared. But we all lose out, because as more of the forest is destroyed, Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions rise and climate change escalates.

Hopefully, this time next year we'll be reporting that deforestation rates in the Amazon have fallen once again. Unless, that is, the Brazilian government manages to sabotage its own forest protection programme in the meantime.

Update - 28 August 08 -

Originally the government denied our allegations and the ones from the Prosecutor's office.  But today, a federal judge ruled that our evidence was compelling enough to suspend all 99 of the settlements.

The judge also ruled that INCRA was operating improperly, withoutregard for environmental laws. Now, no further settlements will beallowed without the approval of the Brazil's federal environmentalagency.

If INCRA appeals the ruling it will likely end up in years of legal wrangling. 

"This is a very good development. We fervently hope INCRA will usethis opportunity to put their house in order, and carry out a seriousinvestigation," said Greenpeace Amazon campaigner André Muggiati. "Either way, we will keep a close watch."

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