Land Grabbing as a Cause of Deforestation in the Amazon

Image of a forest on the right, and an empty and dry land on the left

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[SUMMARY] With extensive experience in inspection at Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), the author discusses land grabbing as a cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He proposes an analysis of the processes based on a production chain and indicate the need for investment in the qualification of human resources, to effectively understand and confront deforestation.

Illegal deforestation in the Amazon has been gaining worldwide attention. However, it is necessary to examine its causes – one of which is land grabbing. To that end, we investigate the process of land grabbing on Indigenous Lands (IL) in Brazil since the uptick in deforestation beginning in 2018.

With this essay, we contribute to the debate on the root causes of deforestation and help in the development of strategies aimed at curbing the criminal destruction of the Amazon.

How Deforestation is Analyzed

To explain the causes of illegal deforestation, analyses using quantitative data predominate most methodological strategies. These data are generally obtained from geoprocessing analyses that identify places where deforestation occurs, especially the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Analyses that systematize and publicize data on deforestation warnings initially identify the places of greatest occurrences and increases. From this data, inferences can be made about the causes of deforestation — subjectively and intuitively attributing justifications to the occurrences observed by DETER.

These inferences are generally used by the media when reporting increases in deforestation warnings, such as those found by INPE. Hypotheses can then be made regarding the causes. These generally arise from previously known causes or are directly harvested from popular thought (give an example). However, it needs to be highlighted that the warnings themselves do not explain deforestation, they simply identify its occurrence.

Another group of quantitative analyses seeks to create cross-referencing between distinct databases to explain illegal deforestation. Cross-referencing the databases of deforestation warnings (DETER) with the Rural Environmental Register (CAR) is one popular method. Thus, regarding a determined warning, the property registered on CAR is identified, and with that, other analyses and hypotheses can be developed.

However, as in the previous case, this type of analysis is not enough to explain deforestation itself, since, in general, it only indicates authorship (CAR) and materiality (warnings) of deforestation, without explaining its causes or dynamics of occurrence.

Other analyses seek to explain deforestation based on production chains. In this group of analyses, the causes of deforestation are attributed to increased deforestation and clear-cutting in the Amazon to agribusiness and the timber industry.

These analyses help further explanations through making use of quantitative data, using strategies like database cross-referencing on extraction/trade of timber, increased cow herds, and deforestation warnings.

However, this group of analyses, which shall here be called externalist analyses, accurately describe the relationship between production chains and deforestation. Timber and livestock production chains contribute to the increased rate of deforestation but are far from explaining its internal dynamics.

In this essay, we indicate the need to investigate deforestation based on an internalist and qualitative approach. This basically consists of an approach in which data are collected ethnographically in the field. This knowledge is derived from direct contact with the people involved in deforestation practices and seeks to then identify the internal dynamic of deforestation.

Temporarily excluding external causes of deforestation, to focus on its internal dynamics helps to understand the mechanics and enables more effective and direct actions for subsequent control. In other words, understanding deforestation itself allows us to directly attack the causes that sustain it rather than attacking its peripheral causes.

wood structures of an abandoned house

Construction of a structure in the interior of a target area for a land grab. Authors/Amazônia Latitude

We can understand deforestation as a machine. The deforestation process of a quadrant of land (polygon) has certain devices and workings that enable it to function and manifest in reality. Rather than seeing deforestation as a polygon warning made by satellite (such as a photograph), it is a process, which demands certain conditions to occur and which, if dismantled, ceases its development.

Deforestation has its own economy, which does not depend on the timber or livestock economy in order to occur. To operationalize this analytical model, we have chosen to test one of the main causes of deforestation as the object of analysis – land grabbing.

Land grabbing has been highly examined and is usually defined as taking possession of public lands by private individuals through document fraud. This is a formal definition of land grabbing that basically understands the concept as a kind of theft and sale of a given public asset. The public power recognizes the stolen product as the legitimate property of the perpetrator, even if this individual uses maneuvers and artifice to cover up their criminal actions.

For the purposes of this essay, we understand land grabbing from the subjective motivation of an individual committing a crime with the “expectation of profit” resulting from the sale of a property.

This definition means that the concept of land grabbing is not developed with regard to the measurable net profit arising from the sale of the land or the process of land appreciation; it is defined here as an expectation, that is, a strictly subjective variable.

The land grabber merely expects that there will be an increase in the value of this land in the future and that upon selling it, profit will be gained. This expectation motivates his crime. Without the expectation of appreciation in the value of the property, there is no investment by the grabber to take possession of the public property and land grabbing does not occur.

dry trees around green ones

The beginning of deforestation during a land grab of an area of the Ituna. Authors/Amazônia Latitude

But how can land grabbing explain deforestation itself? How can it offer an internalist explanation for deforestation? To answer this, we must understand deforestation as a specific type of machine – a business venture.

When an area is deforested, what is carried out is simply the transformation of the territory through the suppression of the native vegetation, the use of fire, and the planting of pasture. This demands the employment of resources, like payment for labor, machines, fuel, seeds, etc. It is an investment in an area, and like all investments, a return is expected.

How does it happen? Well, deforestation is an investment in the land that generates an increase in its nominal value based on the work and the resources employed. Therefore, by successfully deforesting an area, there is a positive balance between the value of its acquisition — which could be zero, in the cases of invasion — and the value of its sale after deforestation.

The “merchandise” involved in the processes of land grabbing is the land itself. Deforestation is a way of adding value to this merchandise. When there is a positive appreciation in value between the initial price of the land and its price after deforestation, the groups of land grabbers that take possession of the land can reap the profits from its sale.

Different from externalist analyses, the economic dynamic of land grabbing explains how deforestation seeks to generate profit insofar as it adds value to grabbed land. The economic chain of timber, in turn, occurs at a moment prior to clearcutting. The merchandise involved in this productive activity is the wood itself. The main objective of timber exploration is to add value to the product through its transformation into an industrial process meant for export (?).

Once the forest resources have been exhausted in a determined area, the tendency is the relocation of the illegal timber industry to another area; and not the transformation of that territory through clear-cut deforestation. This means that the further use of resources in a distinct activity of that nature does not add any value to the commercialized timber. In turn, livestock farming is an activity where profit through cattle will occur at a much later moment than at the time of deforestation.

This obviously does not exclude intersections between the economic networks of the illegal extraction of native wood, and extensive livestock farming, and illegal deforestation. However, the externalist analyses do not totally explain the causes of deforestation. Obviously, resources employed in the purchase of native wood from a determined area can be used as an investment to deforest this area. In turn, livestock farming is the destination given that practically all the funds from illegally deforested lands in the Amazon and the resources from the sale of cattle can be reinvested through opening new areas for the expansion of the herd.

Deforestation is a business in itself; as it adds value to the land being grabbed. In externalist analyses, the causes of deforestation are explained by the resources employed in the practice of deforestation, the profit from this activity is associated with other economic dynamics.

The approach

Land grabbing is the main cause of deforestation in Brazil. Therefore, there is no way to achieve a significant and, above all, permanent reduction in illegal deforestation without combatting this crime. To illustrate this proposition, we have adopted the strategy of investigating the increase in deforestation in Indigenous Lands in 2019 and the subsequent fall in 2020, as per the graph below.

We argue that the increase in deforestation on Indigenous Lands, especially since 2018, occurred precisely as a result of land grabbing, and that its reduction in 2020 was due to the successive operations of Ibama, which managed to dismantle the gangs involved in grabbing the most deforested Indigenous Lands in Brazil, as reported in other publications.

statistics of deforestation

Source: Terra Brasilis/Inpe. Consulted on 09/03/2021


Among all the Indigenous Lands (IL) deforested during this period, the case of the Ituna/Itatá IL stands out, given the aggressiveness of the process. Between 2018 and 2019, the IL went from 15.9 km² of deforestation to 119.8 km², falling to 61.6 km² in 2020 after the actions of Ibama in dismantling the land grabbing process.

statistics on the increasing deforestation

Source: Terra Brasilis/Inpe. Consulted on 09/03/2021

We have stated that land grabbing is also explained by the land grabber’s subjective motivation, which is connected to their expectation of future appreciation in the value of the land. We can extend this proposition into two others: 1) the greater the probability of carrying out deforestation, the more the expectations of land appreciation will be met and 2) the greater the probability of official recognition of the grabbed land, the more intense the grabbing process will be. Thus, it is understood that the expectation of making a profit through the sale of grabbed land increases when there is a higher probability of accomplishing illegal deforestation, in addition to a higher chance of official recognition of the private possession of this land.

Thus, it is understood that the expectation of making a profit through the sale of grabbed land increases when there is a higher probability of accomplishing illegal deforestation, in addition to a higher chance of official recognition of the private possession of this land.

The Indigenous Lands most affected by illegal deforestation in the observed period were Ituna/Itatá and Apyterewa. In the case of Ituna/Itatá IL, it is an area that has restrictions of use stipulated by Funai due to the presence of isolated Indians. Thus, the demarcation process of this IL was not totally concluded, despite the pre-existing restriction on the entry of any person. In the case of the Apyterewa IL, there is a judicial dispute over the delimitation of the territory, which may still lead to the disenfranchisement of part of the Indigenous Land in favor of the invaders.

In both cases, although there are administrative acts that determine the destination of these lands for the purposes of exclusive usufruct (the right to use another person’s property) of the native peoples, there remains a strong expectation that these acts are de-constituted, especially for not being implemented.

There is a certain judicial instability or dispute with regard to the delimitation of the ILs most affected by deforestation. This points to the fact that land grabbers plan and know the lands on which there could be a greater expectation of future appreciation through official recognition of possession.

The Indigenous Lands invaded and grabbed were not chosen at random. From previous knowledge of their regulatory situation, land grabbers understand that the less defined the allocation, the greater the expectation of appreciation of the land.

If the mere possibility of a judicial dispute over the recognition of traditional occupation of Indigenous Lands can attract the interest of land grabbers, the taking of the territory and its occupation through deforestation seeks to weaken the judicial instruments of control over the land.

Deforestation, in this case, is also used as an attempt to guarantee possession of the land through the construction of a kind of “record” of occupation — deforestation itself. Prior to existing, a record of the right that guarantees a private entity the possession of public land, deforestation is used as a de facto record: an attempt to prove, in the future, possession of the land.

On these Indigenous Lands, land grabbing occurs in its purest form because the market price of these lands tends to be very low.

However, as the Indigenous Lands are close to already established production centers, they have access to infrastructure, so an eventual revoking of the demarcation of IL would make the price of the land skyrocket. It is, therefore, speculation in which the initial price of the land tends to be very low (as IL) but will increase greatly if demarcation of the IL were revoked.

Thus, as it is a high-risk investment with additional difficulties in place through the regulation of Indigenous Lands, all the basic elements of land grabbing are present in these cases. In other words, it is precisely in the difficulty of grabbing Indigenous Land that the essential characteristics are most overwhelmingly manifested.

Understanding the land grabbing that occurs on Indigenous Lands is important for a general understanding of this process, enabling generalizations of its characteristics as a vector of deforestation.

The artifices

Firstly, great care is taken on the part of the land grabbers in the selection of a place targeted for a land grab, this is always done to meet their expectation of maximizing the difference between the initial value of the land and its value after passing through the process of deforestation.

On the Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Land, we observed a broadly developed and well-organized land grabbing dynamic. The group used various means to guarantee and consolidate possession of the territory.

It should be highlighted that all of the methods used by the land grabbers are aimed at increasing the probability of executing deforestation of the area and increasing the probability of accomplishing future regularization of land possession. These maximize the expectation of increasing the final value of the invaded land. We can observe the artifices of the land grabbers as simultaneously meeting these two conditions by looking at the concrete case of land grabbing of the Ituna/Itatá IL.

Among the artifices, we can cite the attempts to construct a village in the interior of Indigenous Land and install a network of electric energy. Both facilitate deforestation as they would have added logistical facilities to the execution of deforestation. These assisted in the Brazilian constitution of a “consummated fact,” and made it impossible to remove a village with hundreds of people from within an IL.

This strategy was also used in the land grabbing process of the Apyterewa IL, but in this case, the invaders were successful in the construction of the village, which constituted an important logistical support point for advancing further invasions and deforestation.

In the Ituna/Itatá IL many plots were “donated” to possessors by the land grabbers, to incentivize migration to the site. In general, the process of land grabbing on Indigenous Lands consists largely of attempts to attract people to the targeted area. These people occasionally buy plots for prices far below market value or receive them through “donation” in exchange for work.

In this dynamic, the more people that arrive on the land targeted for the grab, the greater the deforestation, the greater the difficulty in reversing the situation of illegal occupation, and the greater the value of the land from the increased demand. The group of land grabbers will then be able to profit more from its sale.

In some ways, attracting people to the land dilutes responsibility and obscures the identity of the true group that organizes and profits from illegal occupation. As the incentives for occupation increase, so too does the shield around those truly responsible for deforestation.

At each deforestation hotspot there is a migration of people and supplies accompanied by a consolidation of villages and the district. What drives the process is property speculation fostered by land grabbers.

The low price of the lands and the promise of achieving the desire to own one’s own home often attracts people from various parts of the Amazon to areas illegally divided into plots by the land grabbers. This generates spaces of true devastation with the opening of plots with no infrastructure, support, or control from public power.

At a time when the public institutions that should regulate and orientate land occupation are passing through greater and greater difficulties in the execution of their work, the action of the State is substituted by that of the land grabbers, who take on the role of dividing up, selling, and distributing the land according to their private interests. Land grabbing functions like the militia — it substitutes the State in the management of the territory, with the by-product of precarious conditions for the workforce and increased environmental degradation, seen in the illegal sale of lands and deforestation.

Another maneuver used by land grabbers is the attempt to recharacterize the criminal activity with a purely discursive transformation of the meaning of environmental crime. This occurs through the use of media, social networks, and political discourse. The actions in the media to redefine the crime into something distinct seeks to produce the subjective sensation among the hundreds of squatters that migrating to the grabbed areas that they are participating in a socially acceptable act, an act encouraged not only by the community they belong to, but also by society itself.

Upon receiving messages and information that the activity is not a crime, that the area the invader is occupying will be regularized in the future, that the monitoring action is wrong, the individual that is found invading Indigenous Lands also begins to reinterpret their actions. It would no longer be a criminal action, but their right, or a provisional irregular situation that will be resolved in the future.

A feeling of hope and injustice is created in these squatters. This partially annuls the subjective risk that investment in the grabbed land is not worth it, as the message that is being transmitted by the criminal networks is that monitoring is wrong and that the invasion of Indigenous Lands is right. As such, dissuasion is reduced and the aggression towards State agents increases.

Therefore, the use of the media by the criminal land grabbing network is an essential part of its permanence and continuation. By attacking monitoring, they contribute to inciting others to commit crimes directly against the public agents (through threats and obstructions to inspection). Furthermore, they contribute to delegitimizing environmental monitoring, diminishing the public faith in the institution, and creating favorable ground for normative flexibilization and direct non-compliance with the legislation.

This context directly favors the land grabbing process and is at the basis of deforestation in Ituna/Itatá IL, and increases the critical mass in favor of deregulation by creating obstacles to command and control activities.

Finally, the last maneuver that we would like to draw attention to is the building of political support through social networks on the part of criminal land grabbing networks. Whether public or implicit, the support of political figures of local or regional importance for the land grabbing process — duly translated to milder language — coats the investment in the land in a layer of protection and legitimacy.

The word of support of an authority gives legitimacy to land grabbers. It also transfers authority to those that present themselves as supporters or spokespersons. Therefore, there is an effort to increase the value of grabbed land, to the extent that the investment supposedly becomes more secure, as it is assured and “authorized” by public figures.

At the same time, the attack of environmental surveillance authorities, even if discursive, tries to create the impression that nothing can interfere in the smooth running of the transactions. It plays the part of driving criminal activities and guaranteeing that there will be no interference in an ongoing business. Even if it is only discourse or a promise, it increases the expectation that the land will be regularized in the future.

Furthermore, the process of labor migration itself to places targeted for land grabbing may also be seen as a source for a large influx of potential voters. It is estimated that hundreds of títulos de eleitor (polling cards) were transferred to the municipality of Senator José Porfírio-PA during the peak of deforestation in Ituna/Itatá IL. It would not be possible to carry out deforestation at such an accelerated level without having a considerable volume of labor available and this process of migration may be associated with the construction of electoral niches.

Against society

From the scientific point of view, we can perceive that by investigating the deforestation process itself, we can uncover various workings that operate to keep it going. Quantitative analyses currently prevail with regard to the causes of deforestation. This leads to the conclusion that to combat it we should focus on improving technology for the detection of deforested areas.

Given the prevalence of this type of analysis, vast resources are invested in obtaining satellite images and in geospatial technological refinement with the idea that the difficulty in combatting deforestation is mainly in the limitations of its detection.

However, we argue that an internalist, qualitative analysis broadly enriches the discussion by enabling us to map its constitutive elements, which would not exist without deforestation and without which deforestation would not exist.

Therefore, investment in deforestation detection systems is just as important as investment in human resources that act on the front line of combat against deforestation, with professional training and an increased staff. There would be two immediate effects: increased quality of fieldwork and an increased number of work fronts. Developing the human component within state institutions could generate a lasting decrease in the rate of deforestation.

Analysis of warnings combined with field surveillance, therefore, should make up the front line in dismantling the criminal networks that profit from illegal deforestation.

The regularization of grabbed lands favors the deforestation process by enabling the rapid enrichment of gangs that carry out land grabbing. All the land grabber wants is the regularization of land that they stole and illegally deforested in order to sell it at much higher values.

Increasing the expectation of regularization, which can come from the public power itself, accelerates the race for land, meaning a significant increase in deforestation. The regulation or official recognition of private possession of stolen land is precisely what meets the expectations of those who practice land grabbing.

It is worth highlighting that the theft of public lands, that is, the theft of society’s property, occurs without any social opposition at the time of usurpation by private individuals. Deforestation is more than environmental damage; it is damage to public property and is developed in an accelerated process that is incomparably more widespread than any other corruption scheme in terms of looted public resources.

A fall in deforestation on Indigenous Lands occurred after dismantling the land grabbing actions developed in these areas. If the public power had opted for or comes to sanction “regularization” of these occupations (and the consequent de-constitution of part of Indigenous Lands), all the investment employed by the land grabbers would be rewarded with profit, causing even greater and more frequent investment for the consolidation/deforestation of the area.

The relationship between the de-constitution of Indigenous Lands and the increase in deforestation has been empirically proven, according to Maurício Torres, Juan Doblas, and Daniela Fernandes Alarcon, who have studied the process of disenfranchisement of part of the Baú Indigenous Land in the state of Pará.

The effects of deforestation are, without exaggeration, disastrous. Even before the decree in 1.487/2003, deforestation hotspots had already been revealed in the western portion of the IL, under pressure from the BR-163 and the municipal headquarters of Novo Progresso. However, the disenfranchisement would result in unprecedented rates of deforestation. A study by the Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (The Amazonian Institute of Man and the Environment) (Imazon), which analyzed deforestation in the Baú IL between 2000 and 2008, found that after the reduction in the size of the area, the annual rates of deforestation in the unaffected portion increased by 129%. In the meantime, there is a false proposition running through popular thought that the regularization of stolen lands could constrain deforestation, and facilitate the identification of deforesters as the sole argument.

Actually, the identity of the squatters and small-scale deforesters is no great mystery. The idea that those responsible for large-scale deforestation, who are behind environmental crimes and land-grabbing schemes, would gladly reveal their identity to the public power is nothing short of naive.

The current problem is not discovering the identity of squatters that deforest, but effectively punishing those who commit the crime and dismantling land-grabbing gangs. The fining or punishment of isolated squatters does not break up the workings of the deforestation machine. For this, the mechanisms of land grabbing need to be destroyed.

In addition, land grabbing is one of the main causes of deforestation. Regularization, in its current model, helps increase illegal deforestation and favors criminal organizations.

Therefore, the regulation of illegally deforested stolen lands, through official recognition of private possession of such lands, is far from constituting a measure to combat deforestation. On the contrary, it is another maneuver in the land grabbing of public property.

It cannot be denied that there is a great demand for lands in the Amazon, which is coordinated and supplied by criminal organizations. As the State loses the capacity to organize a fair and environmentally sustainable process of land occupation/distribution.

Everything happens as if in the absence of institutional coordination of land occupation, land-grabbing organizations come on the scene and fulfill this role according to their own interests, causing disordered occupation, violent processes, and illegal deforestation. This is an absence the State needs to reverse.

Hugo Loss is a graduate in Social Sciences from the Universidade Federal do Paraná (Federal University of Paraná) and has a Master’s in Social Anthropology from the Universidade de Brasília (University of Brasília). He is an environmental analyst for Ibama.
Translation to English by Marcos Colón


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