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"No Government Has ever Properly Addressed Land Issues in the Amazon"

The lawyer Brenda Brito has committed half her life to the environmental movement in defense of the forest

The lawyer Brenda Brito has committed half her life to the environmental movement in defense of the forest. He has been working for two decades at the Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon), one of the most fertile research organisations in Brazil, headquartered in Belém, at Para State, and today she chairs the board of Greenpeace in Brazil.

For her, the central issue of the Amazon issue is the lack of allocation of forested public areas. There is no lack of laws and norms, but their fulfillment: "A great challenge, which until today none of our governments has faced in a more satisfactory way", she says. This applies, therefore, to the previous terms of President Luiz Inácio da Silva (PT), his successor, Dilma Rousseff (PT), and even more so to Michel Temer (MDB) and Jair Bolsonaro (PL). The PT governor appointed Senator Carlos Fávaro (PSD-MT) as Minister of Agriculture, who was the rapporteur in favor of Bill No. 510, known as the Land Grabbing bill.

"Since 2006, there has been a law that indicates what should be done", recalls Brenda Brito. "We don't sell public forests. But this law has been systematically disrespected."

In addition to the land rights issues, the lawyer warns in this interview about the lack of life prospects for the large number of young people in the Amazon who neither work nor study. She defends an investment in professional and technical schools for the promotion of bioeconomy and the low carbon economy.

An obstacle to innovative solutions, however, is the lack of understanding by Brazilian public opinion regarding the relevance of zero deforestation not only for the Amazon, but for the future of the country: "Society operates in the inertia of the military dictatorship, looks at the forest as a great burden that needs to be knocked down and integrated with road".

Mulher se apoia em cerca, com os braços cruzados, em um deque de madeira diante de um rio, cercado por árvores
Brenda Brito/ Associate Researcher- Imazon - Divulgação

Only 8 per cent of the efforts made by Amazonia Protege, a Federal Prosecution Service's initiative to curb deforestation in the Amazon, resulted in the punishment of offenders in recent years, according to an IMAZON study. How to ensure that those involved in the illegal deforestation of Brazilian biomes are held accountable? This challenge of holding illegal loggers accountable is not new. I started working at Imazon 20 years ago, and my first job there was related to research on this topic. Our most recent study focuses on public lawsuits under a specific programme run by the Federal Prosecution Service known as Amazônia Protege. We have found that, from 2017 to 2020, 8 per cent of the cases resulted in perpetrators being held accountable in the first instance, that is, under a first court decision. As for the rest, most of the 150 cases that we analysed were extinguished without going to court, or are currently in the appeal stage. Some new legal theses have also been introduced by the Prosecution Service under this programme, such as the possibility of punishing loggers without having to physically visit deforested areas. They basically obtain evidence by crossing different public databases, including the Rural Environmental Registry [CAR, or Cadastro Ambiental Rural, in Portuguese], and from satellite imagery. What we need to do now is further disseminate this type of understanding.

Twenty-nine per cent of the Amazon has an undefined land tenure situation. Could you explain where these areas are concentrated in the region, and what activities are being developed there? We tried to answer this question in a survey that we published in 2021. It addressed what we already know in terms of defined land tenure in the Amazon, and what is still uncertain. By 'uncertainty' we mean that we were not able to find spatial information in the public databases that we managed to access, such as Incra, the Forestry Service, state land and property agencies, Funai and ICMBio (the last two were more difficult to access). When we add all that up, we get 29 per cent of the Legal Amazon as a whole. A large part of this area is concentrated in the state of Amazonas, in areas that actually belong to the state; but there are also large parcels in Pará and other states in the Legal Amazon. We also found that, if we consider deforestation from 2013 to 2021, 41 per cent is happening in these areas, which have no clear designation. For us, this is an indication that these are areas that are being occupied with the purpose of illegal appropriation — in a process that we call grilagem [land grabbing].

How can we solve the land issue in the Amazon and offer more legal certainty (as demanded by farmers) without legitimising land conflict and illegal activities, while prioritising the social allocation of public lands to traditional communities? This is a major challenge. I think no government has ever managed to properly address it so far. Brazil has not solved this land issue yet. I think the federal and state governments should develop a strategy for this. It is vital to properly enforce the Public Forest Management Law and the Constitution, prohibiting the privatisation of public forests. Since 2006, we have had a law that indicates what we can or must do with the forest. In public forests, we can create conservation units, we can recognise Indigenous lands and traditional community territories, and we can make concessions, including for forestry and land management activities. There are also some proposals to expand the type of activities that could be performed under a concession, but these are basically all the options: we cannot sell public forests. But this law has been systematically disrespected. Some public forests have already been mapped and are, therefore, included in the National Public Forest Registry. If we look at the federal forests in the registry, we find overlaps with land titles that are being requested through Incra.

How could the Rural Environmental Registry, which is focused on environmental regularisation, help in this process, advancing the land regularisation agenda and not distorting it? In a way, the Rural Environmental Registry was created because we never had a reliable land registry in Brazil. There's no point in creating a new registry as if it were totally separate from the land issue, when in fact it is not. Brazil tried it with CAR, but it ended up making things worse. As it is self-declaratory, it is not monitored by land tenure authorities. When people discuss the validation of CAR data, they are actually thinking about legal reserves, permanent preservation areas (APPs) etc. They are not discussing whether that area should actually have a CAR record because it is a public area. I think there's a more complex layer of discussions about CAR validation that have never been addressed. We should not prevent the Rural Environmental Registry only in Indigenous lands and conservation units, but also in public forests that have not been designated. If we allow people to continue using CAR records, we are still creating an expectation that, at some point, their demand may be met in the future.

Has Imazon already articulated a proposal about these different land databases in Brazil, and how to better integrate them? We have never made a specific integration proposal. Personally, I believe that we should discuss whether we want a unified or an integrated registry — where each agency could share their data. But much still needs to be done before we get there, and this is something we haven't discussed much yet. But when we look at the current situation, we understand that, in Brazil, states are in charge of issuing land titles. Some (like Pará) have been doing it for decades, but their databases are very disorganised. How am I going to have a unified registry if I don't even have all my data digitised? If most records are on paper, including many maps, we will need significant investment in organising all this work — in all Amazon states, but also at Incra level.

Agriculture minister Carlos Fávaro acted as rapporteur for Bill of Law no. 510, known as PL da Grilagem [Land Grabbing Bill]. What can we expect from the relationship between parliamentarians and the new government in relation to this issue and the approval (or not) of this bill? Regarding senator Carlos Fávaro's position, I believe that the law was misunderstood — this became quite clear in some public hearings that I attended. For example, our current federal legislation establishes that people who occupied federal lands up to 2011 could have their situation regularised. The law does not establish 2008 as the cut-off date, as many claimed, including the rapporteur himself. There are actually a few possibilities. The difference is that those that occupied federal lands between 2008 and 2011 can still regularise their situation, but they are asked to pay a slightly higher amount. It is still very little, but a little more than someone who did it before 2008; but we are talking of properties that exceed 100 hectares. I think this was an issue we faced in our discussions about changing the law in recent years: people tended to assume that the problem was the legislation. The problem is not the legislation.

The Green Municipalities Programme, which was once the largest project under the Amazon Fund and in which Imazon played an active role, set a zero net deforestation target for 2020. In 2018, a new state government was elected, and the programme was discontinued. Last year, more than 4,000 km2 were deforested in the state. I would like to ask you to explain what happened with the deforestation policy in Pará and with the governance model established by that programme. I believe that the Green Municipalities Programme was successful in Pará until 2012, during what we call the 'golden era' of deforestation reduction. It created an important legacy in terms of enhanced capacity at the local level, engaging more players in deforestation discussions and promoting a better understanding of the data. An effort was made to provide better conditions for municipalities to operate. That continued until a certain point. I think that, in a certain way, it is very difficult for any state to maintain a deforestation reduction policy without working in partnership with the federal government.

What would you say about Pará's current deforestation policy and climate targets? The current model in Pará is somehow similar to the Green Municipalities Programme, but it also has some differences. Today, we use the term Sustainable Territories — meaning that the focus is no longer only the municipality, but rather on the wider territory. But we do not find, for example, the same type of governance we had for the GMP, in which a management committee met every three months to assess what was happening, reflect on it, and identify lessons learned. Perhaps the GMP governance model could have been improved — there was some criticism about the limited role played by social movements and family farming, which I believe is valid. But at least there was a governance model that enabled people to understand where it was going, until the moment it ended. I do not see that in today's Sustainable Territories, for example; I think this has become the responsibility of the government.

I believe that, over the past four years, Pará has been one of the few states to publish some sort of deforestation reduction target. Under the GMP, all states had a state deforestation plan, which was an Amazon Fund requirement. It does not make much sense for the state with the highest deforestation levels in the entire Amazon to propose to reach 2030 with 1,500 km² of deforestation (that is Pará's target). Just to conclude, the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area has been most affected by deforestation. Deforestation has grown by more than 50 per cent in that area in recent years. Since the beginning of the current state government (the Helder administration), they have been doing a lot to promote environmental and land regulation in the field. This seems to indicate that something is not working so well there.

The Amazon, as you know, has some of the worst social indicators in the entire country. What do the Amazon 2030 studies reveal about this? The Amazon 2030 initiative includes several institutions: Imazon, the Climate Policy Initiative in Brazil, PUC-Rio, the World We Want, a collective of researchers etc. Through this project, we aim to look at some specific themes with a broader scope than just the environment. For me, one of the strongest findings has to do with youth, that is, work and young people. Proportionally, the number of young people who are out of school and out of work is much higher in the Amazon than in the rest of Brazil. These children and adolescents often lack prospects for a better future. This is very serious, because we are wasting our youth, and we are failing to offer them real opportunities in life. This discouragement tends to contribute to several negative outcomes, such as their recruitment into crime. If we invest more in vocational and technical training, in line with the concept of bioeconomy, low-carbon economy, this could be a win-win solution for everyone.

Movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Youth for the Climate have been much more present than Greenpeace, for example, in street protests and acts of civil disobedience. Is Greenpeace activism in crisis? Has this been discussed by Greenpeace Brasil? I think that, given the urgency of the climate emergency, it is absolutely natural that there are other movements emerging. We need this pressure to be much greater and to come from all sides. It needs the activist financial market guy, the activist professor, the activist scientist. I think that Greenpeace Brasil, like the other offices, continues to play a relevant role, carrying out the investigations that need to be done and highlighting key issues to public opinion. Additionally, the way activism is done nowadays has changed a little, and often it includes digital influencers, taking issues to the press.

Closing the interview, I would like to ask if you think that Brazilian society as a whole has reached a good understanding of what zero deforestation means in Brazil, or whether this should also be a line of action for Brazilian civil society and the government?

No, it does not. Society still lives under the inertia of the military dictatorship. They see the forest as a big burden that needs to be knocked down and integrated with roads: that is their logic. I think the campaign that was done back then was so strong that it is still on everyone's minds. If you travel inland and talk to people, that is the logic. We would need an information campaign as strong or stronger than that one, when you had all magazines printing horrible images. We need that every day — on television, on WhatsApp, everywhere — saying: let's preserve the forest, and value it. We will need an insistent and persistent campaign. It could be supported by civil society, but if it comes from the government, even better. We would then be able to shift the focus and do what it takes to keep the forest standing.


Brenda Brito, 40, is a legal practitioner, with a master's degree and a doctorate in Legal Sciences from Stanford University. She has over 20 years of experience working on Amazon conservation and deforestation reduction. Brenda is an associate researcher at Imazon, a non-governmental institution based in Belém, which works for the conservation and sustainable development of the Amazon. She also chairs the Greenpeace Brazil Board.


Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference in Egypt, in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.