A jungle of land scams in Brazil

As schemes to exploit Amazonia are unearthed, a crackdown begins.

Ten thousand acres of prime Amazonian real estate was not enough for Jorge Jamil.

So, according to court documents, he persuaded a judge to add 160 times more acreage to his original title, making him one of the biggest landowners in the timber-rich territory. It took authorities two decades to spot the maneuver.

Mr. Jamil is just one figure in Brazil's attempt to chronicle and crack down on crooked land deals, a shockingly common phenomenon known locally as grilagem. Officials estimate that almost one-fifth of the nation's territory is under falsified titles. That could have dire consequences for the Amazonia region, whose forests form one of the world's lungs. Many scams are being carried out with the goal of chopping down the area's teak, ebony, and softwoods. In other cases, swaths of rain forest are being bought and then resold by drug dealers laundering money. At least twice, conservation-minded foreigners bought land they were told was virgin jungle reserve, to find out that the land existed only on paper.

"Many people don't think of Amazonia as a place to live or work, it's simply a place with natural resources to be exploited," says Deputy Sergio Carvalho, the leader of a congressional investigation into grilagem.

A quarter to a third of the Amazon's 157 million hectares (388 million acres) have been illegally appropriated, according to Brazil's National Land Reform Institute, known by its acronym, INCRA. Authorities estimate that, nationwide, over the next few years, they will cancel registrations to more than 160 million hectares (395 million acres). Meanwhile, Carvalho's commission is trying to stop the fraud.

Here in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, Carvalho and his colleagues have unearthed hundreds of blatant scams that show the difficulty of accurately monitoring land in a desolate, often inhospitable area the size of Texas. They discovered crooked timber merchants selling 740,000 hectares (1.8 million acres) of teak and ebony on the Internet; businessmen who had received $25 million in loans and agricultural subsidies for a farm that did not belong to them;a man with deeds to 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres) in a municipality half that size.

Jamil, a Manaus businessman, initially held title to six plots, which together made up the 4,126 hectares (10,191 acres) of an area called the Fazendo Rio Luna. After convincing a judge that his deed understated his holdings, he got title to 657,002 hectares (1.6 million acres).

A few years later, INCRA contested the decision in a Manaus court and won an annulment. According to official case records, the court ordered the deed registrar, or cartorio, who had issued the new titles, to cancel them and return to Jamil only his original acreage. The cartorio disobeyed - legislators say he was bribed - and Jamil sold 397,233 hectares (981,166 acres) of the illegally obtained land to Malaysian businessmen. The men represented logging concerns and were purchasing the land to strip it of it's lucrative timber reserves, says Deputy Baba, another member of the investigatory commission. Because loggers and other landowners face federal laws forbidding cutting more than 20 percent of woodlands, many buy false papers and then use the documents to flaunt the restrictions.

In the most common cases of grilagem, unscrupulous land dealers sell property at a discount to buyers unaware that the deeds were obtained illegally. The drug- money laundering cases are among the most troublesome, raising concern about the potential national security threat from traffickers buying land bordering coca-producing neighbors Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. "Today, grilagem is the basis of organized crime," says Agrarian Reform Minister Raul Jungmann.

Though the role of drug traffickers and loggers is relatively new, grilagem has existed since the mid-1800s. In the Amazon, the problem began to worsen in the 1970s, when thousands of farmers received small holdings under a colonization program run by the country's military dictators. It has taken on an international dimension in recent years as the world monitors the area's environmental degradation.

The fraud-busting effort has had mixed success. Authorities have appropriated more than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of land from people unable to provide legitimate deeds and plan to distribute it to indigenous groups, environmental agencies, and small farmers.

But, because of a Byzantine registration system, endemic corruption in the legal system, and the glacial pace of Brazilian justice, the government has not been able to find or prosecute many offenders.

The statute of limitations in Jamil's case has expired. Authorities say they struggle to win prosecutions even in current cases. Meanwhile, police have shut down six land deed offices. One judge has been removed and others investigated. The government is also setting up more- stringent reporting requirements when land changes hands, and authorities are also encouraging states to ratify a 1979 law requiring land sellers to prove ownership.

But entrenched interests, including politicians charged with enacting the law, have little desire to enforce change, Carvalho says. Land is power in Brazil, where unequal land distribution has triggered rural violence. "Three percent of the population own 50 percent of the land," says the first-term congressman from western Amazonia. "We want to take some of that land and distribute it more equitably to people who need it. But there's a lack of will to change things. The problem here is that no one ever obeys the law."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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