This Land is Our Land, Brazil Tells Squatters

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, January 11, 2001 (ENS) - The Brazilian government's investigation of illegal land occupancy has uncovered fraud on a massive scale. The Agrarian Reform Ministry suspects more than 100 million hectares of land - an area bigger than Central America - is illegally occupied through phony land titles.

The problem is worst in Brazil's Amazonas state, where some 55 million hectares of a total 157 million hectares is under suspicion.

Jungmann

Agrarian Reform Minister Raul Jungmann. (Photo courtesy Ministerio de Desenvolvimento Agrario)
The ministry's efforts to claim back land in Amazonas have revealed that United States and European environmental groups hold some of the fake titles.

According to Agrarian Reform Minister Raul Jungmann, foreign groups were duped into thinking the land they had purchased would be set aside for conservation.

Now the ministry is suing Falb Saraiva de Farias, the man it believes conned foreigners into buying land actually owned by the government.

"He fooled European and U.S. citizens, selling them land that belongs to Brazil," Jungmann told Reuters news agency this week.

"This is a crime that extends abroad. We have asked ABIN [the Brazilian Intelligence Service] for help in this investigation."

Farias remains free, but Jungmann said an arrest was pending.

"The courts have been a little slow on this, but his hours are numbered. I believe we have enough proof to convict him."

The ministry has recovered two parcels of land linked to Farias, one of 104,449 hectares and the other totalling 780,000 hectares. Media reports quote Jungmann as saying the government had cancelled all of Farias' land titles, which totalled more than six million hectares (15 million acres).

map

Map highlighting Amazonas state. (Map courtesy Ministerio de Desenvolvimento Agrario)
Farias name has been linked to the Brazilian conservation group Forever Green, or Fundação Amazonas Forever Green. It is alleged Farias used the group as cover for a con scheme to convince foreigners to buy tracts of land supposedly for conservation.

Forever Green president Alfredo Lopes has denied his group's involvement in the scheme. He said Farias was asked to leave the group in 1995. It is alleged that Farias continued to offer land for sale after that time.

Forever Green has long been recognized as a legitimate group by Brazilian authorities. In 1994, Jornal do Brasil reported that Brazil's environment agency IBAMA placed a preservation order on the Novo Destino rubber plantation, which is owned by Forever Green, creating the largest private reserve in Brazil.

In the same year, the group organized a sustainable development seminar in Manaus attended by Brazil's then environment minister. At that time, the group owned 500,000 hectares of tropical rainforest in Labrea, Canutama and Humaita counties in Amazonas.

The Agrarian Reform Ministry investigation shows rampant fraud throughout the country. In the southeastern state of Parana, resides one of Brazil's most prolific land squatters Carlos Medeiros, whose name is registered to land covering an area the size of Portugal and Belgium.

road

Road through the Amazon. (Photo courtesy http://www.rain-tree.com/)
Complicating the investigation is the fact that Medeiros is fictitious - a front for someone else.

The size of Brazil, which is greater than the continental United States, makes the government's campaign even tougher. Corruption in local notary offices, lack of coordination between Brazil's three levels of government and title claims dating back prior to the country's independence from Portugal in 1822 have further hindered the investigation.

In the vast and remote hinterland of Amazonas state, the ministry is making progress. It reports that of 55 million hectares representing 809 "suspicious" cases, 18 million hectares have been returned to government ownership.