Journalism from the center of the world

Bom Futuro National Forest in Porto Velho, Rondônia: the conservation area has been the target of land theft since the early 2000s. Photo: Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress

“If you don’t want to sell the land, no problem, your widow will sell it to me for less.” Many ribeirinhos – traditional forest community dwellers – and many migrant small-hold farmers who settled on the edges of the highways that ripped up the Amazon in the 1970s have heard this phrase from an outsider or neighboring farmer intent on increasing their pasture. This is the work of a figure known to almost everyone in the Amazon: the land-grabbing grileiro.

But what are grileiros? Only the land grabbers who coerce and threaten the weak to take their lands? Or do they include the people who “stake out land” in more remote regions? And what’s the whole “staking out land” thing people are always talking about in those areas anyway?

In truth, grileiros have been perennial figures in our history. Much of what Brazil is today – and especially the perverse way that so much land is concentrated in the hands of so few – is the result of land theft through grilagem. This text is an attempt to better explain this process so we can grasp the full effects of grilagem on the Amazon region.

The word grilagem comes from an old practice for forging documents. The forger would place falsified documents in a box with grilhos, crickets. The insect excrement would quickly oxidize the paper, giving it a yellowish, sepia color, which would only occur naturally after decades or centuries. This aged appearance was an important factor to help the false document pass as genuine so it could be used to steal land.

In the Amazon region, land thieves focus on public lands, and more precisely on “undesignated public land” – areas that weren’t designated for agricultural reform, conservation, Indigenous territory, or other types of occupation.

Professor Eliane Moreira, attorney for the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Pará, explained that the federal Constitution determines the order of priorities for the fate of these lands. The top priority should be given to designating them Indigenous territories, followed by lands belonging to quilombola – descendants of enslaved African rebels – , and other traditional communities. Then come environmental interests and land reform. Despite this, the prosecutor said government administrations invert this order, giving priority to the establishment of individual private property, which should only be permitted if there is no social or environmental interest in the area.

In the Amazon region, grilagem happens on two fronts: on the ground and on paper. The first case happens when an area is physically seized. The grileiro needs to expel the original occupants, and has his gunmen “clean” the location of its legitimate inhabitants. On top of that, the forest is cut down to consolidate the takeover. It is during this process that intimidation and other forms of violence occur. It’s also where there is resistance from many rural social movements: Indigenous people, quilombolas, small-hold settlers, and other traditional communities.

The other way grilagem happens is on paper: through scams at notary offices or government land agencies, public property is taken from public hands and placed into the private hands of grileiros. Violence (and I include deforestation as a variety of this) is the main instrument of control in the land of grilagem.

When this dirty land market heats up, violence, as a mechanism of grilagem, grows with it. Public land is not always appropriated by forging documents (like the ones placed in a box with crickets). In fact, most illicit land grabbing takes place precisely through public policies that “forgive” and amnesty grilagem. But what documents do grileiros try to obtain?

The “history” of all land ownership has to begin with an act of the State, where land ceases to be public and is sold to a private individual. The land is transferred from the federal government, states, or municipalities to private hands – a kind of privatization of public property. It is precisely this act of transferring public property that is the most frequent maneuver in the practice of grilagem. So the term, which originated as a reference to the falsification of documents, has been stretched to encompass various ways of appropriating other people’s land.

Is it grilagem for a small-hold settler to occupy public undesignated land without official authorization and live and work on a plot large enough to support their family? No!

The law makes it clear that occupation of public land is legitimate for someone who makes the land productive through their and their family’s labor and who lives on the land permanently. The size of this land cannot be more than a standard tax parcel– in the Amazon region, up to 247 acres. And, of course, the area cannot be a territory traditionally occupied by Indigenous or traditional communities or a conservation area.

The grileiro masquerades as a small-hold settler. He maps the area he considers his, usually enormous, and divides it into lots. He ascribes a different occupant to each one of these lots. These are the famous laranjas – oranges as they call the strawmen who lend their names to the charade (or who sometimes don’t even know their names are being used).

The grileiro files multiple, separate applications, as though each lot were legitimately occupied by a different small-hold settler. For each strawman, the grileiro asks Brazil’s land and agrarian reform agency to recognize the plot as belonging to the front man for the purpose of land tenure regularization. After the land is titled, the grileiro transfers all of the lots in the strawmen’s names to his own. That is how it worked until 2009.

In 2009, the life of a grileiro was made much easier. The Lula government passed provisional measure 458, which became law 11.952/2009, and created the Legal Land Program. Though presented as an initiative to benefit small-hold settlers and address the “social question,” what the program did was allow the legalization of land grabbing in Amazonian states. Basically, this law – and those that followed – eliminated requirements and made it easier for grileiros to use dozens of strawmen to obtain documents for illegally seized land. The biggest beneficiaries of the facilitated process were a handful of grileiros who concentrated control of vast swaths of land.

Although smallholdings and plots with an area of up to four tax parcels (988 acres maximum) accounted for 80% of all requests for regularization, they occupied less than 11.5% of the area in question. On the other hand, medium and large landholdings, which accounted for only 20% of the total number of properties requesting regularization, occupied more than 88.5% of the area. Settler occupations of less than 247 acres that met certain requirements already had legal guarantees, unlike public land stolen by grileiros.

Subsequent governments repeatedly extended amnesty to land thieves. In 2016, then president Michel Temer announced provisional measure 759, later converted to law 13.465/2017. The law extended the amnesty period by four years. Before, it had been necessary to prove the property had been occupied by 2004; the new law extended the timeline so that occupation only needed to have occurred by 2008 (and, in some cases, 2011). It also increased the size of the areas that can be regularized in Brazil’s Legal Amazon, from 3,700 to almost 6,200 acres.
Two years later, in 2019, Jair Bolsonaro’s government introduced provisional measure 910, which intended to make it possible to regularize up to 6,200 acres anywhere in the national territory through self-declaration documents, dispensing with surveys for areas up to 15 tax parcels, making things significantly easier for grileiros.

Provisional measure 910/19 was not voted on in Congress and lapsed, but its content was partly transferred to draft bill 2.633/20. Bill 510/2021 was also proposed, which is very similar to the previous one. These changes enshrine the “legitimacy” of the fait accompli and encourage new invasions of public lands, with the expectation that they will soon be regularized, giving rise to a perverse cycle of environmental destruction and crime.

The easier that laws make it for a grileiro to obtain documents for the land he plunders, the more worthwhile it becomes for him to invest in the mechanisms to appropriate land on the ground: violence and deforestation.

Digital grilagem

Another change that modernized protocols for stealing public land was the creation of the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR, in the Portuguese acronym), a public electronic registry implemented in 2012 to centralize environmental data on rural properties in an ecological monitoring database. Registration in the CAR database is mandatory throughout Brazil and is self-declaratory in nature – the initial registration is based entirely on a declaration by the occupant of the land. However, not everyone can handle the registration process, since it requires technical knowledge to fill out the documentation and training in cartographic projection systems for the properties: you need to have the resources to pay a technical expert to do the registration and sign off on it.

In the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Territory in Pará, for example, where there have been reports of Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation, almost the entire area is covered by CAR registrations, even though private property is illegal there. The registrations mark the land grabbers’ intention to appropriate the land.

According to public prosecutor Eliane Moreira, although the CAR database was not designed to be a mechanism for recording land titles, valid ownership of the registered property has always been presumed. “It turns out, however, that in practice this assumption has been cast aside and CAR has gradually become a tool for land grabbing,” she said.
A case study of how land grabbers have used the CAR database – and parceling, strawmen, and land tenure regularization as well -is found in a 2016 advertisement for a 247,100- acre farm in the municipality of Jacareacanga, in Pará state. The seller, through the marketplace site OLX, brazenly put on the market a section of public land 40 times larger than the constitutional limit for the transfer of federal land without authorization from Congress: “It’s an area of tranquil, peaceful ownership and Geo [georeferencing] is underway, to be followed by registration with CAR and application for the definitive title and subsequent permanent deed. The area is being broken up into sections of up to 3,700 acres for the Legal Land [Program] project.”

The grileiro had no shame in announcing on a public forum that his immense land grab would be divided into smaller parcels, calculated to remain within the size limit for the Legal Land Program. And, it should be noted, the CAR registry was once again used as a step in the process of fraudulent land titling.

When they can be applied to stolen land, then legitimate, legally established tools such as tax collection, land registration, and the CAR database itself give the crime of grilagem a veneer of legality.

* Maurício Torres is a social scientist, professor, and researcher. He works at the Federal University of Pará and studies territorial conflicts in defense of small-hold farmers and traditional peoples.

This article was originally published in the booklet handed out in May 2023 to the participants of the first meeting of the Micélio – Forest Journalist Training Program, held in the Xingu Extractive Reserve, in Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon. Micélio is an initiative of SUMAÚMA – Journalism at the Center of the World, with the support of the Moore Foundation and the Google News Initiative. SUMAÚMA thanks the community that welcomed it.

Report and text: Maurício Torres
Illustration for Mycelium: Hadna Abreu
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
English translation:Maria Jacqueline Diane Whitty
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Copyediting and finishing: Natália Chagas
Editorial workflow: Viviane Zandonadi
Editor-in-chief: Talita Bedinelli
Editorial director: Eliane Brum

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