BRASILIA A law expected to be approved by Brazil's Congress granting 1.2 million people and numerous companies titles to a huge chunk of the Amazon rain forest could provoke a new wave of land-grabbing and deforestation, conservationists warn.
Over three decades, settlers, farmers and speculators have occupied, stolen and sold state land they did not legally own, fueling the destruction of about a fifth of the world's largest rain forest. Land titles are often nonexistent or fake.
The government says the new bill will benefit impoverished peasants who were encouraged to settle the Amazon during the 1964-85 military dictatorship but were never provided with legal support, public security or financial aid.
"This bill will bring social justice to millions and end violence in the region. It's not a panacea but it's an important step to end this chaos," Environment Minister Carlos Minc told Reuters.
Clear land ownership would improve the implementation of public policies by allowing authorities to impose fines on people or companies that deforest and provide tax incentives for sustainable development, Minc said.
But the bill has provoked outrage among environmental groups, which see it as a major setback to efforts to protect the forest. They say there are contradictions and flaws in the bill that will fuel deforestation.
"Giving away land is an incentive for deforestation, it makes it even cheaper than it already is to clear forest for pasture rather than recover abandoned land," said Brenda Brito, executive director at the research institute Imazon.
The bill, which was approved by the lower house of Congress last week but requires approval in the Senate, would grant more than 1.2 million people land titles totaling nearly 100 million hectares (247 million acres), an area almost the size of France and Spain.
Plots up to 100 hectares (247 acres) are free. Those up to 400 hectares (988 acres) cost little and larger ones will be auctioned or sold directly to claimants.
The distribution of plots will be based on good faith affidavits that people occupy an area. Authorities will not carry out on-site checks of such claims on plots under 400 hectares.
"That is an invitation for countless people to set up camp in the Amazon," said Brito.
Supporters of the bill, which allows individuals to apply for up to 2,500 hectares (6,178 acres) of land, say local residents will act as watchdogs.
"Of course you'll have those trying to finagle the state for a piece of land," said Jose Torres da Silva, representative for the Amazon state of Para in the lower house of Congress. "But rural workers will keep an eye on that."
Conservationists are particularly outraged that the Senate, under pressure from the powerful farm lobby, included companies and large farmers as beneficiaries. The bill grants them special preferences, such as not having to occupy the land themselves and being able to claim several properties.
"I faced pressure from farmers and conservationists and had to compromise," said Asdrubal Bentes, the congressman who sponsored the bill.
Bishops of the influential Roman Catholic Church warned on Thursday the bill could promote new settlements as well as corporate interests.
Loopholes within the bill allow companies to claim land previously occupied by native Indians, rubber tappers and traditional forest inhabitants. They can pay for the land in installments of up to 20 years and can resell it within three years.
"The measure encourages the systematic expulsion of traditional (forest) dwellers," Friends of the Earth said on its web site Amazonia.org.br. "Not even during the military dictatorship was there ever such a broad, explicit and unconditional promotion of land-grabbing," it said.
(Additional reporting by Ana Paula Paiva; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Peter Cooney)