June 26, 2009 / 8:41 PM / in 10 years

Lula signs land law aimed at reforming Amazon

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a law granting more than a million people land titles in huge chunks of the Amazon, aiming to end decades of legal chaos in the world’s largest rain forest.

Aerial view shows farmland next to the Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso state August 9, 2005. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

As a concession to environmentalists, who strongly criticized the law as legalizing land-grabbing and encouraging deforestation, Lula late on Thursday vetoed articles of the bill that would allow companies to take over land.

Over three decades, settlers, farmers and speculators have occupied, stolen and sold state land they did not 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 granting ownership to residents of these areas will reduce illegal land trade and make it easier to police the rain forest. It says the law will also benefit impoverished peasants who were encouraged to settle the Amazon during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship but were never provided with legal support, public security or financial aid.

The new land owners, who will have to pay taxes and follow environmental regulations, are expected to help environmental regulators crack down on squatting and deforestation, as well as fund better enforcement efforts in remote Amazon areas.

The law will likely hand over ownership for 166 million acres (67.4 million hectares) in the Amazon, an area bigger than France, to individuals who can prove they have been occupying the public land since December 2004.

The distribution of plots will be based on good faith affidavits by claimants that they occupy an area. Authorities will not carry out on-site checks of such claims on plots under 990 acres.

Environmentalists, who often criticize Lula for siding with development rather than conservation in the world’s largest rain forest, say those are among the flaws in the bill that make it ripe for abuse.

“It’s not just regulation that will avoid deforestation but how you regulate,” said Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher at the Imazon institute on Amazon conservation.

“If you give land, subsidize and give discounts or long payment periods it makes access very easy and encourages the extensive use of land. It makes it easier to deforest a certain area than to invest to raise productivity.”

To receive title for plots between 1,000 and 3,700 acres, occupants will have to pay market price for the land, which will be defined by the National Land Reform Institute. Claimants can pay for the land in installments of up to 20 years and can resell it within three years.

Reporting by Natuza Nery and Stuart Grudgings; writing by Reese Ewing; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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