Sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into lands “conquered in exchange for blood,” as Ribeiro puts it, is a risky business. But it’s also profitable when taking into account the amnesty provided by states and the federal government to deforesters and land grabbers through state laws, provisional measures, and bills currently circulating in Congress.
Not even the pandemic, which has led to more than 109,000 deaths in Brazil, has slowed what critics say is the federal government’s impetus to legalize land theft — in other words, the process of land-grabbing. This type of amnesty favors all kinds of illegal operations, and foreign funds also benefit from it.
Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles called COVID-19 an opportunity “to move in the cattle,” and the Bolsonaro administration has rushed to undo environmental protections for the benefit of agribusiness and large investors.
The so-called provisional measure for land-grabbing is now Bill 2633/20, and it could be voted on in Congress at any time. Criticized in detail by various organizations, such as the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) and Imazon, a conservation nonprofit, the bill may provide amnesty for the irregular appropriation of millions of hectares, heighten conflicts, cause an even greater concentration of land in the hands of the few, and drive further deforestation. Changes in the Terra Legal program under the administration of former president Michel Temer already represent a huge gain for criminals.
In Matopiba, state laws already passed or currently being discussed follow the same path. The threat is real, says Larissa Packer of GRAIN. “They are giving amnesty for invasions into public lands, which are then sold at a discount of up to 90% on the prices set by INCRA [the federal land reform agency] 20 years ago. In other words: for free,” Packer says. All this makes the land market in Brazil, as risky as it may seem, very profitable.
According to Packer, the Harvard endowment is “desperate to sell its rotten securities that have large environmental liabilities and are facing lawsuits,” and that includes the lands it owns in Brazil. But if the land is formally regularized by these bills, “then it’s over, the conflict is erased.” The report shows that Harvard has always been aware of the local problems.
In a statement sent by the Harvard Management Company’s press office, the endowment is in general trying to “reposition its portfolio” of natural resources all over the world. Investments deemed unsustainable were reduced from 9% to 4% of the total in the last three years, beginning with the hiring of new a management team that inherited “deeply problematic assets.”
According to the press office, Harvard has already gotten rid of more than $1 billion in such investments, and this year is attempting to sell another $200 million of projects considered “good, but not in compliance” with its current guidelines on sustainable investing.
Daniela Stefano, from Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, visited communities in Piauí and Bahia affected by Harvard’s enterprises. The local reality, she says, includes death threats, the presence of armed guards, arbitrarily built fences, the massive use of pesticides, and the co-opting of local leaders.
Between the cities of Jerumenha and Floriano, in Piauí, the quilombola community of Arthur Passos has experienced real devastation with the arrival of Terracal, the local company representing Harvard. “The lands, kept unproductive, are surrounded by fences and kept under surveillance,” Stefano says. As they lie close to the river, these are the same lands that people used for everything: planting, fishing, raising small animals, and growing fruits and medicinal plants. “Today the community is divided and is in danger of losing its title as a traditional quilombola community,” Stefano says.