Amazonian Land-Grabbing has a Historical Precedent – It Must have a Modern Solution

The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down most of the world, bringing economic growth to an almost universal standstill. However, with the eyes of the world turned to ‘second waves’ and vaccines, illegal logging and land-grabs in the Amazon have boomed. Data from the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE) deforestation detection systems indicate a 64 per cent increase in deforestation alerts in April 2020 compared to the same month last year.

These developments are not surprising given the rhetoric used by Jair Bolsonaro, with pledges to expand the “economic utilisation” of Amazonia. Bolsonaro is not merely paying lip service to the powerful, extractive industries operating in the Amazon. Recent legislation has replaced a directive that serves to recognise the rights of private corporations over formerly public land in the Amazon, and thereby enable further de-forestation and exploitation. Commodity corporations such as Cargill, JBS and Mafrig are associated with illegal deforestation and exploitative cattle ranching which are still contributing to the destruction of over 200,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest every day. Worse still, budget cuts to the National Indian Foundational in Brazil, (Funai), have curtailed its ability to agitate for Indigenous causes; its reduced presence has enabled the continued depredations of extractive industries.

The structures of informal land ownership and enclosure which support such a tragedy of the commons are nothing new. Marx first identified such practices in the English enclosure movement from the 15th to the 19th centuries, during which period private individuals enclosed portions of formerly public land in the name of development and progress. There are striking similarities identifiable between the two periods: large-scale displacement and impoverishment of rural workers; erosion of the ancient culture of common land ownership; and violent clashes. These ‘land-grabbers’ sought to take advantage of supposedly under-utilized and under-productive areas, commodifying land and centralising its ownership in the hands of the few. We see the legacy of such practices in the vast, intensively managed farms of East Anglia, and especially in the sprawling Scottish Highland Estates. Some estimates suggest that fewer than 500 people own over half of the private land in Scotland.

However, there is hope. Individuals such as Alan Watson Featherstone of the Findhorn Foundation and Anders Holch Polvsen are embarking on a program of re-wilding across Scotland, creating wildlife corridors to help facilitate the recovery of the natural world. Watson Featherstone for his part is engaged in reforesting 1,000 square miles – some 10 per cent of the Highlands. Such principled action from private actors shows that change is possible, and that private enterprise is not necessarily the enemy. The development of land following the English enclosure movement indicates that investment in technology and industry can swell the yields from the appropriated land. Increasing yields from smaller parcels of land is a crucial way of reducing the area we need to farm, and therefore curtailing the destruction of our largest naturally occurring terrestrial carbon sink. Indeed, vertical farming is fast becoming a realistic future, led by the Netherlands who are now the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, despite their small geographical size.

This is a future the governments of the world must support. In doing so, they must challenge the permissions granted by Bolsonaro for the ‘utilization’ of the Amazon. Scarily, Reuters have found that as of two months ago, the Brazilian President’s popularity ratings are at their highest since he took office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this coincided with emergency, 600 reais per month, relief payments made to low-paid, informal workers, often associated with logging companies. Through no fault of their own, these groups frequently have little economic choice other than working with the large corporations who have just had their land claims ratified by the Proposed Law PL-2633/20. Clearly, the socio-economic issues are complex.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of moral imperative and, more importantly, environmental necessity that development ceases in the Amazon. The British government must take a harder stance on the Bolsonaro administration. A petition running from 2017-2019 read; “Demand the EU and UN sanction Brazil to halt increased deforestation of the Amazon”. The British government responded by suggesting that “these issues can be addressed most effectively through dialogue and our bilateral programmes”. This response is totally inadequate. It is the responsibility of such an influential global force to lend its full weight to the defence of natural world, and to agitate for change in international institutions. Yet, since 2012, yearly Amazonian deforestation has doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 square miles per year. The government has shown us that, on occasion, it can mobilise the apparatus of the state to act decisively. It must find the political will to do so now.

Written by Charlie Horlick


Reuters Staff. “Brazil’s Bolsonaro approval rating at highest despite coronavirus: poll.” Reuters. August, 2020.

Jordan, Lucy. “Amazonian Deforestation Soaring while Bolsonaro Administration Weakens Safeguards.” Greenpeace. August, 2020.

Borges, Thais; Branford, Sue. “Bolsonaro’s Brazil: 2019 Brings Death by 1,000 Cuts to Amazon – Part One.” Mongabay. December, 2019.

The Brazilian Report. “Deforestation and Land-Grabbing in the Amazon during Covid-19.” Think Brazil. June, 2020. Fearnside, Philip M. “Brazil’s “land-grabbers law” threatens Amazonia (Commentary.” Mongabay. May, 2020.

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