Foreigners control at least 17,000 hectares of protected land in Brazil

About 59% of this land belongs to Fiat; lawyer warns of underreporting and analyzes the special interests behind it all

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Fiat is one of the entities responsible for the maintenance of the Peruaçu National Park - Faagoncalves

Foreign individuals and legal entities formally control 17,300 hectares of conservation units (UCs) in Brazil. The figure, obtained via the Access to Information Law, reveals that a total of 39 areas of conservation are registered to 27 individuals and six different legal entities.

Only lands that were leased or purchased were taken into account. In other words, UCs and state or national parks which the private sector is allowed to exploit for tourism, for instance, were left out.

To assist with the interpretation of the data and contextualize it, Brasil de Fato interviewed socio-environmental lawyer and member of the Grains for Latin America organization, Larissa Packer.

Her first consideration is about how cases of such acquisitions are underreported.

"These figures refer to foreigners or Brazilian legal entities that followed the procedures required by law, requested authorization from the Ministry of Agriculture and hold public deeds", she explains.

For the sake of comparison, she recalls that a much larger area, about 750 thousand hectares, has been in acquisition since 2008 by a private pension fund for university professors in the United States (TIAA-CREF), and by the Harvard University investment fund.

The National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) recognized in May 2019 that, although Brazilian companies were used to finalize the purchase of land, it was the two foreign funds that were behind the negotiations.

"These tricks make foreign land acquisitions go underreported," she emphasizes.


The conservation units (UCs), according to Law 9,985 / 2000, are “territorial spaces and their environmental resources, including jurisdictional waters, with relevant natural characteristics, legally instituted by the public power, with conservation objectives and defined limits, under a special administrative regime, where appropriate safeguards to uphold the law apply”.

All the areas that are part of Brasil de Fato's survey allow for the regularization of individual plots of land, and are in compliance with current legislation.

With 99.99% foreign capital, Fiat Automóveis S.A. - a subsidiary of the Italian automaker - leads the tally obtained from the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra). The company has 10,356 hectares in Itacarambi, located in the state of Minas Gerais, in an area called Fazenda Vargem Grande Pitanga.

Itacarambi is one of three municipalities that host the Cavernas do Peruaçu National Cave Park, a UC created in 1999 with Fiat’s participation.

At the time, the company signed a Conduct Adjustment Term (TAC) with the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), after being fined for emitting pollutants outside of acceptable standards in a car factory. As a form of environmental compensation, Fiat committed itself to acquiring land in the area to create the Peruaçu reserve, in addition to maintaining the Park's infrastructure.

The other five legal entities with one or more foreign partners that officially control UCs in Brazil are:

Al-Wabra Empreendimentos e Participações Ltda, with 2,380 hectares and 99.99% foreign capital (Qatar).

Biosev Bioenergia S.A., with 557.6 hectares and 95% foreign capital (Netherlands).

Estaleiro Itajaí, with 282.8 hectares and 78.73% foreign capital (Spain).

International Paper do Brasil, in Três Lagoas, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where they own two farms: Barra do Moeda Farm, Gleba A, with 39.4 hectares; Barra do Moeda Gleba B Farm, with 21.3 hectares. 99.99% foreign capital (United States).

Baden Baden Hotéis e Turismo Ltda, with 7.7 hectares and 55% foreign capital (several nationalities).


"Firstly, the price of land, which is cheaper, due to restrictions on use," she points out. "Secondly, because through land regularization Law 13.465, environmental services are now effectively considered as land cultivation".

In December 2020, the Chamber of Deputies approved legislation 5.028 / 19, which creates the National Policy of Payment for Environmental Services (PNPSA).

This program will financially compensate businesses for the maintenance, recovery or improvement of areas considered conservation priorities.

The proposal, which is awaiting presidential approval, "authorizes the issuance of titles on environmental services, including carbon sequestration, and their possible commercialization in international markets", warns the socio-environmental lawyer.


In December 2020, the Senate approved Bill 2,963 / 2019, which eases the rules for land acquisition by foreigners. Among other measures, the proposal that will be up for a vote in the Chamber of Congress, authorizes foreign individuals or legal entities to purchase up to 25% of the land in Brazilian municipalities.

The current legislation, from 1971, only allows the acquisition of land by foreigners residing in Brazil, companies already authorized to operate in the country or Brazilian companies whose majority stake belongs to foreigners.

Although president Jair Bolsonaro has signaled on social media that he is against the project, this does not mean that Brazil is stopping the transnationals' attacks on Brazilian lands. After all, the sanctioning of aforementioned legislation 5028/19, would guarantee “indirect access” to land by foreign capital.

The Forest Code already authorizes the possibility of trading, within the environmental services market, carbon and biodiversity credits. “This no longer infringes on the social and environmental function of the land, since providing environmental services, even without anything being produced on the land, is now considered effective cultivation, and unused plots of land favor speculation”, warns the lawyer.

How Bolsonaro sees the issue

Larissa Packer analyzes that Bolsonaro's stance against the loosening of regulations is in line with the historical positioning of the Armed Forces. On the other hand, the expert believes the president is under pressure from the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (FPA) to allow for the commercialization of natural resources.

In her interpretation, there are two different camps in Brazilian agribusiness: the first, linked to the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), is the most truculent, betting on income from land grabbing and deforestation; the second, more “modern” camp, is represented by the FPA, and welcomes requirements of environmental adequacy based on global value chains, which leads the financial system to defend environmental safeguards.

“Since 2009, around the Climate Change Convention, we have been using financial mechanisms that make it economically viable and assist with costs, in an effort to incentivize producers to stop their agricultural commodities from advancing into forests. Therefore, the forest has to incorporate economic value”, she explains.

“Bolsonaro takes office, completely unaware of these market structures. Today, he understands more. For this reason, the government insists that Brazil already has enough protected areas. In other words, we are not going to increase the number of conservation areas: we have an environmental asset that we are going to add value to by introducing it to the international market”, adds Packer.

This means that legal reserves, permanent protection areas (APPs) and UCs that already exist would be authorized to generate carbon credits, and these areas would start to attract transnational companies that need to “offset” their pollutant emissions elsewhere on the planet.

This will be one of the topics under discussion at the 2021 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, also known as COP26, which will be held in the United Kingdom in November. Brazil, contrary to the historical position of its diplomatic corps, today defends selling out forests as an alternative to destruction and scarcity.

In the US, for example, after a series of devastating wildfires in the state of California, water bonds are beginning to be traded on the financial market. The same trend could be applied to Brazilian ecosystems.

“If the huge fires that occurred in Brazil in 2020 happen again, the higher the value of the cubic meter of water, the ton of carbon and the environmental reserve quotas (CRAs), which represent one hectare of native vegetation”, concludes the lawyer.

Officially, according to the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra), 3.98 million hectares of Brazilian agricultural land belong to people of other nationalities, foreign companies or Brazilian companies constituted or controlled by foreigners. Most of them are concentrated in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Mato Grosso.

Edited by: Leandro Melito