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The inseparable trio: land grabbing, deforestation, and climate crisis


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The inseparable trio: land grabbing, deforestation, and climate crisis

There is overwhelming evidence of a link between deforestation and the climate crisis, and although the figures vary between studies, it is clear that it is responsible for a significant share of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to our investigations at GRAIN, these figures are around 15% – 18% of total emissions (with a total of 44% – 57% from the agri-food system as a whole).[1] A recent Greenpeace report puts greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation at 23%[2] of total emissions, and the latest IPCC[3] reports indicate that emissions from agricultural activity and expansion of agricultural land for the global food system account for between 16% and 27% of all anthropogenic emissions.
However, there has not yet been an in-depth study carried out into the impact of land grabbing on deforestation, and therefore also on climate change, over the last few decades. It goes without saying that buying, renting, or otherwise obtaining land for industrial monocrop production involves clearing vast expanses of forest and other fragile ecosystems such as wetlands and the Brazilian Cerrado, due to the nature of this agricultural model which sees these ecosystems as an “obstacle” to the development of monocropping. Nevertheless, recent reports on deforestation in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina clearly reveal this link, and provide some ballpark figures for one of the regions of the world where land concentration and industrial agriculture and livestock production are most rampant.
In the Atlas of GM Agribusiness in the Southern Cone[4], we highlighted the destruction of more than 2 million hectares per year from the beginning of the 1990s until 2017, ranging from the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay and Argentina. We wrote that “in this region, the expansion of GM agribusiness has given rise to one of the worst cases of land concentration, land grabbing, and takeover of land by foreign interests in Latin America, and indeed the world”.
The situation has worsened over the last few years, as the agribusiness model requires constant expansion of its boundaries, and as a result is now encroaching on the region’s most fragile ecosystems: the Brazilian Cerrado, the Amazon region, and the Gran Chaco. Some data is provided in the next paragraph to demonstrate the scale of the issue and its context: use of illegal mechanisms to take over land for industrial livestock production and farming, violence against local communities, and the complicity of the States in these land grabs.
In the Cerrado region of Brazil, over 850 thousand hectares of biome were destroyed between August 2020 and July 2021, according to the latest report from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a research unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovations (MCTI).[5] Within the Cerrado, the region of MATOPIBA (composed of the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia) has seen the worst increase in deforestation— 61.3% (522,700 hectares) of the total biome destroyed between August 2020 and July 2021 was located in this region.[6] The 2002-2021 Prodes[7] programme, which calculates deforestation in the Amazon using satellites, has declared this a new record; even worse than 2017, when 61.1% of deforestation in the Cerrado took place within the region.
According to the platform MapBiomas,[8] Tocantins and Maranhão, in that order, are the states which have lost most native savannah vegetation over the last decade. This initiative has revealed that in the MATOPIBA region the area of land used for agriculture and livestock production has more than doubled over the last 36 years. Between 1985 and 2020, the Cerrado lost 19.8% of its native vegetation, corresponding to 26,500,000 hectares—an area bigger than Piauí. The expansion of agriculture and livestock production in the biome over the same period almost exactly mirrors this—26,200,000 hectares were given over to this activity. Currently, agriculture and livestock production make up 44.2% of the biome. Ane Alencar, Director of Science at the IPAM[9] (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) states this in clear terms: “For years, MATOPIBA has been one of the regions of the country where most native vegetation has been converted into agricultural land”.
In the Amazon region, deforestation and deliberately started forest fires have also been directly linked to agribusiness and its land-grabbing strategies. In August 2019, a group of landowners hatched a plan to burn an expanse of the Brazilian Amazon forest in the south-western region of the state of Pará, on what became known as the “Day of Fire”. The next year, further to the south, fires started on livestock farms supplying the large meatpacking systems quickly spread and ravaged 4.1 million hectares of the Pantanal wetlands which run along the borders with Paraguay and Bolivia.[10] The “Agro é Fogo” campaign draws a clear conclusion: “Forest fires and deforestation are instruments used for land grabbing (known as “grilagem” in Brazil) which is part of the extension of the capitalist agricultural frontier into the land of indigenous peoples and traditional communities”.
In the north of the Amazon region, in Colombia, livestock farming has developed at such a rate that 1 million head of cattle were added between 2016 and 2019, bringing the total up to 2,021,829. Over these three years, 300,415 hectares were deforested in the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán, Cartagena del Chairá, La Macarena, San José del Guaviare, El Retorno, Calamar, Miraflores, and Solano, all of which are part of this region.[11] The figures on land concentration in Colombia, as in almost all of Latin America, are staggering—according to the 2019 National Agricultural Survey (CNA), 73.8% of the area in hectares is concentrated in 0.2% of the agricultural production units (UPAs).[12] This survey also shows that 77.9% of the total productive area of 50 million hectares is occupied by livestock production activities.
In Argentina, a recent report from LandMatrix[13] reveals that 20,000 hectares were deforested in the Chaco Salteño region in 2020, and that in 2021 public hearings were held for changes of land use for more than 21,000 hectares. These figures are in addition to the deforestation which took place between 2007 and 2017, when the province lost more than 750,000 hectares of native forest. This makes Salta one of the provinces with the highest deforestation rates, and the most forest lost, in the world. In this region, LandMatrix has identified 120 major land transactions (known as GTT, or grandes transacciones de tierra) concerning 22% of the total surface area of the region. The conclusions of this report are that GTTs are driving deforestation and changes of land use in 55% of the 7.2 million hectares which make up the Chaco Salteño.
A downwards spiral of destruction
Land grabbing is clearly contributing to the climate crisis and is generating a spiral of destruction, currently reflected in the severe drought across the Southern Cone and the extreme temperatures and fires which get worse with every year, decimating fragile ecosystems which are already bearing the brunt of agribusiness.
Ending this spiral of destruction is vital, and requires much more than laws to limit the damage. In fact, much of Argentina’s deforestation has occurred over the last decade, despite a Forest Law approved in the first decade of this century after years of pressure from social organisations.
What about planted forests?
The IPCC states in its reports that greenhouse gas emissions are partially “offset by afforestation/reforestation”.[14] However, rather than a true alternative, this is a dangerous message which fuels false solutions to the climate crisis, whilst encouraging another type of land grabbing—acquisition of land for tree plantations.
This perverse argument must be debunked, and debate should highlight the fact that “plantations are not forests”, and cannot replace any of the vital roles forests play in balancing ecosystems, or their contribution to the climate, as the World Rainforest Movement has been repeating for more than two decades.[15]
A few conclusions and next steps
The first conclusion is clear: we must immediately end land grabbing and land concentration by large corporate groups to put a stop to the current climate crisis. It is also urgent to halt the deforestation afflicting the whole region, which as we have seen, is carried out illegally in all countries.
Across the region, there is strong mobilisation at national and regional level to counter the devastation being wreaked. One example of this is the special session of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international peoples’ tribunal based in Rome, on the ecocide taking place in the Cerrado[16]. This was launched in September, in Brazil, by the Campanha Nacional em Defesa do Cerrado (National Campaign in Defence of the Cerrado). When presenting their case, the organisations spoke out against the legitimisation of widespread and intensive plundering and monopolisation of the Cerrado’s land, water, and resources by a handful of corporations from the agricultural and mineral commodity chains, under the pretext that the region is “nobody’s land”, without people nor biodiversity—all in the name of so-called “development”.
The case presented by the Campaign calls for:[17]

  • a stop to the current ecocide against the Cerrado before it becomes extinct.
  • the truth to be told about the ecological and cultural relevance and diversity of the Cerrado and its peoples.
  • preservation of the memories of violence, expulsion, and enclosure of common areas, events which are often passed down by community elders.
  • a stop to the impunity enjoyed by land-grabbers and corporations when violating the rights of populations, and also in the continuous harassment, manipulation, humiliation, and division of communities they use as part of their strategies to manufacture social hegemony.
  • justice and reparations for the conflicts which populations still face and the right to own their land.

The Tribunal has already held its first session on the topic of violations related to access to water, and the rest of the hearings will take place throughout 2022.
It is clear that redistributing land to peasant farmers is the main alternative to help tackle the climate crisis, via agroecological farming methods implemented by peasant farmers, which not only contribute to protecting soil health and biodiversity, but also provide solutions to other crises facing humanity, such as hunger.
It is clear, too, that it is essential to put the brakes on corporate control, in view of the very powerful lobby of politicians, business leaders, and transnational corporations which has emerged with the expansion of monocropping, and which defends and pushes this model. However, this will remain impossible unless progress is made on democratisation processes within society to help us change tack and avert the catastrophe capitalism is leading us towards.

[1]Vía Campesina & GRAIN, Cómo contribuye el sistema alimentario agroindustrial a la crisis climática, 25th February 2015[2]Greenpeace, De esta manera la destrucción de bosques aumenta el cambio climático, 28th April 2020,[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change and the Land. Summary for Policymakers, 2020.[4]Acción por la Biodiversidad, Atlas del agronegocio transgénico del Cono Sur, May 2020,[5]Ecodebate, Supressão vegetação nativa no bioma Cerrado no ano de 2021 foi de 8.531,44 km², 4th January 2022,[6]Ecodebate,Região do Matopiba bate recorde histórico de desmatamento no Cerrado, 7th January 2022,[7]Monitoramento do Desmatamento da Floresta Amazônica Brasileira por Satélite,[8]Mapbiomas,[9]IPAM, Matopiba bate recorde histórico de desmatamento no Cerrado, 5th January 2022,[10]WRM, Bulletin 258, Agribusiness means fire: land grabs, deforestation and fires in the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal biomes, 17th December 2021,[11]COS, La huella de la ganadería en la selva amazónica, 6th April 2021,[12] Razón Pública, Los problemas con las tierras no productivas de Colombia, 2nd November 2021,[13]LandMatrix, Cambio de uso del suelo en las grandes transacciones de tierras de la region del Chaco Salteño, 6th January 2022,[14]IPCC, op.cit.[15]WRM, Plantations are NOT forests, 9th August 2003,[16] Campanha Nacional em Defesa do Cerrado, Tribunal Permanente dos Povos chega ao Brasil para julgar crime de ecocidio contra o Cerrado, 5th September 2021,[17]GRAIN, The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal accepts accusation over Brazilian Cerrado ecocide,

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