Reuters International

By Chris Arsenault

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like his father, Ismael Freitas spent long days cultivating fruit in Brazil's Amazon rainforest on land that was not officially his own.

One of hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers in South America's biggest country without owning a title deed, Freitas lived in fear of being displaced by wealthy developers.

The 30-year-old also worried about finances. Without being able to offer his land as collateral, he couldn't get a loan from the bank.

But everything changed six months ago, when Freitas was given a title deed to his farm under a government programme to improve land rights in the Amazon.

"When I got title I started to see a future and new horizons," Freitas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from his wooden house in northern Brazil.

"Title brought me some security - it's a good feeling to know the land is yours," Freitas said of his farm some 100 kms (62 miles) from Manaus, the Amazon's largest city.

"My plan is to cultivate melons and bananas on a larger scale," he said.

"PEOPLE FEEL SAFER"

Almost half the land in Brazil is owned by just 1 percent of the population, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Inequality in property ownership, a lack of access to land for the poor and insecure tenure are fuelling deforestation, poverty, migration and conflict, USAID said.

In an effort to address some of these problems, the Brazilian government launched a programme in 2009 to give small-scale farmers title deeds.

Since then, about 20,000 title deeds have been issued to farmers in the Amazon under the Legal Land Program, said Larissa Nunes, a Brazilian government spokeswoman.

"Some families wait for decades for the opportunity to regularize their areas and finally become owners of their lands," Nunes said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The people feel safer and more confident to work on the land."

By the end of 2015, nearly 12 million hectares of land - an area about the size of Cuba - had been titled under the programme, according to Brazilian government data.

However the programme is running behind schedule for its goal of issuing 150,000 property titles for 55 million hectares of land by 2017, according to the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), a research group which advises the Brazilian government.

But farmers like Freitas say the state is moving in the right direction given the challenges of surveying territory in the remote, vast Amazon region.

HOW IT WORKS

Freitas said it took three years to get formal ownership of the land which was passed to him by his father.

Government officials had to visit his community to meet residents, collect documents and take measurements and photographs of the land where people had been farming.

Most of the territory farmers in his village had been cultivating were public areas, he said.

These "vacant lands" which essentially do not belong to anyone account for more than 20 percent of Brazil's total territory, according to the CPI.

Getting formal ownership papers to farmers in remote areas is not easy especially in a country without a central land registry.

Instead, there are competing registries run by different municipalities and states, along with the federal government.

About one quarter of the land in the Amazon, territory larger than France and Spain combined, is subject to overlapping ownership claims, said Juliano Assuncao, an economics professor at Pontificia Universidade Catolica in Rio de Janeiro.

"This is why the Legal Land Program is so important," Assuncao told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It creates a "clearing house" where competing claimants to a tract of land can bring their evidence of ownership, he said.

Federal government officials then examine the facts and assign a deed based on who has the strongest case.

CORRUPTION CONCERNS

The process involving federal officials makes it easier for small farmers to argue the case for title to lands they have worked on for years or generations, Freitas said.

Local land registries in the Amazon, in contrast, are seen as more vulnerable to corruption.

Land rights campaigners say powerful agribusiness interests are known to bribe local land registry officials to secure farm ownership, displacing local residents in a process known as "grilagem".

Nunes, the government spokeswoman, agreed that corrupt land deals have been a problem in the Amazon. Officials are working to address it as part of the Legal Land Program, she said.

Formal ownership by small farmers also makes it easier to protect the Amazon's environment as poachers and illegal loggers thrive in areas where no-one holds responsibility for the land, Assuncao said.

As a condition for participating in the programme, Freitas said he has to protect most of the virgin rainforest on his land.

He hopes the programme is expanded so other farmers can benefit.

But a series of corruption scandals in Brazil, including the suspension of President Dilma Rouseff over alleged budget accounting irregularities, have pushed Amazon land rights down the political agenda, analysts said.

"There is so much uncertainty in the federal government right now," said Assuncao, the economist.

"One of my fears is that this programme will receive less attention."

(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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