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Brazil’s Bolsonaro Hopes Land Titles Will Lure Rural Votes

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks at a meeting with President Joe Biden during the Summit of the Americas, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks at a meeting with President Joe Biden during the Summit of the Americas, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Antônio Luis Durão is a member of a small minority in Brazil: He’s an undecided voter with mere weeks until presidential elections.

Had the vote taken place a year ago, the 61-year-old fruit farmer would have supported Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president who governed between 2003 and 2010. During that period, da Silva’s government granted Durão some rights to farm a 26-hectare (64-acre) piece of land in Porangatu in the heartland state of Goias.

But last month, Durão finally received a title for that same plot, giving him full ownership — with the right to sell — though after 10 years. It also will allow him to apply for a loan from a state-run bank, and he hopes to finance a tractor. He’s also considering rewarding incumbent Jair Bolsonaro with his vote.

“I got in here during the Lula years, and I’m grateful, but there was nothing in place. I think this document will make things better for me now,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “One gave me access 14 years ago, and the other is opening my path to the future.”

Durão’s grant is part of the president’s Title Brazil program, which aims to give ownership rights to some 340,000 people who now live on lands that are either state owned or were privately held but unused. The far-right leader, who is trailing in the polls, is also hoping it will help boost his odds of reelection.

Bolsonaro has often touted the program as a means of settling old disputes, creating legal certainty and weakening the leftist Landless Workers Movement, a key ally of da Silva’s that has long staged occupations of what it considers vacant or unused lands — though there have been far fewer seizures in recent years.

It’s a partial, free-market approach to land reform in a vast nation that since colonial times has seen great inequalities in the distribution of land, with a few farmers and corporations holding enormous expanses while millions toil on small plots to which they hold little if any legal claim.

Title Brazil proceedings usually start with rural mayors who reach out to the federal government on behalf of local farmers. Local officials and farmers sit on regional commissions to evaluate the claims. Only those who had already registered for earlier land reform programs are eligible.

The government’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform says 733 of Brazil’s more than 5,500 municipalities so far have reached agreements to work with the land titles program, though many have yet to distribute any new titles. The AP reached out to 17 municipalities listed by Incra as participants of the program, but only two had the program up and running and offered contacts of beneficiaries.

Bolsonaro’s adversaries claim that the program is a gimmick that will fade as soon as the election is over. While it was announced shortly after he took office in 2019, most of the activity appears to have come in recent months.

They also note that full ownership won’t come until a final review in 10 years — and question whether it will solve the problem of unequal land distribution. saying the small plots are likely to wind up being sold to big landholders eventually.

“These are provisional land titles,” said Alexandre Conceição, one of the leaders of the Landless Workers Movement. He said the administration “wants to destabilize any attempts to lead a land reform in Brazil, now and in the future.”

The president argues his opponents challenge the policy because they fear it will weaken the Landless Workers Movement that he labels as a terrorist organization. Bolsonaro is a staunch agribusiness advocate and frequently invokes individuals’ right to own property.

“With the (land) title, you have access to credit, you increase the value of your property, you become real citizens,” Bolsonaro told a crowd in April in Goias state. “You are no longer in the hands of those who used you as a body of troops to invade property.”

A Datafolha poll on Sept. 1 found that 46% of rural respondents intended to vote for da Silva, while 33% were on the president’s side. Four years ago, going into a runoff against leftist Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro had 36% in the same poll versus 24% for his opponent. The margin of error in both polls was two percentage points.

Rodrigo Sá Motta, a history professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said the government’s policy helps provide access to credit, “but it doesn’t move the ball forward in land regularization and distribution, which is the essence of land reform.” That’s because so far it does not expand land distribution to poor farmers, but only broadens the legal rights of people who already occupy small farms.

“It is more of rhetoric to say they are doing something, that the administration isn’t standing still,” he added.

Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement says about 90,000 families are still seeking lands to grow crops, and very few of those will gain anything from Title Brazil.

But the program is showing signs of resonating with rural voters.

Another beneficiary told the AP she waited for years before finally receiving rights to farm a piece of land during the administration of Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s ally and successor. She’s receiving a title under Bolsonaro — and plans to vote for him, though she spoke on condition of anonymity, because she believes her family would not support her views.

“I don’t like much of what Bolsonaro did, I don’t like the way he expresses himself, but it is true that I see a better future for me and my family because of his support to agriculture,” she said by phone. “I think it is important to be grateful.”