- Joao Fellet y Charlotte Pamment
- BBC World Service
Protected parts of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are being sold illegally through Facebook.
That’s what a BBC investigation found, revealing that some of the plots on offer through Facebook’s classifieds service are as large as 1,000 football fields.
As a result of this finding, the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil has ordered an investigation into the sale of protected areas of the Amazon rainforest through Facebook.
The Supreme Court, after the investigation, now asks the Brazilian Government to “take appropriate civil and criminal measures.”
Protected areas for sale include national forests Y lands reserved for indigenous peoples.
Facebook said it was “ready to work with local authorities” but indicated that it would not take any independent action to stop the trade.
“Our business policies require buyers and sellers to comply with laws and regulations,” added the Californian technology firm.
The leader of one of the affected indigenous communities urged the tech company to do more.
And, activists say, the country’s government is unwilling to stop the sales.
“Land invaders feel very empowered to the point that they are not ashamed to go on Facebook to do illegal land deals,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, director of the environmental NGO Kanindé.
Anyone can find the illegally invaded parcels by typing words like “forest”, “native jungle” and “wood” (in Portuguese) in the Facebook Marketplace search tool, and choosing one of the Amazonian states as the location.
Some of the listings include satellite images and GPS coordinates.
Many of the vendors openly admit that they do not have a property title, the only document that proves ownership of the land under Brazilian law.
This illegal activity is being driven by the Brazilian livestock industry.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at its highest point in 10 years, and the Marketplace de Facebook has become a reference site for sellers like Fabricio Guimarães, who was filmed with a hidden camera.
“There is no risk of an inspection by state agents here,” he said as he walked through a patch of rainforest that had burned to the ground.
With the land illegally cleared and ready for agriculture, Guimarães had tripled its price initial sale to US$35.000.
Guimarães is not a farmer. He has a steady, middle-class job in a city and sees the rainforest as an opportunity to investment.
The BBC later contacted him to respond to the investigation, but he declined to comment.
Many of the ads were from roundThenia, the most deforested state in the Brazilian rainforest.
The BBC arranged meetings between four state sellers and an undercover agent posing as a lawyer representing wealthy investors.
One man, named Alvim Souza Alves, was trying to sell a parcel within the Uru Eu Wau Wau indigenous reserve for around US $ 23,000 in local currency.
This reserve is home to a community of over 200 people called Uru Eu Wau Wau. And at least five more groups that have had no contact with the outside world they also live there, according to the Brazilian government.
But at the meeting, Alves stated: “There are no Indians [sic] there. From where my land is, they are 50 km away. I’m not going to tell you that at one point or another they won’t be walking around. “
The BBC showed the Facebook ad to community leader Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau.
He said the lot was in an area used by his community to hunt, fish and gather fruit.
“This is disrespectful,” he said.
“I don’t know these people. I think their goal is to deforest indigenous land, deforest what is standing. Deforest our lives, you could say.”
He also said that the authorities should intervene and also urged Facebook – “the most visited social media platform” – to take action on its own.
Change of status
Another factor driving the illegal land market is the expectation of a amnesty.
Alves revealed that he was working with others to pressure politicians to help them legally own stolen land.
“I’ll tell you the truth: if this is not resolved with [el presidente] Bolsonaro there, it will no longer be resolved, “he said about the current government.
A common strategy is deforest the land and then plead with politicians to repeal its protected status, on the grounds that it no longer serves its original purpose.
The land grabbers can then officially buy the parcels from the government, thus legalizing their claims.
Alves took the BBC undercover reporter to meet a man whom he described as the leader of the Curupira Association. Brazil’s federal police described the group as an illegal land grabbing operation focused on invading indigenous territory.
The two men told the reporter that high-profile politicians were helping them organize meetings with government agencies in the capital Brasilia.
They said their main ally was the Congressman Colonel Chrisostomo, a member of the Social Liberal Party, of which Bolsonaro used to be a member until he founded his own party in 2019.
When contacted by the BBC, Colonel Chrisostomo acknowledged helping to organize meetings, but said he was unaware that the group was involved in land invasions.
“They didn’t tell me,” he assured. “If they invaded [la tierra], they no longer have my support. “
When asked if he regretted organizing the meetings, he said: “No.”
The BBC contacted Alves for his response, but he declined to comment.
The BBC also contacted Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.
“The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has always made it clear that theirs is a zero tolerance government for any crime, including environmental ones,” he said.
The government cut inspections budget by 40% Ibama, the federal agency in charge of regulating deforestation.
But Salles said that the coronavirus pandemic had hampered law enforcement in the Amazon and that state governments were also responsible for deforestation.
“This year the government has created Operation Verde Brasil 2, which seeks to control illegal deforestation, illegal fires and join forces between the federal government and the states,” he added.
However, Raphael Bevilaquia, a federal prosecutor based in Rondonia, noted that the situation had worsened under the current government.
“The situation is really desperate,” he said. “The executive branch is playing against us. It is discouraging.”
For its part, Facebook says that trying to clarify which sales are illegal would be too complex a task to carry out themselves, and should be left to the local judiciary and other authorities. And he doesn’t seem to see that the problem is serious enough to justify halting all Marketplace sales of land in the Amazon.
Ivaneide Bandeira, who has been trying to combat deforestation in the state of Rondonia for 30 years, said she was losing hope.
“I think this is a very tough battle. It is really painful to see the forest get destroyed and shrink more and more,” he said.
“Never, at any other time in history, has it been so difficult to keep the forest standing.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.