Grounds for Sustainable Development: Agrarian Society, Elites, and Land Enclosures in Amazonia

Gabriel Suchodolski, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper analyzes how agrarian societies and elites in Amazonia shape our climate future by way of land policy in two Brazilian states. Amazonia is the only “global climate tipping point” directly amenable to human action. Because land grabbing drives deforestation, smallholder land titling—the state’s formal designation of land plots to specific homesteaders—would stifle deforestation by precluding possessory clearings, making occupiers legible and accountable to deforestation restrictions, and providing access to forest-friendly income. Despite long-standing policy, most Amazonian smallholders remain untitled. If land policy implementation is an expected outcome of state autonomy (Scott 1999:49; Evans 1995), state-society alignment of interests (Emigh et al. 2019), or peasant-inclusive politics (Albertus 2021), why would similar land bureaucracies fail where elites and peasant-inclusive coalitions agree with its land titling policy (Pará state) and succeed where elites are uninterested and peasants have little political say (Amazonas state)? I employ comparative-historical analysis to explain land titling differences in Pará and Amazonas. Based on archival and administrative data I show that national development policies in the 1970s kept Pará elites invested in the rural economy but uprooted and insulated Amazonas elites from its rural economy. Based on ethnographic, interview, and archival data, I show that powerful, alternating elite factions in Pará have steered federal land bureaucracies since 2005 and undermined a shared land-titling goal, while Amazonas elites remained relatively aloof from land bureaucracies—which allowed for more titling. I argue that elite power and factional and institutional misalignment eventually weakened the land bureaucracy and undermined land titling in Pará, while rural elite weakness and disinterest allowed for bureaucratic strength and titling in Amazonas. This paper points to how rural elites retain power over bureaucracies and the environment.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 78. Community impacts and economics