The Land Question in Amazonia: Cadastral Knowledge and Ignorance in Brazil’s Tenure Regularization Program

Jeremy M. Campbell, Roger Williams University

Document Type Article

Published in: PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review 38(1): 147-67


In the Brazilian Amazon, a questão fundiária (the land question) has been asked and answered in a variety of ways since the region was opened up to large-scale migration and development projects in the 1960s. The question of who is entitled to land and under what conditions is at the heart of most debates concerning the region's future, but recent attempts to reform and simplify rural land tenure in Amazonia confront a history of contradictory land-use policies and a legacy of impunity. In response to economic and demographic pressures, the Brazilian state aims to combat the illicit occupation, sale, and transformation of lands. This article presents an ethnographic approach to the land question in Amazonia by studying the knowledge-making practices associated with the Programa Terra Legal (Legal Land Program), Brazil's effort to create a cadastral registry for rural holdings in the region. It argues that tenure regularization dedicated to securing smallholders’ rights and to instituting environmental regulations is being used by rural elites as a mechanism to accumulate land and power. By showing how a reform program gets remade in the thrall of local interests and vernacular dispositions of property, this article reveals how knowledge both illuminates and obscures subjects of governance.