Stocky, brown, rough hands, a thick graying beard, a face aged beyond its years, Milton Lopes Rodrigues looks on proudly at his smoldering pile of ash.

What’s so special about ash you might ask? It’s his.

With that, another section of the Amazon rainforest went up in smoke. But who is really to blame? The Brazilian government was offering fertile land for free. Rodrigues was part of a stampede of landless people flooding the Amazonian state of Rondonia. Rodrigues’s story is all too common. By 1992, more than 14 million acres of rainforest in Rondonia was gone. The process has voraciously continued for the last 22 years. At that time, Brazil had started a massive homesteading project. Colonists had already commenced settling an area that could eventually be 4 and a half times the size of Texas.

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2-images-rain-forrest-webOught we blame the homesteaders for chopping down the rainforest? What could be driving them to do this? What’s odd about this is that there is plenty of fertile non-rainforest farmland that remains fallow, ready to use. In 1996, Brazil’s agricultural census reported that half of the farmland, again non-rainforest land, was owned by less than 1% of the population and that around 80% of this farmland remained uncultivated. This Latifundia style of land ownership, a term harking back to Roman Feudal tenure, is still pervasive in Brazil today.

The average landless Brazilian’s future is bleak. Either live in the lawless favelas (shanty-towns), join others in illegal squatting with the Landless Peoples’ Movement, or destroy the rainforest, as Mr. Rodrigues was forced to do. As Brazil urbanizes, like most of the impoverished world, the fight for space in cities becomes even more cutthroat. The opening line in the video above reads “São Paulo has more empty buildings than people living on the streets.”

One group of squatters occupy abandoned buildings in the center of São Paulo. These buildings sit vacant not because anything is wrong with them, but because of a coordinated effort among landowners to create a posh financial and shopping district by purging the area of poor people. The landlords can sell for huge profits if taxpayer monies are used to make their land more valuable in this manner. Meanwhile, people are forced to look for jobs and housing elsewhere. There are a small number of success stories. One building on Mauã street sat vacant for 17 years, until 237 families claimed squatter rights.

What we need is more sharing of space. If land ownership were not so concentrated in the hands of a few elites, there would be no need for Rodrigues to destroy the rainforest or young people to join marauding gangs in the favelas.

Blame doesn’t lie with the poor. It lies with a system that incentivizes hoarding land.

Is there a better way?

Save the people to save the rainforest.

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For the better part of a muggy summer, I was cooped up in a dingy molecular biology lab at Cape Town University


Kind people around the world want to help those born into poverty and misery. What happens though when we treat the symptoms of a problem while ignoring its cause?


Cigar smoke wafts through the doorway as you enter the room.