1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

Who Owns the Amazon?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 by


Is the Amazon ours? In order for us to answer this question it is necessary to define three points: who exactly are "we," what is "the Amazon," and what does it mean to "own" something?

To establish the "we," let us begin by determining what we understand to be the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest is the second-largest biome in the world, which extends along the area of nine different countries. But to confine the we to Brazilians only, let us delimit the Amazon to the portion of the forest within Brazil's borders. Having said that, can we say that each one of the persons being born within the Brazilian state owns (or is a shareholder of) a gigantic area of this forest?

Let us now tackle the third point: How do we become the owners of something? There are three ways of acquiring proprietorship over something: (1) to buy it, (2) to receive it as a gift, or (3) to appropriate a previously unowned resource (homestead). In order for one to appropriate something unowned it is necessary to establish an objective bond with the resource in question; or, in the words of John Locke,

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to.[1]

Thus, what objective bond have a waiter from Chui, a fisherman from Santos, a politician from Brasilia, or even a Manaus dweller established with all of the Amazon rainforest on Brazilian soil? None. Furthermore, not only has no single Brazilian citizen "mixed his labour" with the majority of such resources, but neither has any other person on the planet, since in reality a large part of the forest has never been touched by human beings. The forest is a vast and empty demographic area, a green desert.


So does the Amazon belong to the Brazilian state? In fact, the Brazilian government possesses the territory where the Amazon rainforest is located. But does it legitimately own this area? The difference between possession and ownership can be illustrated by the example of a person who stole a watch and walked away unpunished. The thief does possess the watch, but the property remains owned by the victim, who has the right of reclaiming it if the thief is caught.

The possession of the territory under the Brazilian government domain started to be delineated even before the "discovery" of Brazil, in 1494, two years subsequent to the discovery of America by Columbus. The Treaty of Tordesillas stipulated that lands located in the unexplored region of the planet near Brazil belonged to the Kingdom of Portugal. Logically, such a stipulation did not take into consideration which portions of this land were already occupied at that period of time. Before 1500, there were urban complexes in the Amazon housing up to 50,000 inhabitants; and, even if it had been an empty continent, no person — not even a king — could claim legitimate ownership over a resource he had not even found yet. This is known as the "Columbus complex":

Some theorists have maintained — in what we might call the "Columbus complex" — that the first discoverer of a new, unowned island or continent can rightfully own the entire area by simply asserting his claim. (In that case, Columbus, if in fact he had actually landed on the American continent — and if there had been no Indians living there — could have rightfully asserted his private "ownership" of the entire continent.) In natural fact, however, since Columbus would only have been able actually to use, to "mix his labor with," a small part of the continent, the rest then properly continues to be unowned until the next homesteaders arrive and carve out their rightful property in parts of the continent.[2]

The current Brazilian borders were defined through a series of similar treaties signed between governments.

It is clear, then, that the Brazilian government is not the legitimate owner of the forest area it declares to be under its domain. Therefore, when one speaks about the "Amazon privatization," one is defending an illegitimate arrangement as aforementioned, since no one can sell that which has never been owned and which is not occupied by any person. The privatization scenario, where the current state possession moves to private hands, can appear attractive to libertarians, but it would enable the government to sell private individuals vast unoccupied areas — no doubt to relatives or allies of politicians — who would not, and could never, come to establish an objective bond with the land.[3]

During the American colonization, there was an analogous situation to the Amazon privatization. Britain declared itself the owner of the North American territory and the settlers

had to buy the land at prices far higher than the zero price that would have obtained without the engrossment by the government and its pet grantees. Of course, the settlers still had to spend money immigrating, clearing the land, etc., but at least no arbitrary cost would have been imposed on top of these expenses.[4]

Consequently, neither the government nor private individuals can sell unoccupied lands. All the state could do in this question is get out of the way and recognize the property rights of the people who occupy the areas, which are, today, under the possession of the state.


The motto "The Amazon is ours" seems to have always been around, but in distinct ways. During the '60s and the '70s, the military in power had an idea that contained many of the aforementioned elements. With the notion that an unoccupied land is an ownerless land, they took measures to stimulate settlement in the Amazon region, opening roads and granting tax exemptions. That is, the government declared that whoever moved to the middle of the forest, far away from large consuming centers and exporting channels, and founded enterprises, would be stolen from to a lesser extent than they would be in other localities in Brazil.

Manaus, which was decadent and increasingly unoccupied since the end of the rubber-boom period, became once again a focus of migration, thanks to the Manaus Free Zone, where today 1.8 million people live. The roads built by the government provided access to previously inhospitable areas. This arrangement facilitated the extraction and appropriation of the natural resources in that region. Curiously, it is exactly what the same state currently fights against.[5]

Bear Grylls
Bear Grylls, protagonist of the series Man vs. Wild, also from the Discovery Channel, struggles to survive in the middle of the Amazon.

Formerly, the jungle was considered what it really is: an enemy to be tamed. Nature in its brute state is only valuable after man occupies it and works the land, transforming or extracting resources from it — what then becomes wealth, used to improve people's standard of living. But, today, an ecological wrath seems to have taken over the whole world, and the people — obviously in their comfortable homes in urban areas — have a fixed idea in their minds that that which has not yet been touched by man must remain in that condition. The reason behind it? We'd better not even ask.

A very popular belief in the past, and still held as sacred, is that the Amazon must be preserved because it is the "world's lung" — implying the forest is responsible for the oxygen production in the atmosphere, and thus responsible for life on earth. Anyone who recalls science lectures in school knows that plants carry out the photosynthesis process during the day (exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen) and breathe 24 hours a day (exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide). Forests do not produce oxygen, which is great, since an increase in the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere could mean the end of life on earth. It is a fact that for over 1 million years, the concentration of atmospheric gases has remained stable, with 76.5 percent nitrogen, 20.5 percent oxygen, and 1 percent other gases, besides 2 percent water steam.

However, nowadays it seems the predominant ghost is global warming — the Amazon Rainforest would prevent the earth's temperature from rising, because it would reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But we are provided with no explanation; as we have just reminded the reader, plants, too, produce carbon dioxide. There is also no explanation as to how a gas that comprises only 0.03 percent of the atmosphere can drastically increase the earth's temperature.[6] A while ago, scholars maintained that if the Amazon disappeared, the world would face a new ice age.[7]

Furthermore, if forests exert such an influence on the earth's temperature, why didn't it experience a dramatic variation (upward or downward) in the last 8,000 years, a period in which there was a more than 75 percent reduction in primary forests' areas, and the total area covered by forest diminished 40 percent? It is hard to believe the remaining 60 percent has this vital importance resting in it, as if life on the planet depended on the forestland left. Notwithstanding, there are studies about an anthropogenic origin of the Amazon Rainforest, and recent deforestations led to the discovery of geoglyphs that date back to the 13th century, indicating that, a few centuries ago, that very region could have been a grassland similar to the tropical savanna.

Another quixotic argument that usually emerges is that the Amazon fauna and flora possess properties yet unknown to man, and, therefore, must be preserved — "the cure for cancer might lie in the Amazon!" To begin with, this could be an argument in favor of maximal exploitation of the forest's resources, and not for its "immaculate maintenance." He who holds such a belief can head right now to the middle of the forestland and collect "these riches." In order for us to prove such an argument does exist, let us provide an example. The recent television series by the Discovery Channel, entitled Battle for the Amazon, justified this view by citing that a "possible cure to the Chagas disease had been found in the poison of the Bothrops jararaca."

There is only one problem with this argument: this reptile can be found from the north of Mexico to Argentina! Even if it were an exclusive Amazon reptile, we would have a reason to capture and research every species in the region at a place like the Butantan Institute (preferably not linked to the government), and not to leave an area of oceanic dimensions untouched.

And it is with these kinds of justifications that the government works hard to reduce everyone's standard of living. IBAMA forbids deforestation in an area granted to the government by the "Columbus complex," and the Federal Police attacks and kidnaps human beings for having extracted so-called illegal wood, and arrests miserable men for capturing animals in the forestland — what has been termed "wild-animals trafficking."

Lew Rockwell makes a succinct analysis of this environmentalist wrath: "It's as if the socialists discovered that their plan creates poverty, so they decided to change their name to environmentalists and make poverty their goal." Along the same line of reasoning, Jeffrey Tucker writes,

Are you seeing the pattern here? Government planning was never a good means to do anything, but at least there was a time when it set out to bring progress to humanity. It was the wrong means to achieve the right goal. Today, government planning is working as a maliciously effective means to achieve the wrong goal: I mean by this that if there is anything that government is actually good at doing, it is destroying things.

The famous philosophical question "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?" could be adapted to our discussion to read, "If a tree remains in the forest and no one is around, is it really there?"


No, the Amazon isn't ours. Whoever catches it gets to keep it. And he'd better enjoy it well, transforming unused resources into goods demanded by people, varying from ecological parks to sandal ornaments.


[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Portuguese edition), V. pp. 409–10, (Martins Fontes, 1998)

[2] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, chap. 8, Ludwig von Mises Institute.

[3] This occurred with Fernando de Noronha, who received in the captaincies system a few islands that today take his name, but never really settled there. Even still, the possession of the islands passed on to the subsequent generations of de Noronha's descendants. After being occupied by Frenchmen and Dutchmen, the Portuguese retook the island in 1737, transforming it in a prison-island that functioned until 1942. Today, the Brazilian state controls the whole archipelago, allows a few people to operate hotels and shops there, controls the number of people permitted to visit the island, and charges each and every visitor R$40 per day for just being there.

[4] Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, vol. I, p. 150.

[5] According to the environmentalist entity WWF, roads have been great promoters of deforestation, and, in the Amazon, 75 percent of deforestation occurred in large stretches along the asphalted roads.

[6] Wikipedia informs us that the contribution to the greenhouse effect by a gas is affected by both the characteristics of the gas and its abundance. For example, on a molecule-for-molecule basis methane is about 72 times stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame but it is present in much smaller concentrations so that its total contribution is smaller. When these gases are ranked by their contribution to the greenhouse effect, the most important is water vapor, with 36–72 percent contribution. The carbon dioxide came only in second with 9–26 percent contribution.

[7] The environmentalist and Brazilian secretary of the environment from 1990 to 1992, José A. Lutzenberger, used to say,

Today there are fantastic instruments which allow us to see the globe in its entirety. If we go to INPE (National Institute for Spatial Research), in São José dos Campos, or even NASA, we can see on the computer screens the image of the Planet as a whole, with the Amazon in the center, and all the movement of this mass of clouds.…

If we look at these satellite images again, showing the air currents which leave the Amazon heading South and North, we realize that, if they disappear, we will face a new Ice Age in Europe and maybe here in the extreme South. Therefore, it is futile to say, as our governors and mainly our military wish, that which we do to the Amazon is nobody's business but ours. Quite the contrary, it is everybody's business indeed. It is the Planet's business, a vital organ of the living being called Gaia, namely the Earth. We can no longer keep destroying the Amazon. It must be stopped. We need to rethink our concepts. Also because, under a purely economical standpoint, that is plunder.