|Ranger of the newly created Forest Service, c. 1944|
(O Serviço Florestal no Biênio 1943-1944
(Rio de Janeiro: Ministry of Agriculture, 1945))
Brazil during the first Getúlio Vargas regime (1930-1945) produced a boom in conservationist legislation that included a forest code, a new water law, the creation of the country's first national parks, and the establishment of a forest agency and a national institute of forestry. The move by the Vargas regime to implement a conservationist agenda was unprecedented—apart from the establishment of botanical gardens and a few protected semi-urban forests around Rio de Janeiro, previous governments had never acted to establish a conservation program. The change brought by Vargas had its root in a new phenomenon—the appearance on the Brazilian national stage of a cadre of conservationists who were able to align US- and Europe-born ideas of conservation of nature with a nationalist discourse akin to the one put forward by Vargas’s ideologues.
Yet, all the energy invested in environmental legislation failed to change the previous pattern of lack of state commitment to environmental issues. In fact, the new legislation concealed a reality of chronic lack of federal control over both public and private land. Brazil had a long tradition of what historian José Drummond called a “weak hand in controlling the use of associated resources and features, such as soils, ores, water, coasts, flora, and fauna.” After the fall of the Brazilian monarchy and the promulgation of the Republican constitution of 1891, all public land, which had been in control of the Brazilian state in the nineteenth century, was then turned to the hand of state governments. In the Vargas years the Brazilian federal government had almost no public land left to manage besides a handful of federal and military properties and the land alongside railroads.
In the 1930s the federal government not only did not control most of Brazil’s public land but also had no legal instrument to expropriate private land. It was only in 1941 that the central government issued a decree-law granting itself the powers to expropriate land for public interest. This new legislation allowed the federal government to expropriate both private land and public land owned by state or municipal governments. However, it failed to trigger an era of federal intervention in land issues. The regime of Getúlio Vargas, despite being turned into a fascist-leaning dictatorship after 1937, lacked the power to curb the interest of the local agrarian elites.
It was only with the military coup of 1964 that all the public land controlled by the states returned to the hands of the federal government. Thus, from 1891 to 1941, the capacity of the federal government to promote agrarian reform or nature conservation was limited by its legal and political limitation in controlling land. In comparison to other countries, the Vargas administration’s ability to create national parks and enforce much of the conservationist mandate of the new legislation was severely limited. Any attempt from Rio de Janeiro to manage public land was only put in practice before passing through the filter of state governments.