Land Law of 1850 (Brazil)

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Land Law of 1850 (Brazil)

The Lei de Terra made purchase the only means of acquiring public lands by abolishing the right to acquire legal title through simple occupancy. Containing 108 articles, the law was subject to long debate. Passed on 18 September 1850, it was not published and put into effect until 30 June 1854. The law created a service called the General Bureau of Public Lands (Repartição Geral das Terras Públicas) to control access and promote colonization.

The Land Law represented a reformulation of land policy in Brazil. During the colonial period land was acquired through effective occupation, purchase, inheritance, or donation. Donations (sesmarias) were crown grants of public lands awarded to petitioners in recognition of their service to the crown, or for the purpose of settlement. At independence, donations of sesmarias were abolished and effective occupation, purchase, and inheritance of land became the prevailing forms of acquisition until 1850.

The Land Law vested the ownership of all free land in the state. It confirmed the pre-1850 claims of existing occupants and provided for the official registration and surveying of those claims, upon presentation of proof concerning effective occupation and cultivation. The Land Law limited the size of claims to the dimensions of the largest sesmaria in each district. It required a vast bureaucracy at the local level, since it delegated to police officers and judges the responsibility for informing the government of the existence and location of public lands. It also empowered parish priests to register lands after local civil servants located and measured the claim. Funds from land sales and the registration of private claims were to be dedicated to measuring public lands and defraying the costs of settling European colonists.

According to some interpretations, the intent of the Land Law was to stimulate the occupation and colonization of public lands, while others link the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the passage of the Land Law to a reevaluation of public policy regarding land and labor. In conjunction with a general refocusing of the national economy, from the sugar production of the Northeast to the coffee farming of the Center South, the public regulation of land and labor restricted access to land in favor of the increasing demands of the external capitalist market. The clause that linked the official recognition of claims to a deed of purchase permitted the establishment of a complex bureaucracy to control access to public lands, thus favoring commercial use of land. As a result, the Land Law of 1850 transformed land into a marketable product and legitimized the alienation of unclaimed lands by monied and propertied interests, thereby reinforcing the tendency toward land concentration begun by the sesmarias.

Lack of human resources to implement the registration and measurement of lands, a weak bureaucracy at the local level, and resistance by local landowners contributed to the minor impact the law had on the agrarian structure of the country.

See alsoFazenda, Fazendeiro .


Emília Viotti Da Costa, The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Aguiar, Maria do Amparo Albuquerque. Terras de Goiás: Estrutura fundiária, 1850–1920. Goiânia: Editora UFG, 2003.

Holston, James. Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Silva, Ligia Maria Osório. Terras devolutas e latifúndio: Efeitos da lei de 1850. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 1996.

                           Nancy Priscilla Smith Naro