Brazil court halts government land reform program over abuse

By Reese Ewing SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian court has ordered the government to suspend its agrarian reform program, citing evidence that instead of helping the poor it was used to hand out free land to thousands of politicians, business owners and wealthy individuals. The TCU, as the country's audit court is known, was unanimous in its criticism of the flagship reform program during a plenary on Wednesday, calling for a "complete restructuring" of the agency responsible for settling impoverished Brazilians on farmland. The decision to halt the program marks another blow to the government of leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing impeachment proceedings over allegations of concealing fiscal overruns in the federal budget. Rousseff's possible ouster comes as Brazil's is locked in a crisis fueled by a massive corruption scandal involving state-run oil company Petrobras and a widening investigation that has reached her inner circle. The National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, or INCRA, was set up in 1970 to help narrow the wealth gap in Brazil, one of the world's worst, by reallocating to the poor idle or under-utilized land, which is still disproportionately in the hands of the rich. The court estimated in a 72-page report seen by Reuters that since 2014 more than 479,600, or a third, of all allotments of land across Brazil's 26 states and the federal district were improper and could cost taxpayers as much as 41 billion reais ($11 billion). INCRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The most glaring example of corruption and abuse at the land reform agency, which the TCU investigated by cross-referencing landowners' social security numbers, included 1,017 politicians that had received free land. The court did not name the individuals, but said one federal senator and four mayors were among the politicians who received land meant for the poor. There were also more than 36,000 land grants to people who were dead, according to the TCU. It said irregular land distribution was concentrated in areas where most of the country's agricultural expansion is occurring, namely Mato Grosso, Para and other northern and northeastern states near the Amazon. The court was also able to cross reference motor vehicle registrations, turning up recipients of land who were also owners of luxury cars, including a Porsche Cayenne GTS, a Range Rover and a BMW X5 Diesel. The Porsche Cayenne was valued at 460,700 reais ($127,000), according to its registration. (Reporting by Reese Ewing; Editing by Tom Brown)