Paradox of Abundance, Need for Reform


By Mario Osava

Inter Press Service
August 5, 2003

Brazilian agriculture today finds itself in an apparently contradictory position: production is among the most competitive in the world but the agrarian reform movement continues to gather strength amidst violent land disputes.

Brazilian agriculture today finds itself in an apparently contradictory position: production is among the most competitive in the world but the agrarian reform movement continues to gather strength amidst violent land disputes.

Tensions have heightened in recent weeks with the Landless Workers' Movement (MST - Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) and other peasant groups invading haciendas they consider unproductive. In pushing their demands for land to farm, they are expanding their encampments in fields and along rural roads throughout the country. These land occupations, in addition to reports that armed militias are being formed and that big landowners are hiring private security firms to protect their property are feeding fears that violent confrontations will erupt once again. In the first half of this year, 20 peasants were killed in land disputes. Last year, there were 43 such murders, according to the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).

But on another front, the Ministry of Agriculture this year is celebrating a harvest of 120.2 million tonnes of grains, 24.2 percent more than yields in 2002. Brazil's production of grains -- cereals, legumes and oil seeds -- has doubled since 1990, even though the total cultivated area in the country grew just 14.8 percent. This explosion in output allowed the agricultural sector to increase exports dramatically and achieve a trade surplus of more than 20 billion dollars a year -- helping to improve the South American giant's foreign accounts in general.

If this pace continues, within 10 years Brazil could replace the United States as the world's leading food producer, according to calculations by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Given this context, in a country as competitive as Brazil there is no justification for agrarian reform, says Antonio Ernesto de Salvo, president of the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation of Brazil, which represents large farmers and ranchers and big agri-business.

Furthermore, the Brazilian countryside is divided into four million properties, more than double the U.S. total, and rural poverty is concentrated in small landholdings, De Salvo told IPS. "We already have an excess of small farms." All that is needed, he says, is to create mechanisms to ensure "access to land for those who have the vocation of farmer. There cannot be land problems in a country with a territory of 8.5 million square kilometres," even if a large portion is set aside for environmental preservation.

De Salvo accuses the MST of being a "Marxist organisation" that takes advantage of the poor, mobilising the rural and urban unemployed with the objective of "taking over power", just like -- he says -- the guerrilla groups in Colombia, the Zapatistas in southern Mexico and Shining Path in Peru.

MST, a group that dates back to 1984, does in fact use revolutionary rhetoric "against the latifundium (large landed estate)". The movement's long marches down rural roads, land invasions and symbols -- red flags, machetes and farm tools -- apparently make large landowners nervous.

However, MST does not have armed groups and it has garnered broad popular support -- even in the cities -- by defending the proliferation of small landholdings as a means to develop family-based farming, not communal farms.

The movement's "occupations", as its leaders refer to the invasions of haciendas, are generally limited to lands that are unproductive and therefore not serving "a social function" of production, as defined by the Brazilian constitution. The landless activists demand that the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government establish settlements for a million families during his four-year term, with priority going to the 120,000 families that are today camped on occupied lands or along rural roads "awaiting land to farm." Sworn in as president Jan. 1, Lula is a founder of the leftist Workers' Party (PT), which includes a faction that maintains strong links to the MST.

The peasant settlements goal is viable, "all that is needed is the political will" to set them up, Joao Pedro Stédile, one of the MST national coordinators, told IPS, reacting to economists' opinions that the government does not have the resources to carry out the ambitious plan.

The annual resources needed for the MST proposal are the equivalent of just 10 days of interest on the public debt being paid to the banks, says Stédile, an economist himself. Agrarian reform is needed in Brazil to fight inequality, poverty and hunger, historically generated by the concentration of land in the hands of a few, according to the MST mission. Stédile says that just one percent of rural landowners own 46 percent of Brazil's cultivable land. And this concentration has been intensified in recent years, while the number of peasants needing land has been growing every day, now reaching 4.8 million families in this country of 172 million people, adds the MST leader.

"The time has past for the classic agrarian reforms of early capitalism," because merely distributing land will not solve the problem, acknowledges Stédile. He supports an approach that he defines as "the people's reform", which in addition to distributing land promotes small agri-business in the settlements, technical assistance and education adapted to the rural reality. "Without these four factors, it will be a failure," just as it has been until now, he says.

Antonio Buainin, professor at the University of Campinas (near Sao Paulo) and author of several studies about family farming, argues that big commercial agriculture and agrarian reform are not mutually exclusive propositions. The Brazilian development model has favoured large-scale agri-business, which became "very dynamic and competitive," but concentrated land ownership and wealth among the few, reduced the need for labour and pushed the rural population towards the cities, said Buainin in an IPS interview.

All of this "generates economic inefficiency," he says, because it excludes many people from the market and has negative social consequences, such as fuelling urban violence. Agrarian reform can foment development that is "more distributive and equitable, without affecting big agri-business, but rather coexisting with it and supporting it," by diversifying production, creating employment and expanding the market, all of which favours economic growth, Buainin says.

Agrarian reform, in his opinion, is an economic necessity, not a social programme for reducing poverty, as some people argue, underestimating the productive role of small farmers in today's world of technologically advanced and competitive farming.

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