Agrarian reform in Brazil
This land is anti-capitalist land
Apr 26th 2007 ASSENTAMENTO MANOEL NETO AND BRASÍLIA
From The Economist print edition
An erstwhile fight to end rural feudalism is becoming a political campaign against agribusiness
EVERY year in April groups who organise Brazil's rural poor, headed by the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (widely known as the MST), sponsor a nationwide bout of land invasions, takeovers of buildings and other protests. Part revolution and part ritual, “Red April” commemorates the killing 11 years ago of 19 landless protestors by police in the Amazonian state of Pará and promotes the martyrs' cause, the redistribution of land.
But nowadays much of the activism seems to have little to do with land reform. This year it included taking over highway toll booths in the southern state of Paraná. Last year a rural women's group destroyed a paper company's research laboratory. In the past the main targets were local land barons. More and more they are big companies, be they Brazilian or foreign, and the “development model” they represent.
Since the 16th century, when the Portuguese crown conceded vast “captaincies” to early colonists, land and power have been distributed unevenly in Brazil. Landlords exploited their tenants' labour and, after democracy arrived, harvested their votes. They often left vast tracts idle. The last agrarian census, conducted a decade ago, found that 1% of owners controlled 45% of farmland.
Agitation for land reform began in the 1960s. The MST was founded in the 1984, as democracy returned after two decades of military rule. It gained clout and sympathy partly as a result of outrages like the Pará massacre. Its activism has helped to change the countryside. Since 1995 governments have settled some 900,000 families—4m-5m people—in farming colonies, though sometimes in appalling conditions. Other changes have little to do with the protests. The countryside has modernised, with old-style landlords yielding to more enlightened heirs or to corporate farmers, for whom land is a business rather than a source of political power.
That has not placated the landless movements. “Agribusiness is the new name” for the alliance between “backward” land magnates and financial capital, says José Batista de Oliveira, a member of the MST's national directorate. The MST is now bent on a Manichaean struggle with agribusiness that it is unlikely to win and that may not do much for land reform.
The movement has become Brazil's most polarising force. Those who regard it as a lawless threat to progress are as passionate as those who extol its championship of the downtrodden. The MST is opaque, with no clear means of support apart from “solidarity”. Insiders say its decisions are “collective”. Zander Navarro, a sociologist at Britain's University of Sussex and a former landless activist, says its internal structure is “very anti-democratic”. He reckons the movement has 1,500 full-time organisers. The MST says that estimate is high but, characteristically, claims not to know the number.
Land reform is not as controversial as the movements that promote it. For some commodities family farms are more efficient than industrial ones because their labour costs are lower. Critics allege that settlers are plucked from cities to which they migrated and end up worse off. But one survey found that 94% of settlers had previous agricultural experience and 79% said their lives had improved.
That seems true of the 86 families at the Manoel Neto settlement, founded in 2006 in São Paulo state. Transplanted to hilly ground in the Paraíba River valley, they hike for water and are trapped by muddy roads when it rains. Marilza Prado, who once worked as a domestic servant, says her family spent three years living under plastic sheeting in camps, surviving on odd jobs. But things are looking up. In December 2,400 reais ($1,200) of federal aid per family for food and investment finally arrived. Mrs Prado has exchanged her plastic shelter for a mud-and-bamboo house, and her husband, Nelson, is getting ready to market the pigs he has raised.
One government programme avoids conflict by offering subsidised credit to poor farmers to buy land in the market. But the more common method is the contentious process of expropriating land that is not fulfilling its “social function”. In practice, that happens mainly in response to noisy trespassing sponsored by the MST.
“Occupation provokes land reform,” admits Guilherme Cassel, the minister of agricultural development. Mrs Prado participated in 11 invasions before gaining her five-hectare (12 acre) patch. Federal aid to the settlers is often channelled through organisations linked to the MST. Angry anti-government rhetoric “hides relations of close co-operation and dependency between the state and the movements,” argues Lygia Sigaud, an anthropologist at Rio de Janeiro's Federal University.
That complex relationship has been even more fraught during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose Workers' Party (PT) is a long-time ally of the MST. Officials boast of settling 381,000 families during Lula's first four-year term (which ended in 2006) and improving conditions. The MST's Mr de Oliveira scorns its efforts as “very timid” and points out that some 140,000 families are still encamped under plastic sheeting awaiting land.
Conflict in the countryside has ebbed but hardly stopped (see chart). For the MST, the demand for land reform is nearly bottomless and the conflict with industrial farming irresolvable. Mr de Oliveira reckons that 5m families—around an eighth of the population—are candidates for land redistribution. “Monocultures” like eucalyptus for paper, sugar cane for ethanol and soya degrade the environment, reduce the food supply in Brazil and drive labourers and small farmers off the land, he claims.
Mr Navarro argues that outside the dry regions of the Northeast, where the rural poor are clustered, demand for land is shrinking. That applies especially in the south, where ownership is less skewed and family farming is strong. Many small farmers supply pork and chicken to large food businesses. One sugar mill in São Paulo gets 5% of its raw material from a nearby MST settlement. The MST is changing its focus, Mr Navarro believes, because “land reform is slowly losing importance”.
The government is torn. Its many MST sympathisers struggle to reconcile their support with the need to uphold the law. They share the MST's suspicion of big farming but answer to a president who is enthusiastic, especially about ethanol. In 2005, the ministry proposed to stiffen the guidelines for classifying land as productive (and therefore not subject to expropriation). Lula has yet to approve any change.
Rolf Hackbart, the head of the federal land-reform agency, wants the government to take the initiative to plan land use rather than reacting to occupations. But this looks like a distant prospect. While the MST wages war on corporate farming, the question of how best to redistribute land risks being trampled underfoot.