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Brazzil - Land - July 2004

Violent Settlements Are Good for Brazil

"More than 90 percent of the settlers we interviewed were involved
in a conflict for the land that they work. These conflicts are
what create the conditions necessary for the landowner to
cede the area. Without pressure from these movements, land
reform does not move forward as there are a thousand obstacles."

Mário Augusto Jakobskind


Picture Without the fight for the land there would be no agrarian reform in Brazil. Thanks to settlements throughout the country, rural workers while still poor can have better access to health and education services.

In monoculture zones as the ones in which sugarcane is the only crop, settlements help diversify the culture, specially growing vegetables and fruits that are sold in the local market. In turn, these settled workers with the money they make are able to buy consumer goods like TVs and refrigerators.

These are some of the findings of the study coordinated by Leonilde Medeiros, Sérgio Leite, Moacir Palmeira, Beatriz Heredia, all professors at Rio's Universidade Federal Rural and by Rosângela Cintrão, a researcher.

Sociologist Leonilde Medeiros talks in this interview about hers and her colleagues' work that resulted in the newly published book Impacto dos Assentamentos: um estudo sobre o meio rural brasileiro (The Impacts of Settlements: A Study of Brazilian Rural Life).

The word "settlement" (in Portuguese, assentamento) connotes a very specific context in Brazil. Generally, this is an area of land for which a group of people, who previously were landless, struggled. First the people occupy the land, and then hopefully gain title to it after a period of time. The process is difficult and often involves violence.

Can you explain to us how your study of Brazilian rural life was conducted?

The idea for the study began when we saw that there was much research done on settlements, but not much on what all of it means. Actually, we did two studies. In the first one, we studied six states—Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Sergipe, Mato Grosso and Acre, from 2000-2001. We worked with settlements created between 1985 and 1997. The other study was about the impact of these settlements.

What were the conclusions of the studies?

The first thing that was impressive was that the settlements generate jobs. Each of them creates an average of three jobs per family. It is important to highlight here that the jobs created are not field or farm jobs; rather they are jobs like clerks at small markets located on the settlement. Another interesting fact is that 80 percent of the settlers came from the region where the settlement is located and were rural workers.

So the common understanding that settlements are made up of people from the cities is a misconception?

Well, many of those who have rural roots are people who did spend some time in the city, looking for a job, but then decided to return to the rural life.

What changed in the life of the settlers?

We tried to compare the situation of settlers before and after becoming part of a settlement, seeing if their life improved or not in relation to health, education, communication, living conditions, access to food, possession of household goods, etc.

The greater part of those interviewed felt their life improved. Even though their current situation is very precarious, compared to their former lives, there is a significant improvement. They have houses, food which often comes from the actual settlement, better access to education and health.

They are able to afford appliances such as refrigerators and televisions. This led us to conclude that the settlements have a very important role in the insertion of families in the marketplace as well as in the social arena. These are families who before becoming part of a settlement led extremely precarious lives and had no alternatives for working.

Of those interviewed, 87 percent have no more than a fourth grade education, and a great majority of these still cannot read and write. Before, they could not enter into the workplace because they did not even have the minimum requirements or training for jobs.

What was the age range of those you interviewed?

Most were between the ages of 40 and 60. Normally, a typical nuclear family occupies one piece of property. However, once the family was well-established on the lot, then other relatives began to show up—in-laws, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc.—people who were also coming from precarious living situations....

What else would you highlight in your studies?

More than 90 percent of the settlers we interviewed were involved in a conflict for the land that they work. We came to the conclusion that these conflicts are what create the conditions necessary for the landowner to cede the area, and that these conflicts create other settlements. That is, there is a conflict, the land is ceded, the neighbors in the area see what happened, and then they go after another piece of land.

So the MST (Movement of Rural Workers Without Land) is doing the right thing?

Yes. Truthfully, without pressure from these movements, land reform does not move forward as there are a thousand obstacles to hurdle if you go through bureaucratic channels. Another thing to say here is that settlements often happen as a result of some crisis. For example, in the sugarcane country of the Northeast, the sugar industry went through hard times, and many factories were shut down. People then began occupations.

Any other thing you would highlight?

There is tremendous agricultural diversity on the land of the settlements. Areas which were once single crop fields become areas which enrich local food markets. Some products, such as beans, manioc, and corn are cultivated on every settlement. There is also always some small animal-raising.

They grow these products because they easily sell in the local market. In the sugarcane region of Pernambuco, there has been a multiplication of street fairs as a result of production from settlements. So, this diversity is significant in boosting local trade and commerce.

Why is this production not officially recognized?

It does not appear in the national statistics because most of the produce is sold in the informal sector—in street fairs, small markets, etc. Also, the great majority of settlers have never had access to certain farming practices, like receiving credit from the government. But there is no denying that their production has become an important factor in local economies.

Mário Augusto Jakobskind is a Brazilian journalist. This interview appeared originally in Portuguese in the newspaper Brasil de Fato - http://www.brasildefato.com.br. You can contact the author writing to

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