Promising Land

Promising Land

Rancharia is 1 of 49 special projects in the state of Bahia
supporting 2,250 families. The majority of land
is worked communally. Personal responsibility
is reinforced by requiring each family to finance
their own portion of the land through repayment of low interest
government loans over a 20-year period.
By Phillip Wagner

Arismario Dias de Oliveira is a 52-year-old proud, but worried husband and father to
six children. A son and one daughter live in the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo, far
from the semi-arid caatinga where Arismario has always lived and now aspires to
build a dream. Another daughter is married and lives nearby, while a son and two daughters
remain at home. After 29 years of marriage, he and his wife Olga would already have had
two grandchildren, except that one did not survive. Arismario’s characteristic features,
thoughtful expressions and serious manner reflect the mixed bloodlines, ever-present
concerns and self sufficiency of people struggling to survive in one of Brazil’s most
inhospitable regions.

Arismario is clearly the product of Latin and indigenous miscegenation, while Olga is a
direct descendant of African slaves. Their union symbolizes the history that forged their
nation. A legacy of that history is the extraordinarily inequitable distribution of land
in Brazil. In Brazil, inequitable distribution of land resulted from the establishment of
"captaincies" under the Portuguese crown, and the importation of great numbers
of African slaves to sustain their economies. Each captaincy was comprised of a vast tract
of territory governed by a powerful administrator who ruled with impunity.

Few individuals owned any land, and virtually all enterprise revolved around the
cultivation, processing and export of labor-intensive agricultural products. This was
particularly true in the Northeast, where sugar was king and tobacco was grown. Farther
south, coffee and tea also became major cash crops. This economic and social
"class" structure was replicated in the Chapada Diamantina region covering parts
of the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais where the discovery of gold likewise mandated
labor-intensive economic development.

Eight times as many Africans were transported to Brazil in chains as to the United
States. The social and economic marginalization of a post abolition African majority
combined with indigenous and miscegenated others has become problematic to the future of
Brazil. It is now generally accepted that inequitable land distribution has been, and
continues to be, a primary factor contributing to the retardation of economic and social
progress in Brazil.

Significant support for land redistribution had first begun to appear in the 1930s. A
"Land and Settlement Division", or DTC, was established within the Agriculture
Ministry in 1938, but remained relatively inert. It’s been suggested that "the
agrarian question resurfaced as an issue" after the Second World War. The Land and
Settlement Division was replaced in 1954 by the National Immigration and Settlement
Institute, or INIC.

Although another office within the Agriculture Ministry, it had been "set up as a
technical agency suitably structured to carry out settlement activities". But INIC
driven agrarian reform was outpaced in the drought stricken northeast by formation of
"peasant leagues" and the emerging activism of Catholic priests. Pressure
continued to mount for more aggressive government expropriation and redistribution of
land. In 1962 the Superintendência de Política Agrária, or SUPRA, was created and
"made responsible for the implementation of agrarian reform".

Brazil was, by then, led by leftist-leaning president João Goulart who, on March 13th,
1964, issued a decree that "authorized the expropriation of 10 kilometer strips of
land contiguous to federally constructed highways, railways and dams". The military
deposed him two weeks later, but deliberations on agrarian reform continued and on Nov 30,
1964 the military government passed the Land Statute Bill.

Some authorities on Latin American land reform differentiate between
"disappropriation" and "expropriation" of land by suggesting that
disappropriation involves compensation and expropriation does not. I do not make that
distinction. References:,
a Brazilian government site and,
an FAO site. FAO stands for the Food and Agricultural Office of the United Nations.

Agrarian Reform

The Land Statute Bill of 1964 made it legal for the federal government to expropriate
land for redistribution to the poor and/or landless. What evolved was an agrarian reform
approach focusing on three criteria. An agency known as the Delegacia Regional do Trabalho
(DRT) determines whether the land is being worked by persons who are not being compensated
for their labor. If this is determined to be the case then the Instituto Nacional de
Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA), steps in to see if the land is being used in
such a way as to be "sufficiently productive".

INCRA was only established in 1969, according to the World Bank. This may, in part, be
accounted for by the fact that the agrarian reform portion of the Land Statute Bill was
largely overlooked at first (ref:
A more significant contributing factor, though, may have been that the government
initially emphasized increasing agricultural production capabilities.

Finally, an assessment will be conducted to discover if the land is being used in a
manner supportive of the natural environment. This last issue is pursued by Coordenação
de Recursos Ambientais (CRA), on behalf of the state government and the Instituto
Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA) on behalf of the
federal government. Although other agrarian reform programs are being developed, the three
criteria approach continues to exist. Funding for execution of land expropriation and
redistribution under the three criteria approach is secured by the Companhia de
Desenvolvimento e Ação Regional (CAR). CAR, however, is not exclusively connected with
land expropriation and redistribution efforts.

Today, INCRA has overall responsibility for oversight of this three criteria approach.
But it can take years to expropriate and redistribute land in this way. And doing so in
the proscribed manner exacerbates tensions in what can already be a dangerously polarized
and highly charged environment. Advocates for the Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST), or
"landless peasants movement", have described to me the need they felt some years
ago to traverse stretches of road between the coastal city of Salvador and the outlying caatinga
cautiously. They traveled then with heads held as low as possible, for fear of being shot
at by landowners who might recognize them.

The pilot for a program known as Cédula da Terra, or Certificate of Land, was
established in 1997. The Cédula da Terra program name may soon be changed to the Programa
de Crédito Fundiário para Combater a Pobreza Rural, or the "Program to Fund Credit
to Combat Rural Poverty". Rumor has it that pressure has come from social movements
who interpret the current name to suggest that there should be a more intense focus on
social issues.

Arismario is president of an associated local project, named Rancharia, 15 kilometers
beyond the little town of Senhor do Bonfim. Bonfim, believed to be home to the most
authentic and intense Festa de São João (Festival of Saint John) in Brazil, is a
six-hour (only one stop along the way) ride from the city of Salvador by ônibus
executivo. Salvador, on the coast, is capital of the state of Bahia, and was the first
capital of Brazil.

Arismario has always lived in the caatinga, near to Bonfim, and has no resources
to travel. He lives on, and manages, four to five hectares of marginally productive land
owned by his mother-in-law two kilometers nearer Bonfim. Morros, which have the
appearance of being actual mountains although they’re not, can be seen from the open door
of Arismario’s small stucco house. The morros create a barrier, which are
responsible for a microclimate producing more suitable lands for farming; but those lands
are unavailable to Arismario and his neighbors.

Electricity and running water are also unavailable to them but, surprisingly, the
Spartan dwelling shared by Arismario and his extended family has an indoor toilet emptying
into a septic system; a rare luxury in the region. Local children attend a small municipal
school and there is access to a federal medical program in Bonfim. But the facility’s
resources, and the medical services provided there, are minimal. A distant windmill
provides well water, but the aquifer, even so far from the coast, is highly salinated.
Bottled water has to be trucked in for human consumption. None of this seems to inhibit
the hospitality of people struggling to carve out an existence in the region. Arismario’s
family insisted we join them for a nice meal, which included goat meat, beans, rice, and
toasted manioc flour; all staples in the region.

Rancharia is 1 of 49 Cédula da Terra projects in the state of Bahia supporting 2,250
families. In each project 20 to 130 families participate in an association involving 10 to
35 hectares of land per family. Other Cédula da Terra pilot projects are being conducted
in the states of Ceará, Maranhão, Minas Gerais and Pernambuco.

Data taken from the monthly Situação de Projetos por Estado report, Maio (May) 2000
[essentially a Cédula da Terra monthly status report by state] included:

Bahia – 49 projects serving 2250 families on 42,135.49 hectares of land acquired
at a cost of 9,779,961.00 reais. Another 14,529,669.00 reais have been allocated for, or
expended on, infrastructure investment.

Ceará – 148 projects serving 2513 families on 93,295.57 hectares of land
acquired at a cost of 13,419,764.00 reais. Another 15,218,499.00 reais have been allocated
for, or expended on, infrastructure investment.

Maranhão – 50 projects serving 1588 families on 43,438.48 hectares of land
acquired at a cost of 5,431,001.00 reais. Another 10,306,030.00 reais have been allocated
for, or expended on, infrastructure investment.

Minas Gerais (northern portion) – 31 projects serving 1119 families on 26,843.57
hectares of acquired land at a cost of 5,458,169.00 reais. Another 7,577,545.00 reais have
been allocated for, or expended on, infrastructure investment.

Pernambuco – 28 projects serving 800 families on 17,484.88 hectares of acquired
land at a cost of 6,500,628.00 reais. Another 4,197,956.00 reais have been allocated for,
or expended on, infrastructure investment.

Rancharia Project

The majority of land is worked communally. Personal responsibility is reinforced by
requiring each family to finance their own portion of the land through repayment of low
interest government loans over a 20-year period. Beneficiaries of the previously mentioned
and already existing three criteria approach have only 10 years to repay their loans. The
associations managed as part of the pilot program are under the Coordenação
Desenvolvimento Agrícola, or CDA, oversight and have been established on land purchased
by the government.

The Rancharia project began with discussions between Arismario and other locals, who
believed they could successfully raise livestock in the caatinga. After becoming
aware that there were government programs for land redistribution, they made contact with
an agency known as Empresa Baiana Desenvolvimento Agro-pecuário, or the Enterprise in
Bahia for Development (of) Agro-cattle Breeding. The term "cattle" in
northeastern Brazil is often interpreted to mean "livestock".

Their inquiry was redirected to CDA. CDA worked with Arismario’s family and 24 others
to establish Rancharia on 780 hectares of land purchased by the government for 155,937
reais. Another 130,620 reais was provided for infrastructure & investment.
Infrastructure capitalization is spent on community facilities, habitations, wells, water
filtration equipment, livestock, seedlings (not seeds), and so on. Infrastructure &
investment capitalization does not have to be repaid by Cédula da Terra project
participants; only funding for the land.

The amount of funding CDA provided Rancharia for infrastructure & investment was
determined by subtracting 1/2 the total cost of land for the project from the product of
the number of families involved and the per-hectare cost of land. This is a standard
formula for CDA Cédula da Terra projects. In Bahia, 13 CDA technical consultants provide
services similar to those provided by agricultural extension agents in the United States.

The CDA consultant for Rancharia is Jacira Sá, whose degree is in agricultural
engineering. Jacira’s name means "daughter of the moon" in Tupi-Guarani
language, and her face reveals the strength of her Indian heritage. It was she who first
met with Arismario and 50 or so other people to discuss the possibility of establishing a
CDA sponsored project. Only 25 families initially decided to participate. This is,
coincidentally, the maximum number of families that CDA had concluded could be
accommodated in this case.

Jacira guided Arismario and his 24 neighbors through the project start up and planning
process. Although Jacira consults Rancharia on behalf of CDA, her primary occupation is
with Banco do Brasil. Banco do Brasil established a Programa Nacional de Agricultura
Familiar (PRONAF) to fund investments in "collectives" associated with
agricultural reform. Participants in the Rancharia project may apply for PRONAF-A program
loans to address needs that exceed the land, and investment & infrastructure,
capitalization provided by CDA.

This is actually only one flavor of PRONAF program funding. There are also funding
programs known as PRONAF-B, PRONAF-C, and so on. PRONAF program loans are capitalized at a
maximum of 9,500 reais ($5280) per family. PRONAF-A assumes that only 70 percent of PRONAF
funded capitalization will go for investment & infrastructure development, and 30
percent will be dedicated to ongoing maintenance needs.

Today there are only 21 families in the Rancharia project because 4 dropped out soon
after it was initiated. This may be a decision that the departing families will live to
regret. The association, which was formed in February of 1998 and acquired land in June of
that year, has focused on raising goats to produce milk. They adopted a strategy of
supplementing the natural vegetation on which their goats feed with cultivated palmas,
a form of cactus with very short needles so named because each "leaf" has the
appearance of the palm of a hand.

The palmas offer a less nutritious diet for the goats than native vegetation,
but are extremely resistant to drought. Unusually frequent rains this year are allowing
the palmas to establish themselves more quickly. If climatic conditions in
subsequent years revert to their normal cycles, the project will be in much better shape
than might have been expected to sustain its precious livestock. Although the primary
focus of their efforts is producing milk, about 100 goats are slaughtered annually for
meat. The association has tried their hand at making cheese, which was apparently of
exceptional quality; but this proved to be economically unfeasible. Only 50 to 60 of the
1,000 or so goats that are female are at the required level of maturity to produce milk
and are lactating at any one time. These produce about 121 liters of milk over a 6-day

When one considers how little income this generates, the magnitude of the struggle to
survive in the caatinga of northeastern Brazil becomes apparent. The association
receives approximately 50 centavos (27+ cents) per liter. This means that the
entire community of 21 families, with an average family size of 6, generates a collective
$1,872.00 US dollars of annual income; 28+ cents per inhabitant per week. A single US
citizen probably spends more on lunches over a comparable period.

Under the guidance of Jacira (Sá), Rancharia participants are attempting to improve
output by experimenting with different varieties of stock, and combinations of feed.
Native vegetation provides more protein. They’ve discovered that cutting native vegetation
back to 50 centimeters has resulted in a threefold ability of caatinga to sustain
goats. This idea was supported by government research, but until now hardly anyone had
been willing to seriously consider it. Jacira encouraged the association to give it a try.
Prior to cutting back vegetation each hectare of caatinga supported only three
goats, but after cutting back it supported nine. This kind of increase in productivity can
mean the difference between life and death in such a harsh environment.

Rancharia also has 40 to 50 sheep and 5 bulls. Jacira suspects that the association,
which is not in any way bound to follow her advice, wants to purchase more sheep than
they’re willing to admit. This would, naturally, divert resources from the purchase of
additional goats, whose milk is the intended primary source of income for the project. A
serious discussion has ensued between Jacira and Arismario, with no apparent consensus as
to what should be done. But Jacira, whose only concern is for the welfare of the people
involved, remains open minded and wants to continue the dialogue.

If she discovers that purchasing more sheep would be in the best interests of the
association, then she’ll attempt to redirect their efforts accordingly. But such an
adjustment would have to be carefully researched because, on the surface at least, it
appears that sheep have limited potential to add long-term value. Jacira thinks this land
can sustain sheep within a suitable timeframe for generating substantial income through
the sale of meat provided that the rains are what they’ve been in recent months. But if
the weather falls back into its expected, more arid, pattern, she believes this will
become problematical.

Traditional local farming practices have focused on the production of meat over milk;
and these institutionalized habits are proving difficult to break. Jacira has attempted to
convince the association that research indicates there is greater potential to sustain
livelihoods by raising goats for milk than sheep for meat. Goats are more suitable to the
arid climate, and Jacira currently believes that milk is more profitable. The association
owns several varieties of goats and two varieties of sheep. Neither variety of sheep is
suitable for producing wool. The association is hoping to diversify within three years to
include the cultivation of coconuts and cajus (cashews).

Although the overall project is managed communally, kibbutz style, each participating
family is granted four hectares of land exclusively for their own use. This land is
generally used to grow the staple foods of the region such as feijão (beans),
squash, manioc, watermelon and corn. Participants may sell any excess produce and may
purchase livestock individually provided their income is sufficient to cover the cost.
During our visit I noted that several of the residents had chickens and/or a pig.

The primary mode of transportation, aside from walking, is horseback, and horse drawn
wagons are used to move building materials. Natural bowls in surface rock formations,
known as caldeirões, or caldrons, retain rainwater and are fenced off for
protection. Although usually very dirty, and a breeding ground for bacteria and insects,
this resource is considered acceptable for consumption when precious little water is
otherwise unavailable.

According to Leopoldo Mont’alverne, who is responsible for CDA oversight throughout the
state of Bahia, implementation of Cédula da Terra is staged. Leopoldo was
allocated to CDA after a decade with CAR, and has been with CDA for as long. He’d earlier
spent seven years on the Comissão Estadual de Planejamento Agrícola, or State
Agricultural Planning Commission, that were preceded by four years with Trabalhar com
Crédito Rural, which provided credit for small peasant farmers.

Data from the Brazilian office of the World Bank indicates that 150 million dollars was
budgeted for the program pilot, which, as previously mentioned, was initiated in 5
northeastern states. (See

Data detailing projects in each of those states as of March 1999 is available on-line,
as is a project overview for those fluent in Portuguese.

Good Results

Sixty percent of the overall budget, or $90 million, was funded by World Bank to
underwrite expenses associated with investments in infrastructure, technical assistance
and so on. The federal government of Brasil provided another $45 million, or 30 percent of
the budget, to finance acquisition of property. Participating state governments were made
responsible for $6 million, or 4 percent of the budget, to administer, monitor and
supervise the individual projects (like Rancharia). The final 6 percent, or $9 million,
will come from project participants over time. World Bank believes that participants
should finance at least 10 percent of community sub-projects by providing funds, materials
or "sweat equity" labor.

The Cédula da Terra pilot, according to Leopoldo, grew out of programs established to
fight hunger in Bahia (Produzir) and in the arid sertão region of the state of
Ceará (São José). Each of the two anti hunger campaigns had been co-funded by the World
Bank. The University of São Paulo in Campinas (Unicamp) and the Food and Agricultural arm
of the United Nations recently conducted an assessment of the Cédula da Terra pilot.
Favorable results were presented at a June 2000 meeting with the World Bank in Washington
D.C.; and funding for a post-pilot phase will become available over time through normal
administrative channels.

Leopoldo says that CDA in Bahia already has sufficient funding for 60 more projects,
which would bring the total in Bahia to 109. Phase 1 funding will probably not supplement
investment in Bahia. It is primarily intended for use to expand geographic coverage, so
that projects may be established in seven additional north and northeastern states as well
as three states in the south of Brazil. The same assessment and review approach will be
applied to phase 1 as was used for the pilot program.

Brazilian government and World Bank officials have already agreed to providing $400
million for phase 1, and another $400 million for a second phase provided the pilot
program successes can be repeated. Phase 2 funding would "kick in" automatically
following a favorable phase 1 audit and review. Phase 2 funds will likely be used to
expand existing production. Cédula da Terra is expected to invest $2 billion in its quest
to facilitate redistribution of land benefiting 200,000 families in Brazil. Since the land
being allocated to projects under Cédula da Terra is purchased outright, procurement can
be accomplished in only months, and without re-igniting old tensions or precipitating new

The positive results delivered at the recent pilot program review in Washington seem to
confirm that Cédula da Terra is having the desired impact. But the challenges facing
Brazil are so serious that Jacira Sá, her husband Jairo, and others remain concerned.
Jairo works for CAR, the previously mentioned governmental organ that works to secure
funding for very large projects undertaken to relieve the suffering of rural peasants. CAR
is the organ that developed the original relationship with World Bank, and had the
existing infrastructure to generate funding. But since CDA already had ownership of
agrarian reform, a working relationship resulted whereby programs established by CDA are
reviewed by CAR for consideration of funding by financial institutions. Under this
arrangement, sole responsibility for Cédula da Terra program execution has fallen to CDA.
But CAR has ultimate responsibility for Cédula da Terra oversight, to which four CAR
executives are dedicated.

Opposition to Cédula da Terra focuses primarily on the idea that a market-driven
approach inappropriately rewards the wealthy while unfairly penalizing the poor. But this
criticism overlooks the fact that society’s "haves" are never inclined to give
away advantage without incentives. And the "have-nots" are unlikely to assume
responsibility without the challenge of personal investment. An excellent analysis of
Cédula da Terra, including a detailed explanation of the opposition, has been authored by
Zander Navarro for the Brazilian office of World Bank. See—ingles/zander—english.htm

Zander’s 28-page report includes a critique of the project implementation up until
August of 1998, and consideration of risks associated with projected expansion.
Opposition, in any case, does not seem to be widely institutionalized or cohesively
organized (ref Zander’s report). Perhaps because Cédula da Terra, as previously noted,
puts land in the hands of impoverished and/or landless peasants more expeditiously than
traditional land redistribution approaches. Also perhaps because many, if not most, of the
program’s administrative and technical staff are members of the Partido dos Trabalhadores
(PT), or Workers Party (a personal observation in Bahia), which previously tended to
support MST and other organizations now deemed critical of Cédula da Terra.

Agrarian reform in Brazil has long been championed by politically fueled organizations
like the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores (Contag), Comissão Pastoral da Terra
(CPT) which is subordinate to the Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil (CNBB),
Movimento dos Trabalhadores (MT), Movimento de Luta pela Terra (MLT), Movimento dos
Pequenos Agricultores (MPA) and, of course, the previously mentioned MST (Movimento dos
Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra).

Jacira and Jairo say that support of future political administrations is critical.
Cédula da Terra seems to be working for now. But the ever-present fear that a change of
government could bring the program to an untimely end hangs over all of northeastern
Brazil. And there are other concerns to be addressed. The magnitude of the more immediate
need to redistribute land is so great that no one seems to be looking beyond the current
generation. What will hold the children and grandchildren of program participants to the
land their fathers manage to secure for themselves and their families?

Improvements in living conditions could trigger a cycle of increasing expectations that
ranching alone may not be able to satisfy. Determined future generations may resume the
exodus to large cities that has contributed to the explosive growth of favelas and
threatened to destabilize Brazilian society. Eco-tourism and Internet telecommuting seem
to offer intriguing future possibilities for creating a more diversified economic base.
But aggressive long term planning to assess appropriate strategies, consider potential
environmental impacts, design educational and training programs, estimate cost, secure
funding and define & establish prerequisite infrastructure would have to be initiated.

An article on page B1 of the 7 July 2000 edition of the Wall Street Journal
describes a similar program undertaken on "desolate Indian land" in the United
States. A catholic school became the catalyst for what the article describes as "an
Internet revolution", facilitated by "the generosity of an IBM retiree" and
a "super-fast T1 line". The article notes that the "data line was installed
by Gila River Telecommunications Inc. (GRTI), an Indian-run telephone company… that
was established in 1990 as a non-profit telephone company". Up until that time
"fewer than 10 percent of the reservations residents had telephone service" and
the estimated cost of public telephone service was prohibitive. A leader of the Pima
Indian tribe that inhabits the 620-square-mile reservation is quoted as saying,
"We’re an example of what can be done when you put your mind to it"

Who would be available to lead such an effort, and who would pay the bill? At this
point there still seem to be far more impoverished and/or landless peasants than Cédula
da Terra will be able to serve. Jacira noted that each new dwelling constructed for
project participants costs only $1,500 reais; about $850. "Its inconceivable"
she says "that the government can’t find the money to build more homes".

In fact, on July 3rd the federal government announced its desire to
supplement 3.3 billion reais (Brazilian dollars) already targeted, but not yet approved,
for land expropriation with another 1.2 billion reais to construct additional housing in
rural settlements. More than a quarter million families are expected to benefit through
the year 2002. "What will be the cost to Brazil," Jacira wonders, "if we
fail to effectively address the hunger and misery of these people".

Organizations names in English:

CAR — Enterprise of Development and Regional Action

CDA — Coordination of Agricultural Development agency.

CNBB — National Bishops Conference of Brasil

CONTAG — National Confederation of Agricultural Workers

CPT — Pastoral Commission of Land

CTP — Cédula da Terra Program

CRA — Coordination of Natural Resources

DRT — Regional Delegation of Work

DTC — Land Settlement Division

IBAMA — Brazilian Institute of Environmental Conditions and Renewable Natural

INCRA — National Institute of Colonization and Agricultural Reform

INIC — National Immigration and Settlement Institute

MT — Laborer’s Movement

MLT — Fight for Land Movement

MPA — Small Farmers Movement

MST — Movement of those Without Land

PRONAF — National Program of Common Agriculture

PT — Workers Party

Phillip Wagner is a free-lance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to
Brazil and a regular contributor to Brazzil. His focus is on Brazilian culture and
"constructive social engagement" that helps people become self-sufficient.
Phillip is a graduate of Indiana University and would like to pursue a graduate degree in
Latin American Studies focusing on Brazil. He may be contacted at Jairo and Jacira Sá may be
contacted at, although preferably
in Portuguese. Visit Phillip’s Brazil websites at

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