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And Brazil Calls This Land Reform?

Agrarian reform in Brazil

The concentration of lands in the hands of a few Brazilian farmers, an
ownership system called latifúndio, has been a major obstacle to social justice
in Brazil.  This complex issue is intertwined with primitive farming
techniques, the patriarchal formation of the family, and the substitution of
communal property for private ownership.

Agrarian reform is the term used to refer to the body of legal and economic measures that aim at the deconcentration of private ownership of cultivatable lands with the goal of them becoming productive. 


Its implantation has for intended results the increase of agricultural production, the expansion of the internal market of the nation and an improved quality of life for the rural population.


Brazil has an agrarian structure in which there are large estates that remain unproductive, big monoculture for export and millions of rural workers who do not own or have access to any land. 


An average area of the small properties does not surpass twenty hectares; and the rural population lives in terrible conditions of hygiene and nutrition, which results in elevated levels of mortality. 


There are rural regions in which the methods to irrigate, fertilize and recover the soil are unknown, illiteracy is prevalent and there are practically no technical-agricultural schools.


One reason why ownership of property is not absolute, is that it seals off access to the land for the rural worker and provides a formation of a caste of landowners who possess rural Brazilian lands.  At the bottom of the social pyramid, a vast class of marginalized people are relegated to the most extreme misery and they have their demands systematically repressed with violence. 


Therefore, the concentration of rural property in Brazil gives rise to a multitude of workers without land which points to a profound political dilemma because the model of agrarian reform of the country is likely to fail.


There are occasions when this layer of rural workers reappears organized by social movements of the rural area.   Engaging in taking tolls, occupations of public buildings and looting food trucks are fine examples of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ maxim, if you are hungry, take from the one who has in abundance. 


In these collective actions there is a strong criticism of the government, from Fernando Henrique Cardoso to Lula, for their slowness in promoting the expropriation of land for the creation of projects for the establishment of agrarian reform.


After a period of respite when the opponents of reform are turning out ridiculous news from Rede Globo and from Veja magazine, which does not even distinguish the differences of concept between land invasion and land occupation, those without land return to the political scene with the same problems.


In spite of all, however, we recognize that some progress has been obtained in the last years on the side of the government.  But the last two governments treated the landless almost the same way, with indifference, as the model of agrarian reform is the same.


According to the most detailed research on this topic, the system defended by the MST (the Landless Movement) is not the one adopted by the government.  The government adopted the concept of agrarian reform that is the opposite of the one championed by the MST. 


In general terms, the adopted one is the model of the trade union, a departure from the interests of CONTAG (National Confederation of Workers in Agriculture) which is based on expropriation and distribution of land in small establishments which are shared in individual parcels. 


Thus moving from the large latifúndio estate to a small plot or mini-estate.  Already the MST, even though in some cases it would be obligated to assume this model due to cultural factors, has the other model of agrarian reform based in cooperativism and in associativism.


Such mini-estate foundations possess small chance of survival, since they proceed in the opposite direction of the history that legitimizes the capitalist model of individual ownership of private property. 


Without competition in the market or even the structure to increase production, the small established farmers who earn their lands after such social struggle are destined to failure and to the return to the line of the excluded. 


Then comes the elitist media saying: so you see; they are lazy bums, not willing to work.  With that they form the social imagination of the Brazilians with such prejudices. 


The government, at the service of the big monopolies of capital, the representatives of the farming industry, continues believing that this model of agrarian reform is ideal, since it does not question the existence of private ownership as the CPT (the Church’s Land Commission) and the MST do.


The current Brazilian agrarian reform, which has been in existence for more than twenty years, has been used in large part to send or to return to the field the urban unemployed and legions of those excluded from rural activity by so-called modernization processes of agriculture. 


This was well demonstrated in the 2006 TV Globo documentary defending the “Rural Brasil.”  In truth, it was the Rural Brazil of the big transgenic soy companies and of farmers with their thousands of heads of cattle grazing in lands which truly could be used for planting and for the other model of agrarian reform which would abolish private ownership.


Several studies site examples of land occupations with workers who have various professional backgrounds.  Recently at a pre-occupation site in the region of Araguaia, I met a chemist educated at the Federal University of Goiás who was in the struggle for land. 


On these occupation sites, there are people with various urban professions, such as tailors, professors, soldiers, plumbers, bank employees, truck drivers, among others, often they do not possess agricultural knowledge and no training is offered to them which will enable them to learn new ways of managing the land. 


Another situation which we observe by experience together in the occupations of agrarian reform is a matter of which a majority of the occupiers possess more than forty years of age, exceeding, therefore, that limit which used to be considered a perverse mark of exclusion from manual labor, principally in the big city. 


The other interesting situation is that the large part of the squatters previously were leasers, owners, sharecroppers or partners in agricultural work


There are other concrete signals that Brazilian agrarian reform is on the wrong track.  For example: just 1/5 of those that receive land get to generate enough income to keep their fields.  Others abandon the land within at most ten years.  The phenomenon of the depopulation in the county side, however, is absolutely normal and makes up part of the history of the majority of the developed countries of the past century. 


In the United States, just 1.5% of the population remains working in the countryside.  In France, 6%.  But this costs a great deal in terms of subsidies.  In the case of Brazil, the mass of people defeated by technology earns the label of excluded and end up supplying initiatives which seem to demand that the planet spin the other way. 


For example, the proper agrarian reform thinking in order to realize the social inclusion of people winds up transforming occupations in a growing process of rural impoverishment.


I find only one advantage in the actual model of struggle for land and for agrarian reform, the action of resistance of the MST which continues acting to organize the people to demand, to occupy, to resist and to produce in communion, in the spirit of sharing. 


In addition to the difficulties encountered in the projects of agrarian reform, there does exist in Brazil, principally in the states of the South (for cultural reasons) the success of the model of cooperatives of the MST.  In some cases, the cooperatives are accountable for more than 40% of the national production of certain crops. 


The big problem is that to connect one thing with the other, depends on the familiarity and of the suitability of the settler for the work in unity.  This we perceive to be difficult to make happen in the occupations of the North, Northeast and Central West regions.  For this reason, I believe, the agrarian reform will be successful only with a total elimination of private ownership.


Claudemiro Godoy do Nascimento is a philosopher and theologian.  He holds a master’s degree in education from Unicamp and a doctorate in education from UnB.  He is a researcher at the Multi-disciplinary Center of Education of the Country and Rural Development. This text appeared in Portuguese in Adital.

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