Food, land and politics

By Pascale Palmer
6 Sep 2010

In last week’s Economist, an article on Brazil’s “agricultural miracle” expounded the virtues of the emerging economy volte face from net importer of food to a model that challenges the dominance of the “big five” food exporters (America, Australia, Argentina, Canada and the EU). The piece went on to argue that the Brazilian embrace of genetically modified plants and farm sizes that put America’s plains states to shame, are the key to this success story.

It is also working on an economic level. Without huge state subsidies, Brazil, in just forty years, has become the first tropical agricultural giant. But what the article overlooks is that this “magnificent” productivity comes at a very high price.

About 30 million Brazilians live in rural areas, that is approximately 16 per cent of the population. Half of Brazil’s farms measure 10 hectares or fewer, taking up approximately two per cent of the land area, while 44 per cent of the country is owned by just one per cent of farmers, working more than 1,000 hectares each.

In Brazil, there are single farms as large as Wales. These agribusinesses employ just 26 per cent of farm workers. Small farms employ the rest.

Land rights in Brazil have fuelled conflict at every level within the country for more than 500 years, and the recent massive expansion in industrial scale agriculture to feed international market demands feels very much like the final and systematic charge towards the eradication of all dissenters. These dissenters and protesters, calling for the freedom to farm and live on their own portion of earth, are almost always the least well-off, the poorest and marginalised, and above all the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

These are the people who are pushed away from their land to make way for this so called development. In one fell swoop they can lose their livelihoods, ways of life and sacred grounds, and can no longer support themselves, their families and communities. What must not be forgotten is that 70 per cent of Brazil’s own food comes from its small farmers; the superfarm crops are grown specifically for export. This means that as Brazil loses small farmers, so food insecurity increases and food sovereignty decreases.

Of course, the environmental consequences of industrial scale farming are profound. The Economist argues that the majority of this farming revolution has taken place in the formerly barren area of the cerrado, hundreds of miles from the Amazon rainforests. But Brazil isn’t a cartoon map of distinct areas surrounded by halos of inhibition - one area seeps and leaches into another, so that the borderlands between scrub and forest are constantly eroded in favour of the superfarms.

It is no coincidence that the biggest soya-producing state, Mato Grosso, also has the highest levels of Amazon deforestation. For years, the Brazilian government has sold off portion after portion of land to large-scale farmers who then often invest in non-food agrofuel crops, creating monocultures that destroy biodiversity and depend on high levels of chemical fertilisers for productivity.

Recent research into pesticide contamination in Mato Grosso found pesticide residue in the blood and urine of several communities. Well water and rainwater were also found to be contaminated, while 11 per cent of air samples contained residues of toxic chemicals.

In an interview with the BBC, leader of the Manoki indigenous tribe, native to Mato Grosso, Alonso Iravali, said: “They’re chopping down everything. They’re destroying our forests, polluting our rivers with chemicals, and depriving us of the natural remedies that our people rely on.”

This severe and worsening inequality of land ownership, with its concomitant environmental and human destruction, is being brought into sharp focus this week as a plebiscite closes on the limitation of land ownership in the country. The plebiscite calls for a new clause in the Constitution to limit the maximum area of land owned by one individual - anything above the stipulated size would be considered public property.

This mass mobilisation, organised by the Brazilian National Forum for Agrarian Reform, and backed by rural movements, trade unions, educational institutes, and the Brazilian Bishops Conference, is an attempt to highlight the issue of unfair land access and ownership, and put pressure on the government to guarantee land ownership to all Brazilians who make their living from the earth.

The Economist calls Brazil’s response to the global need for more food and more agrofuels a model with “decisive boldness”, while branding those like the Brazilian National Forum for Agrarian Reform and its supporters worldwide, “agro-pessimists”.

Voicing concern over an aggressive agricultural policy that can damage the environment and displace thousands of rural workers and indigenous communities, is not pessimism - it is the manifestation of the polar opposite. This plebiscite, which closes on 7 September 2020, shows that hundreds of thousands of people feel there is a solution-led alternative to the steamrollering of big business and greedy government across swathes of land and lives. At the very least this is motivated by the belief in good sense. To me, it looks a lot like action fuelled by passionate optimism.

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© Pascale Palmer is media advocacy adviser for CAFOD, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, in Britain. www.cafod.org.uk/

Keywords: brazil | food | food crisis | land
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