Two Models of Land Reform
and Development - Brazil
by Jeffrey Frank
Z magazine, November 2002
Located on green rolling hills, the farm
with its fields of grain, milking barn, chicken hatcheries, pig
barns, storage sheds, and granaries could be located in any Midwestern
state. Even its location, near Porto Alegre, Brazil would not
differentiate this farm from a typical family farm in the United
States. However, this farm is different as it was founded by occupying
and expropriating, through a decade of struggle against both the
Brazilian federal government and one of the largest land owners
in Brazil, a portion of one of the largest landed estates in Brazil
by brave men and women led by the Movimento do Trabalhadores Rurais
Sem Terra (Movement of Rural Landless Workers or MST).
Guided by the slogan "Occupy, Resist
and Produce," the MST initiated a direct action model of
land reform wherein landless peasants occupy an unproductive parcel
of land, petition the Brazilian government for land rights, and
operate the settlement as a collective enterprise. This model
of land reform is now being challenged b the World Bank's attempts
to solve the immense landless problem in Brazil by using "market
mechanisms" to purchase land directly from the owners by
the landless and then to force peasant families to survive in
the global agricultural market. The outcome of the struggle between
these two models of land reform is not at all certain. What is
certain is that the result will impact Brazilian land reform for
many years to come.
Need for Land Reform
At the end of the military dictatorship
in 1985, Brazil adopted a constitution that allows for the expropriation
of large land holdings that either do not fulfill a social function
or are considered unproductive. With the election of the first
civilian government in 20 years, there was substantial hope for
land reform in keeping with the new constitution's expropriation
provisions. However, such hopes were soon dashed as the government,
beholden to large land owners, failed to enforce the law. Wanusa
Pereira dos Santos, a member of the MST's National Political Education
Committee states, "While this law [the constitution] does
not give land reform in the way the social movements want or Brazil
needs, it would be a big step if the government just upheld the
No party-the Brazilian government, social
movements, politicians of every political tenet-seriously contests
the need for land reform. Brazil has the second highest concentration
of land ownership in the world. Furthermore, land concentration
has increased as the number of small farms has been reduced from
three million in 1985 to less than one million today. The MST
estimates that over 60 percent of the farm land in Brazil is idle,
while 25 million peasants struggle to survive.
Origins of the Movement
Due to the intransigence of the Brazilian
government, it has been the task of the social movements to force
the government to observe its legal obligations regarding land
reform. According to Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute
for Food and Development Policy (Food First), "Land expropriation
is something the government would be unlikely to do on its own,
but with a well organized social movement, by finding land that
meets those conditions [required by the Brazilian constitution]
and occupying it to force the government to act, [land reform]
works quite well."
The MST was formed in 1984 and, with activists
from other land reform organizations, soon began land occupations
in southern Brazil. In conjunction with allied organizations,
the MST has led land occupations where more than 350,000 families
have gained access to land consisting of over 15 million acres.
MST's militancy in land reform has not
come without a price. During the period from 1985 to 1999, 1,158
MST and other rural activists were assassinated. During the period
from 1985 to 1996, the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission
also documented 820 additional assassination attempts and 2,412
death threats against MST activists and rural workers. Through
1999, only 56 people were ever charged with respect to these crimes
and only ten have been convicted.
The violence directed against land reform
activists is largely the result of actions by the federal police
and thugs hired by large land owners with the support of the Ruralista
Party (the land owners' party) and the current Brazilian government
of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The relative impunity of those engaging
in these violent acts, due to the support of the Brazilian elites,
has only encouraged more violence.
The MST encampment is located off the
main highway running from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, on a rutted,
dirt road, known by its inhabitants as Terra Prometida (Promised
Land). The settlement consists of various homes, an open-sided
community center/dining hall, communal kitchen with a fire pit
used to cook food in large metal pots and a table made of tree
limbs, a "pantry" holding the dietary staples of rice,
beans, dried manioc root, and a "pharmacy" holding basic
medical supplies such as bandages and disinfectants and a few
herbal and traditional medicines. The structures, with roofs and
walls made of black plastic framed with tree branches, cut from
the nearby woods, and dirt floors, are typical of an MST encampment.
Antonio Jamero, one of the camp leaders, tells the story of the
camp's 94 families. This process of occupying land has been repeated
hundreds of times throughout Brazil. In the case of the Promised
Land, most families had been farm workers who lost their jobs
and drifted into the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
The MST met with them and began approximately
six months of education in farming techniques, cooperative organization
and marketing, and health and sanitation, as well as fundamental
literacy. The initial occupation of a parcel near the Promised
Land ended when the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian
Reform (INCRA), the federal agency responsible for land reform
in Brazil, determined that the land did not qualify for expropriation
because its lack of productivity could not be proven. The land
owner, in order to avoid expropriation, trucked in cattle the
prior to each INCRA inspection to prove
the land's productive use. After being forced from the first camp,
INCRA moved the group to a roadside ditch for six months without
adequate food, shelter, sanitation or drinking water. Subsequently,
the group was brought to the Promised Land, where they have lived
for over a year. Until the land has been expropriated in a court
proceeding, they are not allowed to farm. Even though hunger is
a constant problem, the fields next to them are empty of crops.
The landless settlers anticipate being in this distressed condition
for some time while their case winds though the courts. Even a
victory in court would not allow expropriation of the land if
INCRA does not have funds for land purchases or agricultural development.
Typically, a land occupation is preceded
by a substantial amount of preparation including agricultural
training. Once the occupation begins, the MST applies to INCRA
to certify that the land qualifies for expropriation. According
to Sergio Sauer, a former coordinator and advisor for the Pastoral
Land Commission and currently an aide to a federal senator of
the Partido Trabalhadores (Workers Party), once a decision is
made to expropriate a parcel of land, INCRA is responsible for
everything-all legal and economic procedures. INCRA issues a 20-year
bond to the land owner, as the MST model is not without compensation,
although the purchase price is usually set below market price.
INCRA also funds production credits once the landless have won
land rights. Rosset cautions that "the INCRA model would
not work without the MST. Before the MST, INCRA did nothing. "
The Porto Alegre settlement, begun much
like the Promised Land encampment, was first occupied in 1989.
The occupation met fierce resistance from the land owner who sent
in crop duster airplanes to spray the occupiers with chemicals,
resulting in the deaths of three children. The police and hired
thugs attacked the settlers with bayonets, tear gas, and firearms,
and even tied several of the settlers to the tops of ant hills.
These battles culminated in the death of a landless settler when
the federal police attacked a peaceful demonstration for land
rights in Porto Alegre. Thereafter, the settlers attained the
right to settle on and farm the land.
Occupying the land and resisting the federal
government and the power of the large land owners only partially
fulfill the MST slogan: "Occupy, Resist and Produce."
The settlement in Porto Alegre, like most MST settlements, is
structured to survive in the market conditions imposed on Brazil
by the neo-liberal economic model adopted by the Cardoso administration.
Cooperative Production: Typical of an
MST settlement, the Porto Alegre settlement is organized on a
cooperative basis with families sharing resources. The farm work
is shared, as well as other tasks such as child care, education,
and communal cooking. Additionally, most of the agricultural produce
not consumed by the settlement is marketed through MST cooperatives.
The settlement contributes 2 percent of its profits to the national
MST to help fund other MST occupations and activities.
The MST currently maintains 400 cooperative
associations for production, trade, and related services in the
settlements. Through the National Association of Cooperatives
(created by the MST), the MST has also established 49 cooperatives,
employing 20,000 families, for meat, dairy, and other agricultural
products. The MST has also established 32 service cooperatives,
two regional marketing co-operatives, and two credit cooperatives.
The cooperatives had sufficient earnings to finance 167 land appropriations
Education: Immediately after constructing
housing, the Porto Alegre settlement established a school for
their children. The settlement school teaches values important
to the members, which they describe as humanist values-development
of the person as a whole rather than just particular aspects and
skills. The MST settlements currently maintain 1,200 elementary
schools with 3,800 teachers and an enrollment of 150,000 children
and over 250 day care centers. Additionally, 1,200 MST educators
teach literacy classes to 25,000 adults. The MST also maintains
an institute for training teachers and assists individual students
in entering universities.
Division of Labor: The settlement strives
toward equality of the sexes and avoids a division of labor based
on sex. Men and women work in all sectors of production, including
the communal kitchen and day care. The MST has tackled what it
calls the gender issue on all levels of its organization. At the
national level, 10 of the 22 members of the national coordinating
committee are women.
Environment and Ecology: The members of
the Porto Alegre settlement seek to maintain the MST principle
of using farming techniques that won't spoil the land. For example,
they produce about 1,500 tons of rice per year. In the past, they
have used pesticides in order to increase production, but now
grow about 50 percent of the rice organically. The settlement
is in the process of debating whether to continue using pesticides
in order to produce more rice or produce smaller quantities of
organic rice. Nationally, the MST, in response to the widespread
pollution and environmental devastation in Brazil, created the
National Collective on the Environment to advance MST policies
and programs on sustainable organic agriculture.
Additional Programs: The MST settlements
also have health care programs (training health care agents, programs
for the prevention of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases and
for medicinal herb), cultural programs (music, dance, poetry,
and literature) and communications (newspapers, community radio
stations, and websites).
It is apparent from the Porto Alegre settlement
that the inhabitants enjoy a higher standard of living than Brazil's
millions of landless peasants or urban slum dwellers. Research
from the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Committee indicates
that, after two years, a settled worker's standard of living increases
350 times over that of a landless worker. The infant mortality
rates in settlements in the southeast of Brazil are comparable
to those in developed countries.
New Rural World
The Cardoso government, faced with the
reality of the MST model of land reform, announced its own, new
agrarian policy titled Novo Mundo Rural (New Rural World) in 1998.
The aims of this new policy are to change land reform into a compensatory
policy rather than develop an all-encompassing land reform model,
decentralize land reform by shifting responsibility from the federal
to the state governments, and change land reform from a people's
movement to an exchange of commodities by instituting market-based
land reform (MBLR). In reality, the New Rural World is drawn directly
from the World Bank's play book.
The MBLR programs do not allow the landless
to purchase land directly. In theory, the landless and small farmers
form an association, which then negotiates the purchase of a parcel
of land. If a government review of the land purchase price, land
conditions, and the families in the association is positive, a
private Brazilian bank will pay the owner, using funds provided
by the World Bank, Brazilian federal government, and other sources
to the MBLR program. However, the reality is substantially different
from this theoretical model.
According to Klaus Deininger, a principal
World Bank land reform official, in remarks to a recent Washington,
DC seminar on the negative impacts of World Bank market-based
land reform, the stated goal of the MBLR is to reduce rural poverty,
which the World Bank believes "is the result of land concentration
due to the inefficiencies of the land markets." According
to the report "A Ticket to Land," authored by Sauer
and prepared for the seminar, "The agrarian problem is not
seen as one of access to land but of market security and effectiveness....
Deininger claims that the MBLR model (1)
replaces central bureaucracies with local authorities by decentralizing
land reform, (2) is demand rather than supply driven, (3) is faster,
(4) is less confrontational than the MST model, and (5) is cheaper,
as its beneficiaries have the capacity to negotiate land prices.
Impact on Agriculture
Any analysis of MBLR must be made in the
context of the wholesale adoption of neo-liberal economic policies
by the Cardoso government. According to the MST, these neo-liberal
policies include opening Brazilian markets to imports; attracting
foreign capital by maintaining high interest rates; privatizing
government enterprises such as oil and natural gas production;
and dismantling the role of the government in the economy
and eliminating, scaling back or privatizing
social services such as education, transportation, and health.
The neo-liberal economic policies and structural adjustments have
had a particularly devastating impact on Brazilian agriculture.
While these adjustments have impacted all segments of agriculture,
small farmers have been inordinately affected. According to Rosset,
"beginning in the 1980s, the structural adjustments for Brazil
included opening the Brazil markets to cheap imports from abroad,
which means that the prices farmers get for crops had gone lower
so they can't make a living, privatize extension, privatize commercialization
of small products that farmers produce, and privatize credit so
that [farmers] can no longer get subsidized credit from commercial
The Brazilian government, as part of structural
adjustment, has been forced to substantially reduce agricultural
subsidies just as the developed world has increased governmental
agricultural support through tariffs and price subsidies. The
recently enacted U. S. farm bill provides total subsidies for
price support of $190 billion over a I O-year period, an increase
of approximately 80 percent over the prior period. These subsidies
primarily benefit corporate agri-businesses and large farmers.
The MST has summarized the effect of the
neo-liberal policies on Brazilian agriculture as a decrease in
agricultural spending from $19 billion per annum to $4 billion
per annum; a decrease in agricultural subsidies to nothing; bankruptcy
of 400,000 farmers in the first two years of the Cardoso administration;
exodus of four million rural Brazilians to the cities; rural credit
default increases of 182 percent in the 1997 to 1999 period; and
zero growth in agricultural production from 1994 to 1999.
These IMF-mandated adjustments will continue
even if the Workers Party candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
(Lula), wins the October Brazilian presidential election. The
IMF required, as a condition to a $30 billion emergency loan,
the presidential candidates agree to continue the imposed structural
Market Based Land Reform
Members of land reform organizations from
around the world gathered for the seminar to present case studies
on the performance of MBLR in Brazil, Guatemala, Columbia, Thailand,
and South Africa. The Brazilian case studies, independent of both
the Brazilian government and the World Bank, were conducted by
scholars and university professors in the five states where the
World Bank initiated MBLR programs.
The MBLR model posits that the land reform
process is under the control of the landless. However, independent
case studies clearly indicate that associations are not voluntarily
formed by the landless, but are rather the product of local governmental
authorities and land owners wishing to sell land. Leaders are
often imposed on the associations from the outside. A majority
of the persons interviewed said they had little participation
in decisions such as what crops to grow or investments in equipment
Independent studies also found that most
of the negotiations for land purchases were between land owners
and local and state authorities, who are substantially more susceptible
to influence and corruption, particularly in rural areas dominated
by large land owners. The Ruralista Party, a creation of the large
land owners and a principal ally of Cardoso's political party,
discourages authentic negotiations through its influence on local
and state officials. Finally, since the land market in Brazil
is underdeveloped there are few sales to determine market prices.
The independent studies concluded, as a result of these factors,
that 100 percent of the negotiations to purchase land were conducted
by government employees rather than the landless.
All of the studies indicated that the
participants also had little or no knowledge of how the MBLR programs
functioned. Not one of the participants interviewed knew all the
terms of the loans they had incurred to purchase the land. Fewer
than one percent knew the interest rate of their loans, and fewer
than 10 percent knew the land was security for the loan.
The studies also found that the land put
on the market is frequently poor quality land that the owner has
been trying to dump for years. Often the participants (or their
"representatives") will take the first parcel offered
to them, notwithstanding price or quality.
Those associations that operate the farms
as collectives actually pay the "members" a daily wage,
undermining the entire purpose of land ownership. Since the associations
are typically run by government officials and directly influenced
by large land owners, using association funds to pay labor thereby
reproduces the same type of rural exploitation of landless workers
that land reform is supposed to correct. The independent studies
indicate that the process does not develop the landless workers'
abilities to manage their lives or develop the necessary skills
to successfully compete or even survive in the neo-liberal marketplace.
MBLR is also supposed to decentralize
the process of land reform. In reality, the process is "defederalized,"
with responsibility shifting from the federal to the state and
local governments, which are more susceptible to control and pressure
by the large land owners directly and through the Ruralista Party.
MBLR becomes a program that is not "market
based" in any sense of the concept. The associations, land
purchase negotiations, investment decisions as to land to purchase,
crops to grow, infrastructure to develop, and terms of the loans
to acquire land are all controlled by state and local government
employees subject to influence and manipulation by local elites.
What has been the result of MBLR? First,
all of the surveys indicate that 100 percent of the persons interviewed
will be unable to make their first loan payment. As Rosset explains
it, "You have poor people taking out huge loans to buy over
appraised land of poor quality. Then they are supposed to take
additional loans to get into the export crop markets, which are
highly risky. It just seems as if it is a disastrous way to do
land reform. "
Second, few families appear to have improved
their quality of life. The surveys indicate that few families
produce crops for either the local or international markets and
most consume their harvests for survival. "A Ticket to Land"
concludes "that very few families earn enough to eat and
survive. Most don't harvest enough to feed their families, much
less to save money or make a reserve for their loan payments"
(emphasis in the original).
Third, contrary to the World Bank claims,
MBLR is more expensive. In Brazil, during the period MBLR projects
have existed, 30 percent of the total funds spent on land reform
were spent on the MBLR projects. But MBLR only managed to transfer
10 percent of the total land transferred in land reform and 13
percent of the total families settled during that same period.
In addition, because the land is paid
for in cash, rather than bonds, the immediate cash outlay by the
government is substantially greater, increasing the total Brazilian
Fourth, the World Bank and Cardoso government
claim that MBLR reaches more beneficiaries taster than the occupation
and expropriation model. However, even under the best case scenario,
MBLR programs would reach only about I percent of the number of
landless persons who need land reform in Brazil. During the years
since MBLR has been implemented, substantially more people have
left rural areas for the cities than were settled on farms. So,
even with all the money the World Bank is willing to pour into
land reform, it would take substantially longer to make a dent
in the landless problem than the MST model.
Since MBLR is expensive, slow, unable
to reach many landless people, and unable to empower its beneficiaries,
why is it being promoted by the World Bank and Cardoso government?
The reality of MBLR belies the World Bank's
position that MBLR is meant to be complementary to government
programs and the social movements and not a substitute for the
Under Brazil's budgetary constraints,
funds advanced in support of MBLR result in a direct reduction
of INCRA's budget which is necessary for the MST model to work.
INCRA's budget has decreased by 53 percent over the last few years.
As Sauer points out, "by pulling funds from INCRA to the
market programs, there is a negative effect on the social movements."
With no funds for occupations and expropriation, much less post-expropriation
production credits and technical assistance, there are 500,000
people in MST encampments awaiting settlement.
It is highly unlikely that the negative
impact of MBLR on the MST model of land reform is coincidental.
As concluded in a report prepared by the Environmental Defense
Fund, "Whatever else it may prove to be, MBLR is an effective
source of support for local and regional interests ideologically
opposed to the MST and organizations aligned with it, to counter
MST organizing and potentially undermine its membership base at
a local level."
Members of the land reform social movements
believe that the World Bank's recent involvement in land reform
after 50 years in Brazil is solely due to the MST's position as
the principal political opponent to Cardoso's neo-liberal policies.
One can only conclude that for the Brazilian elite, MBLR is a
political weapon to crush its opposition, notwithstanding the
negative impact on land reform or Brazil's poorest citizens.
By adopting a MBLR model that is far more
costly and less effective than the MST model, the Brazilian government
forgets, or does not care about, the hundreds of thousands of
landless people languishing in encampments, lacking the basic
necessities of food, water, shelter, and sanitation. For the residents
of the Promised Land, the frustration is palpable. Jose Pio, a
resident of the Promised Land who has been fighting for land reform
for 25 years, says, "It is a crime to have so many hungry
people in Brazil. We are next to some of the richest land and
the government won't let us farm it." When asked why he endures
the harsh conditions of the encampment, with little hope on the
horizon of gaining land rights, he replies as poor men and women
have for hundreds of years, "I struggle, I fight because
I love my children. "
It is unconscionable that the model of
land reform and development least likely to allow him to help
his children may win out over the MST's proven model.