Land Reform in Brazil: Can Lula Fulfill the Historical Debt?

After the first two decades of the 21st century, agrarian reform in Brazil remains an unfulfilled promise. What will be the future of the Brazilian countryside without it?.

Lula Da Silva

Photo: TW-LulaOfficial

LatinAmerican Post | Daniel Perdomo

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Leer en español: Reforma agraria en Brasil: ¿Puede Lula cumplir la deuda histórica?

After his inauguration as president of the republic on January 1st, 2003, the newly elected Luis Ignacio Lula Da Silva promised to carry out an agrarian reform before the leaders of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MTS) based on the redistribution of land among farmers and the stimulation of small family production. Twenty years later, after 13 years of Workers' Party government, in which former President Dilma Rousseff also governed, Michael Temer, after four years of Jair Bolsonaro's government (2019-2022) and a return of Lula Da Silva to the presidency on January 1st of this year, the land problem remains unresolved.

In fact, according to the last Agricultural Census done in 2017, about 1% of landowners own an average of 50% of the country's land, while small landowners, who represent practically half of the total landowners (those who own between 1 and 10 hectares of land), own just 2% of all land in Brazil. This makes the Latin American giant one of the countries with the highest land concentration, with Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, or Paraguay.

This is a problem in Latin America that has been introduced previously. Colombia, for example, has the most significant land access inequality, registering an alarming figure: 1% of large landowners own an average of 80% of the country's productive land. In Peru, 1% controls 77% of the fertile land. In Chile, 1% contains 74% of the productive land, and in Paraguay, 1% controls close to 70% of the country's productive land. These figures reflect the severe problem that Latin America is going through in the countryside. It is no coincidence that the land problem is at the root of many of the continent's ills. Particularly in Brazil, the so-called "Questão agrária" continues to fuel a serious problem of social inequality that seems far from being resolved. This aspect has become a breeding ground for all kinds of social conflicts in the future.

An Old National Ghost

Inequality in land concentration in Brazil has deep roots that date back to the 16th century after the Portuguese colonization during the colonial occupation. The Crown divided land ownership so that arable lands (samarías) remained in the hands of a few settlers. Then, as Nelly Banchero shows in her research on the historical problem of land in Brazil, in 1850, a Land Law was passed that established the acquisition of unoccupied land only through purchase, leaving the free ground in the hands of the state. The purpose of the law was to curb the actions of the so-called "poseiros," that is, peasants who occupied idle land and converted it into farmland.

The situation did not improve in the 20th century. After the 1964 coup d'état and the establishment of a civil-military dictatorship that would last until 1985, a "Land Statute" was decreed, according to which new land occupation zones were created, in which the government provided all kinds of subsidies and tax incentives in favor of the installation of national or multinational agricultural and livestock companies. These benefits generated the concentration of land in the hands of businessmen benefited by the military dictatorship.

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As we enter the 21st century, the ghost of the past has not disappeared. Just as the laws of the 19th century were designed against the peasants who occupied idle lands, the peasants currently occupying unproductive lands continue to be condemned. This is evidenced by the order issued by the Brazilian Court of Justice last April 28, in which it called for the eviction of 430 families belonging to the MTS who occupy unproductive land in the village of Jaboatão dos Guararapes, in the state of Pernambuco. In a national context, 350,000 families (about 1.5 million people) are recognized as landless rural workers.

Now, why was there no agrarian reform during the PT governments? We must find the answer in the linkage of the PT with the national elites expressed in a policy of broad agreements both in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. This forces the PT governments to cede the interests of the social and popular movements that constitute its social base to the interests of those who seek to maintain the latifundia model in Brazil. It thus enters into a contradiction in which the discourse does not correspond to the facts.

The challenges for the future

Undoubtedly, agrarian reform is one of the significant challenges facing contemporary Brazil. The social inequality that has historically affected the countryside continues to impact the lives and survival of thousands of peasant families. At the same time, the various governments that have succeeded one another in Brazil do not seem to find a way to resolve the "Questão agrária" (agrarian question). Because of this, today, the future of the South American giant, rather than being a promising future, is presented to us as a future full of challenges and questions which, if they are to be overcome and answered, require the Brazilian state to make a real commitment to the demands of the peasant sectors of Brazil.

The state must listen to the peasants, laying the foundations for an urgent agrarian reform in which the peasant movement has an active role in its construction. Their demands are based on the fact that migration to the city is not a solution. They want to remain in the countryside and demand conditions for this. Thus, they fundamentally demand two things: first, the distribution of idle land retained in the hands of large landowners, and second, the preservation of family agriculture based on autonomy and food sovereignty.

But also, as pointed out by João Stedile, leader of the MTS, agrarian reform is not only about land redistribution but also about a paradigm shift in the production model in the countryside. Agroecology, as an alternative that makes it possible to take advantage of nature's goods without depleting them, is a necessity in a country that bears a large part of the responsibility for the care and preservation of the Amazon rainforest (about 60% of the Amazon territory is in Brazilian region). Based on this, a change in the production model within the countryside from an agroecological perspective has as a priority the conservation of the different biomes present in the territory, the preservation of agricultural biodiversity, and the production of healthy food for the consumption of the essential diet of the population.

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