Brazil: Two Models of Land Reform and Development, Jeffrey Frank
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 by the World Banks 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
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 constitutions
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
MSTs 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 law.
No partythe Brazilian government, social movements,
politicians of every political tenetseriously 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.
of the Movement
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.
MSTs 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 Churchs 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.
MST encampment is located off the main highway running from
Rio de Janeiro to São 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 camps 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 night prior to each INCRA inspection
to prove the lands 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
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 Sérgio
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 everythingall 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 cooperatives, and two credit cooperatives.
The cooperatives had sufficient earnings to finance 167 land
appropriations in 1996.
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 valuesdevelopment
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 wont 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 Brazils millions
of landless peasants or urban slum dwellers. Research from
the United Nations Food and Agricultural Committee indicates
that, after two years, a settled workers 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
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 peoples 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 Banks
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
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
Impact on Agriculture
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 cant
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
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 10-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
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 adjustments.
Based Land Reform
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 or animals.
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 Cardosos 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 dont 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 external
Fourth, the World Bank and Cardoso government claim that MBLR
reaches more beneficiaries faster than the occupation and
expropriation model. However, even under the best case scenario,
MBLR programs would reach only about 1 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 Banks position
that MBLR is meant to be complementary to government programs
and the social movements and not a substitute for the expropriation
Under Brazils budgetary constraints, funds advanced
in support of MBLR result in a direct reduction of INCRAs
budget which is necessary for the MST model to work. INCRAs
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 cre -dits and technical
assistance, there are 500,000 people in MST encampments awaiting
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 Banks recent involvement in land reform after
50 years in Brazil is solely due to the MSTs position
as the principal political opponent to Cardosos 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 Brazils poorest
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 wont 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 MSTs proven model.