Agrarian reform settlements in Brazil

The agrarian reform process in Brazil is keenly contested and the fact that despite impressive economic growth in the first decade of the 21st century land inequality has not shifted (a Gini co-efficient of 0.81) points to a convergence between large landowning interests inherited from colonial ‘latifundio’ land structure and more recent corporate investments in agriculture and energy. In a marked social mobilisation of landless labourers since the 1980s, led by the Movement of Landless Workers (MST), large groups of some of Brazil’s most marginalised workers have been successful in their occupations of land; proving through the courts that land was being used unproductively or fraudulently and that their alternative productive use of it for food production will fulfil the ‘social function’ that the Brazilian constitution recognises in terms of land use. Although there are many experiments struggling from a lack of resources and investment (only 16% of government agricultural investment goes to small farmers), where successful the settlements provide important lessons for rural areas across the globe. A visit was made to the particularly impressive Monte Alegre ‘settlement’ in the state of São Paulo where some 596 families have been settled since 1984, when what is now the Federation of Rural Workers of São Paulo supported the occupation of public land by landless workers (including sugar cane cutters from the now famous strikes of the 1980s) on publically owned land. These settlements are distinct in the preference of directly producing food, milk, vegetables and fruit for local markets and consumption rather than supply commodities (e.g. soya, sugar, oranges) for larger commercial interests. Often the boundaries between these production models are blurred, however, the development of sustainable and secure markets for the local, and often organic produce is a priority of community leaders keen to resist co-option of their efforts into the supplying raw materials (e.g. soya, sugar, oranges) for large commercial interests, a contradiction to agrarian reform in their view.

In this regard the settlement of could be considered a model of practice, as decades of experience in producing cassava, maize, banana, lettuce, tomatoes, cattle, milk along with small artisanal units producing sugar and rum also host a municipal rural school. Here, young people are involved in establishing people Latin America's first community radio station, a means not just for the distinct farming units to communicate within and beyond the community but a project that provides youth orientated activity that encourages the next generation to maintain livelihoods there (Figure 5.8).

Figure 5.8 The next generation on the agrarian reform settlement of Monte Alegre involved in the local municipal school and community radio station launch with the support of FERAESP.

Furthermore, with the assistance of FERAESP, a labour organisation that combines the traditional defence of employees’ rights with the democratising of access and use of arable land, members of the community are networked with the construction of a nearby cassava mill. Employing 17 workers in its construction this initiative encourages at least 100 small producers on agrarian reform settlements to diversify into planting of cassava, a native plant (Figure 5.9). They will supply a communally built mill that will produce a healthy flour for the local and national market, thus promoting the consumption of a plant famed for lowering cholesterol, providing gluten free flour and a concept of ‘from the earth to the plate’.

Figure 5.9 Men and women involved in constructing a flour mill for the cassava plant