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« On the ground in Rio with a diverse set of opinions | Main | Challenges of Mato Grosso »

March 22, 2011

Land and power in Brazil

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

“Land in Brazil is a source of power. The landowners are the powerful. Inequality in Brazil can be traced directly to who owns land,” Paulo Alentejano, a Geography professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro told us on Friday. We were at the union hall of Brazilian oil workers at a meeting hosted by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) to help us understand the relationship between land ownership and the agricultural economy in Brazil.  

20110319_rio110 Professor Alentejano made four key points about the concentration of land in Brazil:1) there has been a persistent concentration of ownership; 2) there is an increasing influence of globalization on Brazilian agriculture; 3) increased mechanization is reducing labor opportunities; 4) there continues to be persistent violence and environmental degradation associated with land use throughout the country.

The GINI Index measures inequality among countries and Brazil’s is among the highest in the world. According to Alentejano, this is linked to increasing control of the land by agribusiness interests. He cited the presence of companies—like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, ADM, Cargill, Bunge and Dreyfuss—as deeply influencing land-based decisions. Land ownership by foreign interests is increasingly a concern, particularly as China becomes the country’s largest trade partner.  

Alentejano pointed out that exact statistics on land ownership are impossible, and that’s part of the problem. “The country doesn’t know much about who owns the land. We don’t know how much land is in foreign control. The Brazil agency has no data. They just don’t know,” Alentejano told us.

As agricultural land increasingly serves the interests of agribusiness by focusing mostly on five products (sugar, soy, cattle, lumber and corn), food insecurity is increasing, according to Alentejano. There has been a reduction in production of rice, beans and mandioca—staples of Brazilian diets—over the last 20 years. 

Somos Todos Sem Terra Marcelo of the Landless Rural Workers Movement talked with us about how land ownership affects sugarcane workers. Marcelo described horrific working conditions,  including tightly packed trucks (often the same trucks used to transport animals), slave labor and regular exposure to toxic pesticides. Sugarcane workers are often uneducated and unaware of their rights. “To earn more, workers need to eat less, drink less and endure degrading labor conditions,” Marcelo told us. Workers that don’t complain are rewarded.

Sugarcane production in Brazil continues to expand, particularly around Sao Paulo and Rio. One driver of this expansion is increasing mechanization, which also requires less workers. Another driver is biofuels (agrofuels as MST calls them) produced by the sugarcane. MST believes the expansion of sugarcane production is crowding out food production. “Energy production can work with family farms, but you can’t stop producing food,” said Marcelo. “We can’t enter into this production model and undermine the other model.”

Ben Lilliston

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