The Slow Food Terra Madre event will bring people involved in producing food from around the world to Turin in October, helping these ‘experts of the earth’ to gain other perspectives. Hunger will be one of the big issues of the meeting. Since Terra Madre will be welcoming 200 people from Brazil, where President Lula’s government has launched the ambitious Zero Hunger program, we met President Lula’s personal adviser, Frei Betto, one of the project leaders.
What is the situation with the Sem Terra (the landless people who are demanding land so they can produce food) and how far has the long-desired agrarian reform progressed?
Brazil is the only Latin American country which has never carried out agrarian reform. That is incredible, especially when you think of the country’s enormous size and that it has 821 million hectares of cultivable land. The main problem, which has blocked reform so far, is ownership: 1% of landowners own 44% of the total land area. That’s just over 30,000 people owning farms with an area greater than 10,000 hectares against about 300,000 landowners with between 10,000 and 200 hectares and something like 3 million people — working in family agriculture — with less than 200 hectares. It helps to illustrate the situation if we realize that 86.6% of those working in the rural sector work in family agriculture, 10.9% on medium-sized farms and only 2.5% on large estates’.
So most of the land remains uncultivated and not used to its full potential. It is crazy, especially when the country has millions of people suffering from hunger.
‘Yes, that’s right. Some farms are as big as Luxembourg. The big landowners can’t use the land productively, but are not interested in selling it or accepting agrarian reform: the land is a sound investment and they hold it for capital gain. The crazy thing is that big landowners are then the only ones who can access credit and resources, managing the agribusiness sector which exports their products. What is more, as they are exporters they are exempt from taxes on all stages of their activity from production to processing. Nobody in Brazil, except for them, gets any benefit from all that land.
The big landowners produce for export and make money while the people do not have much to eat: who produces the food that is eaten in Brazil?
It is mainly the 86% of small producers living from subsistence farming. 40% of the gross value of Brazil’s agricultural production comes from family agriculture and represents 60% of the food produce eaten in Brazil. Family agriculture currently produces 70% of beans, 58% of pork, 54% of beef, 49% of maize, 40% of eggs. They are the ones we have to focus on if we want to make progress. It is by providing incentives to small family producers that we can address the problem of hunger and reform has to obviously be directed at helping them.
And then there are those four and a half million people waiting to be given some land so they too can become small producers. The relationship with the Sem Terra seems somewhat difficult however. If I remember rightly, the national plan for agrarian reform aimed to give land to a million families within 4 years: you now realize that you cannot satisfy everyone; there have been problems and protests.
It is necessary to understand that the Lula government is not in a position to implement complete agrarian reform. Remember that we have not been victorious in a revolution — we won democratic elections and have to therefore contend with the conservatives who are defending the interests of the big landowners, and the even more conservative forces in the judiciary. Relations between the government and the Sem Terra (MST) are basically very good. The government respects them and is trying to establish a dialog, while the ‘capitalist’ forces in the country are pushing for them to be treated as criminals. In fact we have a range of contacts with the MST, we have enemies in common and are all interested in achieving agrarian reform. Unfortunately the plans drawn up by the specialists of the commission that developed the reform process were not realistic, the government does not have sufficient funds. President Lula has pledged to assist 400,000 families and so far 130,000 of them have received land. But the aims of the original project do not go far enough for the MST and they do not understand the enormous pressures and economic problems facing the government. It is a very complex process, every decision has to be passed by parliament, where there is a powerful lobby supporting the big landowners and if disputes about land transfers get taken to court, the political biases of the judges mean that the rulings are generally never in favor of the Sem Terra.
The problem of the landless is somewhat paradoxical, because the land is there but cannot be farmed. You mentioned that the government does not have sufficient financial resources. Is the only solution to buy land from private interests who do not wish to sell it, or are there other options? I suppose there is state-owned land which could be used.
Of the 821 million hectares of cultivable land in Brazil, at least 200 million could be used for the reform: this land belongs to the government, and is classified as terra devoluta or common land. Land ownership in Brazil was put on a legal basis when mapping was carried out in 1855. The Emperor gave the Church the role of ‘notary’: all landowners had to report to the nearest church, with a drawing of their boundaries. Land lying between the boundaries of privately-owned land was then classified as devoluta, untitled public land. But problems then began to arise due to the landgrabbing activities of the grilleiros. Many of the large landowners tried to falsify the legal documents using an intriguing tactic. False registers were placed in drawers containing large numbers of a species of resin-producing cricket which caused documents to appear aged. This practice was extremely widespread and the government is now endeavoring to recover this land and expose the grilleiros.
First printed in La Stampa 6/7/2004
Adapted by Ronnie Richards