Land concentration in Brazil : a politics of poverty


The issue of land and its unequal distribution underlies the entire field of economic, social, and cultural rights and the right to development in a large number of countries in the South. Lack of access to production resources is key to the extreme poverty in which hundreds of millions of small farmers live throughout the world.

In many countries, the issue of land reform is pointless when political and economic powers are against the redistribution of land and when they even favour a concentration which is profitable to rich families and foreign businesses looking for low-cost ventures and a cheap workforce, ready to endure any type of work conditions.

The CETIM would like to point out that unequal land distribution impacts on all human rights in a way that raises many concerns for organisations within civil societies in many “developing” countries. It should be stressed that upholding land concentration not only impacts on economic, social and cultural rights but also on civil and political rights.

On one hand, land concentration results in poverty and jeopardization of living conditions. Through the exclusion of a large number of citizens, basic economic and social rights are denied: the right to food, health, work, equitable and fair working conditions, an adequate standard of living, etc.

On the other hand, the refusal to grant the right to life and dignity results in movements of civil resistance that are harshly repressed by local authorities in blatant violation of civil and political rights.

Brazil: exclusion and repression go hand in hand

Brazil is an extreme case of land concentration in the hands of major landowners: 2.8% of landowners own over 56% of arable land, 45% of the total area is occupied by only 1% of agricultural holdings. Moreover, 50% of small holdings have access to only 2.5% of the total area and employ about two-thirds of the rural population.

The political power in Brazil is absolutely unable to justify its politics of exclusion and throws the blame for this situation on natural phenomena as the sole agents of humanitarian disasters. Other governments also use these tactics, as we have already pointed out in the case of Hurricane Mitch1. If climatic phenomena have such an impact on populations in difficult situations, it is precisely because discriminatory politics facilitate the deterioration of living conditions for disenfranchised populations and make them vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods, drought, insect plagues and so on.

What exactly does civil society blame on the Brazilian government in terms of land policy?

Despite the existence of an “National Institute for Colonisation and Land Reform” (INCRA) and the various promises of different governments to tackle the question of land redistribution, no effective measures have been taken to change the situation. Land abounds but an enormous part of small farmers remain without land or resources. The total area of Brazil is 850 million hectares, of which 390 million are considered fit for agriculture or grazing by INCRA. Yet 31% of these lands remain unused.

The main reason invoked by the Brazilian government is that land expropriation is a lengthy and costly process. The government claims that it cannot afford to buy off land from major landowners. The landowners lobby, which is active at the highest political levels, puts great pressure on the government and goes so far as to force the government to contribute huge subsidies to its activities.

Civil society, through the intervention of numerous NGO, co-operatives, farmer organisations and rural movements, has responded with a different approach to land reform, based on the respect of human rights as opposed to the economical interests of the wealthy. This reform has been long thought over, but never implemented.

These movements propose, among other things, the following alternatives:

First of all, many agricultural estates are completely illegitimate, some being merely the result of illegal political deals. The foundation of these often gigantic estates must therefore be questioned at the governmental level. State seizure of these lands would allow an equitable redistribution in favour of landless farmers.

Secondly, an impressive amount of these estates leave large tracts of land unexploited. Many landowners simply do not need to use all the lands they own which therefore remain idle. Rapid confiscation of unused arable areas could directly benefit farmers in need.

For the most part, it is neither legitimate nor necessary to buy off lands from the major landowners ; objective criteria should rather be sought in order to determine to whom these lands really belong.

The established authorities ignore these alternatives and argue that they have no means to help the poor, despite a clear commitment to this effect through the ratification of various international human rights treaties.

The World Bank’s Land Bank

The Brazilian government is entangled in the logic of the market-place as its only virtual decision-maker. Under the pressure of the trend to ultraliberal globalisation, it has forsaken the idea of expropriating vast tracts of land that are monopolised and often left unused by major landowners.

The government is supported in this by the World Bank’s “Cédula da terra” programme. This programme was initiated in 1997, allegedly aiming to offer subsidies to landless farmers so that they might be able to buy off plots of land from the owners.

This programme, which considers itself to be in the interest of small farmers, is nevertheless the object of Brazilian civil society’s sharp criticism. It is considered deceiving inasmuch as it is the Brazilian government’s inadequate response to the issue of effective land reform, which is explicitly mentioned in the 1998 Constitution.

On one hand, this programme implicitly recognises the legitimacy of land ownership as it currently is practised in Brazil, on the other, the government is forsaking its formal agreement to land redistribution by asking poor farmers to buy their own lands, with the help of a loan, and flaunts the whole process as humanitarian aid from the international community (the World Bank) and the national authorities. In this respect, the idea of land reform is deliberately abandoned in favour of market economy logics.

On the other hand, this programme encourages indebtedness of small farmers and does nothing to significantly improve their situation. It does however allow the authorities to acquit themselves of their responsibilities towards the private sector by divesting itself completely from the issue of land reform.

Popular organisations have expressed the following main points of criticism regarding this issue :

When the World Bank announced a yearly grant of USD 360 million to the Land Bank, Fernando Cardoso’s government proceeded to cut BRR (Brazilian real) 700 million from its land reform programmes (USD 1 = BRR 1.8).

If farmers choose to take part in this programme, they may no longer benefit from subsidies usually offered by various Brazilian institutions, such as PROCERA or INCRA, as incentive credits. They consequently receive no other assistance to begin repaying any debts incurred to buy their lands.

Land control remains in the hands of major landowners. Land may only be distributed if its owner agrees to sell it. Moreover, since landowners have the prerogative of deciding what lands they want to sell, only low-quality land enters the market.

Land Bank legislation makes provisions for its members to form producer associations. In this respect, the programme would tend to reinforce electoral alliances among the rural oligarchies of Brazil, and therefore favours the political submissiveness of the disenfranchised.

As expropriation is replaced by the implementation of the Land Schedule, the political authorities and the World Bank are effectively compensating major landowners who are directly credited with cash payments for lands they have sold instead of receiving proof of land debts payable over 20 years.

As the programme is extended to the entire national territory, a significant rise in land prices will necessarily take place. Major landowners will form cartels in order to speculate and therefore raise land prices locally. Landless farmers and small holders will be forced to pay prohibitive costs in order to finance their land acquisitions.

Thus, a majority of civil society considers that this programme will increase poverty instead of fighting it, as the World Bank and the Cardoso government contend.

Democratic Resistance and Repression

Over the past few years, poverty, inequity and injustice in rural Brazilian society have initiated a considerable number of non-violent resistance movements among the peasantry. The internationally famous Landless Farmers Movement (MST), for instance, conducts actions that merely seek to occupy unexploited lands that belong to major landowners in order to farm them and make a living.

In the fight for the respect of their economic, social and cultural rights infringed upon by the authorities, small farmers are constantly in conflict with local authorities and the object of civil and political repression : arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, summary executions, massacres, etc.

These abuses are particularly frequent during the “eviction” of landless farmers from occupied lands. But MST members, and members of other protest movements, are the permanent object of similar repression in their everyday lives : arrests, detention, torture, etc.

Between 1985 and 1997, 1003 farmers have been murdered in Brazil. Out of these, only 56 cases have resulted in criminal procedures and only very few actual sentences have been handed out. Impunity is the only law.

The apex of violence has been reached twice with the massacres of Corumbiara (August 9th, 1995) and Eldorado de Carajas (April 17th, 1996). During the former, 11 farmers were murdered by military police as they were evicted from the land they occupied. Many other people were tortured or abused and 90 people were seriously wounded. In the course of the latter, 19 people were murdered.

The figures for 1998 are as follows: 32 labourers murdered, 142 workers jailed, 20 cases of torture in the Tocantins area, other cases of torture in various areas – all cases linked with the MST -, and countless cases of violence, threats and attacks of farmers by military police. Violence is at its worst during illegal night-time evictions, especially frequent in the State of Paraná this year. This very day, more than 60 000 families live in makeshift camps in complete violation of the Brazilian constitution. Many of these families have been living in these conditions for more than 10 years2.

Faced with very real national and international pressure on the land issue, the Brazilian government attempts on one hand to discredit the Landless Movement, despite its broad basis of popular support, and on the other hand, with the help of the World Bank, it attempts to conceal its forsaking land reform with the Land Bank programme.

This programme has been implemented without any due prior consultation with rural organisations, Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities and plantation workers. It shows the World Bank’s persistence in imposing inadequate projects that are beneficial only to the most privileged of those who live in the South. It is an externally designed model and not one developed by local democratic.

We earnestly ask the Sub-commission against Discriminatory Measures and for the Protection of Minority Rights to urge the Brazilian government to respect the international Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and particularly article 11 of this Pact, which affirms, among others, “every person’s right to an adequate standard of living… and (the need for) land reform” and to also respect the terms of the international Pact on Civil and Political Rights.

Categories Cases HUMAN RIGHTS Rights of peasants Statements
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