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AGRICULTURE-BRAZIL: David, Goliath and Land Reform

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 13 2007 (IPS) - The largest movement fighting for the distribution of unproductive rural property to landless peasant farmers in Brazil complains that the "euphoria" over the production of biofuels from sugar cane and other crops is aggravating the concentration of land ownership and driving up land prices.

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or Landless Workers Movement (MST) argues that the biofuel boom is just another manifestation of the growing strength of agribusiness in Brazil, Latin America&#39s giant.

Joao Pedro Stedile, a member of the MST national leadership, told IPS that biofuel production forms part of the "agricultural model of the dominant classes, the big capitalists who have built up an alliance of vested interests, comprised of transnational corporations on one hand and large Brazilian landowners on the other."

This alliance, he said, is based on export-oriented production on vast tracts of land, and heavy use of toxic agrochemicals that damage the environment.

The MST advocates a different model, one that is "focused on the needs of the people, and is based on keeping peasant farmers in the countryside and on multi-crop production that puts a priority on food production, without the use of agrotoxics," said the activist.

The MST&#39s fifth national congress, which has drawn 18,000 delegates to Brasilia, the capital, from Jun. 11-15, is discussing alternatives to agribusiness.

"Agribusiness impedes land reform because to carry out such reforms, it is necessary to democratise access to property ownership, carve up the large estates (latifundium) and stimulate multi-crop farming for the domestic market," said Stedile. Agribusiness, by contrast, "needs ever larger scales of production and increasingly concentrates land ownership," he added.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 3.5 percent of Brazil&#39s landholders own nearly 60 percent of the best farmland, while the poorest 40 percent of farmers have a mere one percent.

The MST, Latin America&#39s largest social movement, stages occupations of unproductive land to press for faster, more effective agrarian reform.

The movement now has a new concern: the biofuel craze and its impact on the distribution of land.

Stedile said that "What worries us now is the offensive we are seeing by U.S. investors who are funnelling large amounts of money into the purchase of land and distilleries in Brazil, to produce ethanol."

He pointed to the purchase of 13 ethanol factories, mainly by U.S. investors. For example, U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill bought the largest ethanol plant in Riberao Preto in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo, along with 356,000 hectares of sugar cane crops.

"The recent announcement in Brazil by Soros is also pathetic," said the activist.

Adeco, a company in which Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros is the main shareholder, has invested 900 million dollars in the construction of three ethanol plants in the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. In addition, Soros plans to purchase one billion dollars worth of land in Brazil through an investment fund.

A recent study published by the FNP Institute, which is linked to the agricultural market research services firm AgraFNP, confirms that land prices have increased as a result of the ethanol boom.

The study, coordinated by agronomist Jacqueline Dettman, notes that in states like Sao Paulo, sugar cane production is encroaching on orange crops and pastureland, and has driven land prices up by 70 percent in the last year.

And in areas suitable for growing sugar cane in the impoverished northeast, land prices have hit record highs, increasing by 84 percent over the last year, says the study.

In an interview with IPS, Minister of Agrarian Development Guilherme Cassel admitted that along with the growth of ethanol production, "there have to be regulations to ensure that production is not based on the expansion of the latifundio at the expense of the environment, family farms and agrarian reform."

But production of biofuels and food are compatible, he said, if they are planned and regulated, "by avoiding, for example, the purchase of land by foreign investors, which even poses a problem in terms of national sovereignty."

Cassel, however, said he had discrepancies with respect to the MST&#39s argument that agribusiness has been favoured over a "social" model of agriculture.

"In Brazil we have two models: agribusiness, based on large extensions of land and monoculture farming, and the family farm model, based on land reform settlements, crop diversification and protection of the environment," he stated.

During his first four years in office, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva "supported both models, and both were very effective," he said.

Brazil is currently in a position "where it is no longer necessary to commit ourselves only to monoculture farming to generate revenues. At the same time, we support agrarian reform and family agriculture," Cassel added.

He pointed out that over the last four years, the Lula administration increased credits for family farms from 1.15 to 6.25 billion dollars.

The minister said he agreed with the MST that of the two models, "the best one for the Brazilian countryside is the one based on small landholdings, with large numbers of people working, generating jobs and income, with diversified production that protects the environment."

This viewpoint, he acknowledged, is opposed to the model "that has concentrated land and has caused unemployment and marginalisation among people in the countryside, deforestation, slave labour and violence."

The government, he added, is prioritising production of biodiesel, produced from vegetable oils, as a motor for rural development.

He described this as a "revolutionary policy" that has already benefited some 200,000 farmers in the northeast, according to government figures.

What the minister and Stedile do not agree on is the progress made by the government&#39s agrarian reform programme. The MST leader argues that the process has been "practically stagnant" since the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).

Stedile says 65 percent of the new settlements in which landless farmers have been granted property were established on publicly-owned land in the Amazon jungle region, and thus "should be labelled ‘colonisation projects&#39 instead of ‘settlements&#39."

The remaining 35 percent, according to the MST, are settlements in which there has been no true agrarian reform policy, in the sense of "measures aimed at distributing land and democratising the ownership of rural property."

"We maintain that these settlement policies do not constitute agrarian reform, but are policies of social contention aimed at resolving short-term problems" that form part of "free-market economic policies that have left behind national and industrial development."

"I don&#39t agree with Stedile&#39s arguments," Cassel responded. "The Brazilian government can confidently state that never before have so many people been settled on land of their own in such a short time in Brazil."

According to the minister, 371,000 rural families have received a total of 32 million hectares of land in the last four years, "an area larger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined."

He did not deny that many of the families were settled in the Amazon jungle region, and said that policy should be included in the aims of social movements like the MST when they "discuss a rational and environmentally sustainable occupation of land."

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