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BRAZIL: Bringing Development to Poverty-Stricken Maranhão State

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 23 2008 (IPS) - The construction of what will be Latin America’s biggest oil refinery and of a large steel mill, as well as the promotion of food production, are among the initiatives aimed at pulling the state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil out of decades of poverty.

Maranhão is the source of most of the workers caught up in modern-day slavery in Brazil, and of tens of thousands of workers who travel over 2,000 kilometres from their homes for several months of seasonal work harvesting sugar cane.

The state, which occupies a transitional area between the semi-arid "sertão" of the northeast and the hot, humid Amazon jungle, was pushed around five decades ago as "the solution for the northeast," offering an alternative to poor farmers plagued by drought in the rest of the region, noted Jackson Lago, who has governed the state for the past year and a half.

But over the last two decades, Maranhão has not received migrants from other parts of the northeast, Brazil’s poorest region. Instead, more than one million people have left the state in search of work elsewhere, taking the lowest-paying jobs in the worst conditions.

Many migrants from Maranhão, for example, work as "garimpeiros" (illegal gold prospectors) or have cleared out farmland in the Amazon jungle, fuelling the deforestation there.

In the last four decades, land ownership has become heavily concentrated in the state, with between 2.5 and three million hectares going to large landowners and business interests, while small-scale farming has shrunk, the governor said at a Jun. 20 meeting with business and political leaders and journalists in Rio de Janeiro.

Furthermore, "no major project has been carried out" to bolster local development, he added.

The infrastructure that does exist in the state, like the railway that brings in iron ore from the Carajá mountains in the neighbouring state of Pará to Maranhão’s existing steel mills, an aluminium smelter and a port for mineral exports, forms part of an "economic enclave" that contributes nothing to local development and leaves "only pollution," he said.

Maranhão, which was formerly the second rice producer in Brazil, "now imports more than half of the rice it consumes," and is a net importer of food, said Lago, who belongs to the Democratic Labour Party (PDT).

In addition, the recent expansion of soybeans in the southern part of the state, which forms part of Brazil’s vast central "cerrado" grasslands, has driven local peasant farmers from their land. In the municipality of Balsas, where soybean monoculture has made the greatest headway, 95 percent of the district’s 80,000 people now live in the city there.

This case can serve as a lesson for avoiding similar situations in other parts of the state and to foment "coexistence" between large-scale soybean farming and family farms, said Lago, after acknowledging that the peasant settlements his government is promoting are still far from bringing about the necessary land reform.

A zoning plan to clearly mark specific economic areas and environmental preserves in the state and the opening of a local branch of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA – the state body that has played a decisive role in boosting the country’s agricultural productivity levels) will contribute to local rural development, said the governor.

Agricultural knowledge and technical advice are key, he said, pointing out that in Maranhão, cassava productivity is less than six tons per hectare, compared to 25 or 30 in the southern state of Paraná, which means cassava from the south is highly competitive in the local market, despite the cost of transporting the crop more than 3,000 kilometres.

A literacy campaign carried out with support from the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez using the Cuban method ‘Yo si puedo’ (Yes, I Can), and the opening of a number of technical-vocational schools are other initiatives undertaken by the governor, whose election put an end to the four-decade local political dynasty of the family of Senator José Sarney, who was president of Brazil from 1985 to 1990.

The Sarney family nevertheless remains powerful, controlling the leading media outlets in the state, said Lago, who pointed to similar "monopolies" in other states of the northeast, like Bahia and Alagoas.

Lago admitted that the large business ventures in the state aimed at giving a boost to the local economy will employ relatively small numbers of workers and will pose a threat to the environment, like the oil refinery, the steel mill and a new port for exporting minerals.

Given its lack of experience in dealing with such large-scale projects that pose environmental and other problems, Lago’s government signed an agreement with the University of São Paulo to help the state’s environmental authorities deal with the new challenges.

The half a dozen steel mills in the state that already process iron ore from the Carajás mountains fuelled deforestation in the last three decades, because they used – and some continue to use – charcoal extracted from native forests, often by workers subjected to slave labour.

In Maranhão today there are broad areas that have been deforested by the charcoal producers, ranchers, logging companies and agriculture, as part of an economic expansion based on the intense unsustainable exploitation of natural resources that generates few jobs and has not contributed to local development or to alleviating poverty.

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