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BRAZIL: Agribusiness Driving Land Concentration

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 5 2009 (IPS) - The growth of agribusiness in Brazil, with its vast monocultures of soybean or sugarcane, is responsible for the expansion of large estates belonging to fewer and fewer landowners, according to small farmers’ organisations and agricultural experts.

This is supported by the preliminary results of the 2006 Census of Agriculture, carried out by the state Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which profiles the country’s 5.2 million farms, based on direct data collection from a representative sample.

The IBGE census reports a Gini index for land distribution in Brazil of 0.872, indicating a very high concentration of land ownership. The Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality of distribution, is a value between 0, representing perfect equality (all land equally shared between farmers) and 1, representing total inequality (all land occupied by one individual).

The same index in the previous census of agriculture, carried out in 1995-1996, was 0.856.

Rural employment was found to have declined in 2006, compared to the previous census.

From the census figures by state, analysts observe that in areas like São Paulo, the planting of more sugarcane is associated with a 6.1 percent increase in land concentration compared to the previous census, thanks to incentives for the production of biofuels, like ethanol.

Those responsible for the IBGE survey, presented Sept. 30, said the situation in the state of São Paulo shows that one of the main factors in the concentration of land ownership is the expansion of agribusiness and large monoculture crops for export, such as soybeans and maize.

Agribusiness has also driven the encroachment of farming into protected areas like the Amazon and the enormous Pantanal wetlands in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, experts say.

In the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the inequality index for land ownership is 0.865, soybean production and cattle ranching have been encouraged for the past decade, while in the northeastern state of Alagoas, with an index of 0.871, sugarcane cultivation has increased, as in São Paulo.

IBGE experts said that the inequality index for land concentration does not in itself mean that the land distribution is good or bad. For instance, it says nothing about how much land is rented to tenant farmers.

But this interpretation is criticised by small farmers’ organisations and rural experts.

Brancolina Ferreira, a sociologist at the state Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), said that while there has been little time to examine the census results in detail, “it shows at a glance that between 1996 and 2006, land ownership has become more concentrated.”

This has happened even in areas “where a large number of families have been settled by the government as part of the agrarian reform,” Ferreira told IPS.

Joao Pedro Stedile, one of the national leaders of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), was not surprised by the results.

“The profile reflects what we have been denouncing in practice – that is, there has been a ferocious concentration of land ownership in Brazil in the past 10 years,” the activist told IPS.

According to the census, properties larger than 1,000 hectares cover 46 percent of Brazil’s farmland, while properties smaller than 10 hectares occupy barely 2.7 percent.

“I think we must now be the country with the most concentrated land ownership in the world,” Stedile said.

He attributed the increase in land concentration to the expansion of export-driven agribusiness, which needs extensive areas of land and large amounts of investment in large-scale production.

“This confirms that Brazilian agriculture has become dominated by international capital, which has joined forces with the estate owners to farm according to the agribusiness model,” he said.

In the view of the MST, what has now become evident in statistics was already visible to the naked eye with the expansion of monocultures of sugarcane, oranges and eucalyptus, and extensive cattle ranching.

According to the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), under the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva some 519,000 families were given plots of farmland between 2003 and 2008, representing 59 percent of all those formally settled in the entire history of the country.

INCRA also says that 4.4 billion reals (1.3 billion dollars) of credit was provided to land reform beneficiaries between 2003 and 2009.

But in Stedile’s view, the government’s agrarian reform effort is merely “social compensation,” which does not “attack the big land ownership problem in Brazil.”

Along with other social and small farmer movements, the MST says “it is time for an urgent debate” on what model the country wants: one based on agribusiness “allied with national (and international) companies that control production and trade of grains and commodities,” or a model of family agriculture and land reform.

The 2006 census found that family farms produce 85 percent of Brazil’s food, including 87 percent of the cassava and 70 percent of the beans consumed, and employ 74 percent of agricultural workers.

“Agribusiness, in contrast, is concerned with producing dollars through exports,” said Stedile.

IPEA’s Ferreira said that to combat inequality in the countryside it is necessary to “complete the agrarian reform process,” change certain laws, invest in the productive structures of the settled families’ farms, provide them with high-quality, ongoing technical assistance, eliminate illiteracy and improve educational levels.

Stedile went even further, advocating what he calls “a popular agrarian reform,” based on redistributing the land, making food production for the domestic market a priority, and encouraging small, cooperative agricultural industries.

He also emphasised other imperatives, such as adopting ecologically responsible farming techniques without the use of toxic chemicals.

The census found that toxic pesticides and insecticides are used on 27 percent of farms, with next to no knowledge about their proper handling, or monitoring.

The report also shows that land concentration would have been even greater if the government had not set aside protected areas of land for indigenous people. For instance, the Amazonian state of Roraima, where there are many large indigenous reserves, also had the greatest fall in its land ownership inequality index, which decreased by 18.3 percent since the previous census.

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