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BRAZIL: Family Farms Fight for Survival in Sea of Soy

Mario Osava

LUCAS DO RIO VERDE, Brazil, Aug 1 2011 (IPS) - A bullet to his shoulder forced him to spend seven days in the hospital. In another attempt on his life, he was shot at three times, but miraculously escaped unscathed. “I will never sit next to a window again,” says Brazilian rural activist Walter Moura.

Silos at the entrance to Lucas do Rio Verde, a centre of soy, corn and cotton production in Mato Grosso.  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Silos at the entrance to Lucas do Rio Verde, a centre of soy, corn and cotton production in Mato Grosso. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

This is just a small part of the costs of peasant farmers’ struggle for land in the north of the west-central state of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s leading soy producer. “They killed our friends,” says Moura, president of the rural workers’ union in Guarantã do Norte, a town of 32,000.

Moura arrived in this part of Brazil three decades ago, after his family left the southern state of Paraná and spent a few years in neighbouring Paraguay. On their return to Brazil, they were looking for cheap land in the western or northern parts of the country, like millions of other poor farmers from the south who were encouraged by government policies to settle on and deforest land in the Amazon jungle and other areas considered to be “empty space.”

For years Moura farmed land to which he had no formal title, until he obtained a title deed. Today he sells native Amazon fruits “from 30,000 trees,” and produces dairy products.

Guarantã do Norte, founded in the 1980s by migrants from southern Brazil at the southeastern edge of the Amazon rainforest, has not yet been invaded by soy. But it has been overrun by cattle farming, the biggest cause of deforestation and violent conflicts over land in Brazil.

The area has begun to feel the effects of soy monoculture, because the town is along BR-163, the road used to transfer export crops out of the area. The road runs between Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state, and the river port of Santarém in the northern state of Pará from which goods are shipped to the Atlantic ocean along the Amazon river.

For hundreds of kilometres, soy stretches as far as the eye can see to either side of the BR-163 highway, and the crop has hemmed in family farms, which provide an estimated two-thirds of the food consumed in this country of 191 million people.

Lucas do Rio Verde, a town 380 km south of Guarantã do Norte, is in the middle of a sea of soy, which is planted in September and October, and is replaced by corn or cotton in January and February.

“There is no space left here for family farms,” says Nilfo Wandscheer, who was head of the local rural workers’ union (STR) until early July.

Eighty percent of the vegetables consumed in the town are produced elsewhere, and most of the farmers who belong to the local union are also from out of town, he says.

In Brazil, the STRs represent both rural wage earners – including more than 2,000 in Lucas do Rio Verde – and families who depend on farming for a living, whether on land of their own or on leased land.

Around the town there are only 120 small vegetable farms, many of which are doomed to disappear because they are in an area that will be swallowed up by urban sprawl.

The population of the town is set to climb from 45,500 – as registered by the 2010 census – to 300,000 in 20 years, projects Edu Pascoski, the city’s secretary of agriculture and the environment.

Lucas do Rio Verde has become a major agribusiness hub, with the installation of a number of grain processing plants. For example, a plant owned by Sadia, one of Brazil’s leading food processing companies, began to operate three years ago and now employs nearly 5,000 workers in the processing of chicken and pork, as well as animal feed – industries that are based on high local levels of production of soy and corn.

And in a few years, when the railway arrives, this town will also become a logistics hub. The railroad is a government priority, because it will provide a transport alternative for the state’s growing harvests, which are now driven thousands of kilometres by truck to Atlantic ocean ports.

The railway and the paving of BR-163, set to be completed in 2012, will boost the competitiveness of agriculture in Mato Grosso, reducing logistics costs that are high due to the state’s location in the heart of the South American continent, says Pascoski, another farmer from southern Brazil, who is also an accountant and local politician.

But these long transport routes will only serve large-scale agribusiness interests, “not us, who will enjoy few benefits from the railroad,” says João Paulo Felix, president of the STR in the town of Nova Mutum which, like nearby Lucas do Rio Verde, is surrounded by soy, corn and cotton fields and huge silos owned by transnational corporations like Cargill, Bunge and ADM.

What small farmers need are local roads and transport, he said. Two agricultural settlements made up of land granted to 358 families as part of the government’s land reform programe are 75 and 150 km outside of the town of Nova Mutum, which has a population of 30,000.

By law, government institutions in Brazil have to purchase 30 percent of the food used in school lunch programmes from family farmers. But the local agricultural settlements have been unable to tap into that market, “because the cost of transport makes it impossible for them to deliver the food they produce,” Felix laments.

Furthermore, the large export routes will drive up the cost of farmland in Mato Grosso. Land “will be worth the price of gold” and will be even more out of reach of small farmers, says Jarlene Pires, leader of a group of around 100 families who have been occupying land in Marcelandia, near Guarantã do Norte, since 2001. The families are now facing arson attacks and threats from the supposed owner, who is attempting to force them off the land.

Family farmers also face hurdles thrown up by local health authorities, Felix complains. In Nova Mutum there is a requirement that sausages and other pork products must be made at least 1,000 metres from the pigsty. “But my farm is only 400 metres long,” he points out.

Producers of honey and cheese are also required to have special equipment that would involve a large investment that poor peasant farmers cannot afford, he adds.

The “adverse context” is compounded by the cutting off of special loans for family farmers, because the government’s Agrarian Reform Institute failed to meet environmental requirements when it set up land reform settlements in the north of Mato Grosso, says Wandscheer, another southerner who migrated “in search of land and a new life.”

He arrived in 1998 with some labour organising experience, and later took part in an occupation of idle land outside of Nova Mutum, which led to the settlement of 69 families on plots of their own.

He then became leader of the rural union in Lucas do Rio Verde, where he led an action that went beyond the local sphere and the trade union, and earned him several death threats.

Today he is a prominent activist in the fight for land reform, agroecology and cooperatives, and against the use of toxic pesticides and fertilisers. He has turned his union into a studies centre, and in 2006 they protested the agrochemicals sprayed by planes that caused health problems in Lucas do Rio Verde.

Wandscheer left the presidency of the STR to head a network of farming cooperatives in northern Mato Grosso, where “all of the mayors are from the agribusiness sector” and “public policies all cater to agribusiness,” he says.

In order for family farming to survive and grow, better conditions are needed in terms of marketing, technical assistance and training, he says.

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