The Agrarian Space of Brazil:

Old forms, new functions, new forms, old functions

  Manuel Correia de Andrade 


01 - Reflections About the End of the Century 

            We are in less than a month to the end of the XX century and to the second millennium what leads us to think in two different directions about the evolution of our society: The past one contemplating what has been made in each sector and in its totality in the last century, and the future one trying to point out the perspectives concerning what could happen next century. 

            In the Brazilian case we can highlight that changes from one year to another do not bring specific alterations, even if they happen in different centuries. They are processed as if the changes had happened in two years of a same century. However the new fact stimulates reflection and dreams as well as the idealization of what would have happened and what could happen in the current days. We should remember that XX century was a century of death and abandonment of old utopias. Simultaneously it was a century when new utopias were planted. These will certainly have a bigger or smaller bloom and acceptance in the XXI century. 

            In a summarized point of view we could admit that the XX century was the scenery to a fight for the implantation of a powerful socialist system contesting to the capitalism growing domain and the real socialism defeat - dissolution of Soviet Union, in 1989 - and the capitalism exacerbation now commanded by an only hegemonic potency which has supplanted and in a certain extent dominated the old imperialistic currents. We could ask: doesn't the exacerbated capitalism tend to implode, as it happened to the real socialism? 

            The world needs and permanently elaborates utopias as if those were indispensable to humanity; that is why nowadays we have the growth of expressions regarding environmental problems – environmentalism - and market deification as economy mentor followed by neo-liberalism and globalization growth. Utopias that lead to overreaction like those aiming to transform large portions of the Earth’s surface in “ecological sanctuaries” and defend more and more the concentration of income an welfare in rich countries and the exclusion of the falsely called emergent countries, a marginality that has become progressively poor and dependent. Globalization is responsible for the breaking of national borders, for the destruction of Welfare State, for the unemployment, for the national sovereignty alienation, for the population impoverishment, for the endemic and epidemic diseases propagation, and certainly for the physical elimination of the poor and seniors in a short term. 

            These ideals will, naturally, once again divide humanity in groups and sects originating fights as cruel like the XX century ones.


02 - The evolution sense   

            In the XIX century people have tried to acclaim progress affirming that it would solve all disputes and sophisticate civilization. In the end of the XX century they have tried to deify technology for what they call modernity and even post-modernity. Modernity and modern are confused with perfection and welfare and they are pointed as the result from the growing use of techniques and innovations.

            However modernists and modernist activators have forgotten that the evolution of the society does not happen in a lineal way, going in an accelerated rhythm towards the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992). Conversely, today it is known that the evolution happens in a circular way showing progresses and backward movements. This enriches the process with innovations and possible traditional tendencies resurgence (Freyre, 1983). That is how evolutionary process happens. It is fed by insurgencies and resurgences then we cannot exclude two faces of modern: the tradition and the renewal. This process is a back-and-forth motion between incorporated innovations and turn to the past as its base and structure. 

            Taking into account that agriculture is one of humanity's fundamental activities and that men depend on it for their feeding, among other things, we should analyze the agricultural and agrarian processes in Brazil as paying attention on their evolution. 


03 - Brazil - Agrarian Space and Its Elaboration 

            Brazil is a country characterized by its great territorial extension - more than eight million and half of squared kilometers – an important population - more than one hundred and sixty million inhabitants - and vast diversity of natural conditions. 

            It is a great producer of grains and other products which are usually destined to sell overseas, but a great part of Brazil’s population is configured by farmers who needs lands to plant and victuals to consume; it is a country with a very expressive economy – world’s 8th position - but with a very low HDI, 0,747, occupying the world 74th place, inferior to the other Latin-American countries as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Panama, and Colombia. This lamentable position is mostly a result from the colonization process (Andrade, 2000) and its political evolution. 

            Actually the colonization process created land systems appropriation where it was divided in great lots - the land grant in colonial Brazil – land was given to people who had resources to explore it using manpower under coercion - indigenous and African blacks. This system allowed the great latitudinal formation and the land exploration because of an export economy. Only in 1822, thanks to the political vision of José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva the land grant system in colonial Brazil was extinguished and substituted by the ownership right, falling to the leaseholder to request the land property that they used to occupy. Subsequently they have tried to democratize the access land property although leaseholders hardly had conditions to legalize their land parcel, thanks to the large proprietors' greed and to the high government dignitaries. In the middle of the XIX century seeking to consolidate the proprietors' power and to open perspectives to foreign colonists attracted to Brazil, it was settled down the land access through “buying and selling” contract consolidating the landowners' power. 

            In 1852 the “iron circle” was closed around the property access. Although political and studious men with social vision like André Rebouças and Joaquim Nabuco had disseminated the need for agrarian reform, it was not done and the old appropriation forms and property’s conservation impeded the manifestation of new functions. Property continued to be the producer of exporting goods - sugar cane, cotton, cocoa, coffee, etc - or additional goods that had a growing demand in internal urban market. Besides the noble production small farming properties grew in less fertile geographical spaces or in places of difficult access for the production of cassava, corn, yam, etc destined to solemnity-consumption and local and regional commercialization. 

            The size of the property and its proprietor's economical and political power defined its function and the implantation of structures that could allow the growth of the production - ports, railroads, industries, etc. The small production marginal to large properties without land workers – foreiros (who pays ground-rent) and meeiros (who plants in someone else’s ground) - (Andrade, 1998) had a supplemental function: to guarantee the local provisioning and to retain manpower, allowing the large production to call them when it was necessary. 

            With the population growth and the formation of demographic expressive urban nuclei, that marginal production system became more important and people started thinking in a social reform that could benefit small producers. The first longings in this sense appeared in the imperial period with Joaquim Nabuco's expressed request (Andrade, 2000) for an agrarian reform and the projects made in João Alfredo’s government, in 1889, complementing the abolitionist project of margin land dispossession of navigable rivers and railroads. 

            During the colonial period black and indigenous slaves revolts dotted the national territory with quilombos and indigenous resistance places, but some of them were squeezed and some subsist until our days. Only recently we have started making systematic studies about these several native and black resistance forms. The historical studies on the regency’s period were approached by Caio Prado Júnior (1933) as a resistance to the form independence was made benefiting dominant groups and excluding popular layers. 

            In the Republic period nothing was done to facilitate an agrarian reform. The republican order (in 1930) had previously been limited to aggressively repress popular and rural movements as Canudos and Contestado accusing them of monarchist, retrograde, and fanatic.

            It was only after the Revolution of Thirty that, in an attempt to find its way, innovative ideas came up trying to diffuse new property forms - the family property and according to some authors cooperative and collective forms - obtaining new functions. Some studious have given major attention to the problem, like Caio Prado Júnior (1979), Alberto Passos Guimarães (1968), Manuel Correia de Andrade (1986), Josué de Castro (1946), Celso Furtado (1986) etc, presenting many different models. Agrarian reform projects were also presented in the Chamber of Deputies as a very discussed one: Coutinho Cavalcanti (1961).

            Rural Workers Movements were organized in the country, predominantly in the states where there were a superior population and a better political conscience. This happened in the Northeast of the country, in the States of Pernambuco and Paraíba, expanding later to Goiás, through the called Rural Alliance, motivated by Francisco Julião and Zezé de Galiléia (1962). Brazil’s Communist Social Faction also had a great performance organizing the rural population in farm leagues and rural unions under the leadership of Gregório Bezerra. 

            The Catholic Church, trying to maintain Catholic rural population near itself also developed a strong action in several points of the country, through movements of farmers' literacy and union organization. A Catholic group, PA - Popular Action -, had stood out for the enhancement of radical opinions, in the beginnings of sixties. In Goiás it became an expressive movement, directed by José Porfírio, called Revolta das Trombas e Formoso. At last, the bibliography on this theme is very rich deserving analysis and reflection by specialists of agrarian questions, and in particular agrarian geographers. According to the situation of the studied areas, those professionals can deepen specific researches about colonization, about agricultural border expansion, and about expansion fronts in the Amazon and in the Brazilian Center-west regions. These regions have great implications in environment destruction, in old arrangement areas where traditional cultures have been in decadence, in back territorialization process and in agrarian reform. 

            Nowadays geographers can be regimented around studies that try to analyze the performance of entities like CONTAG and MST. These movements fight for the land conquest promoting invasions to guarantee land for those who need areas to work and also to stimulate the government to face its own slowness towards this problem. Actually, INCRA is extremely slow and the authorities themselves recognize that a lot of times they have committed doubtful attitudes in the selection and value of areas to be dispossessed. 

            In the other hand, the rural situation becomes explosive in both arrangement areas and the occupied ones from the colonial period. This way, conflicts around the ownership and land’s use in less settlement areas can be observed. Murders and massacres have succeeded with no legal punishment for the responsible. One of these facts was observed in Acre, with the murder of Chico Mendes, which had international repercussion. Other recent events, Corumbiara mass murder, in Rondônia, and Eldorado dos Carajás in South Pará. These lamented occurrences have been repeated without the governmental force to restraint them. In old arrangement areas where the old export products are in decadence it is observed a fight for land. Workers who have been living in those farms for generations, as well as workers from neighboring areas invade traditional properties where there has not been cultivated anything, as in the past. They start to ask for their rights and to occupy these old “ranches” after these mills and farms become unproductive, changing the land fortune and destining new functions to that. 

            We still have to ask ourselves about the action of grileiros and exploiting companies of wood as mahogany in indigenous lands, many times with own natives connivance. That wood is generally sold overseas with inexpressive public power surveillance. 

04 - Forms and Functions 

            Brazil’s territorial extension makes difficult the presentation of scenery where we can define agrarian property forms and functions. They are numerous as the old and new forms as the old and new functions. Therefore we have decided to get two forms in this essay: the most general to compare an occupation area to an occupied area from the colonial period. In the first case we have spotted the country’s Northwest area in particular Mato Grosso, Rondônia, south Pará, and Amazonas, and in the second case we have spotted the Northeast oriental portion. 

            In the first area, south drained by the Silver River mostly composed by Paraguay and North drained by the right Amazonas margin tributaries and sub-flowing. Here we have come across an area that had been under populated and practically isolated from the country until the second half of the XX century. In this place besides the virgin forests where indigenous groups used to live, most of them not contacted to the settlers, the vegetable extractive exploration was developed from seringueira trees, cáucho trees, chestnut, and ipeca. They were conduced through the fluvial net to Belém, the Amazonian most important city and regional economic pole in that time.

            The opening of the highway Belém-Brasília came to complement the March to the West politic initiated during the New State (1937/45). That policy created the federal territories and intensification in the authoritarian period (1964/85) with the opening of numerous highways, land concessions, and subsidies to companies that wanted to apply resources in the area. These resources were mainly supplied by the Public Power on the form of subsidies. They wanted to explore mineral resources as gold, iron ore, cassiterite (tin ore), that people already knew they were abundant in that area. To optimize settlement and to guarantee land property, large companies developed wood exploration activities followed by the soy culture and pasture plantation (Oliveira, 1988). Indigenous populations were expropriated from their own lands, decimated or reduced to a poverty condition, while the forest was destroyed and largely devastated by fire. In this process, besides indigenous population, the people of the forest (mestizos) descendents from the first settlers, who explored vegetable products and lived at small villages, were also reached. These residents called “forest men” were resistant to land expropriation and they used to struggle for their lands, but many times they were pursued and died. The episode of Chico Mendes was this fight’s summit by the marketing point of view.

            The Amazonian soils, rich in silex and poor in organic matter had their forests burned and transformed in ashes rich in potassium. They impoverish in two or three years of cultivation making necessary to enlarge the area to parts still not deforested or in deforestation, leaving behind the impoverished lands. This growth initiated in Mato Grosso and extended to the northern part of the country towards Rondônia, Acre, Amazonas, and Pará. The basins of Juruá, Madeira, Tapajós, Xingu, and Tocantins were devastated. Additional expansion fronts are moving from the East to the West, coming from Northeast, through Maranhão, crossing Tocantins and east Pará. 

            Fatigued soils to soy production have been the same ones occupied by the extensive livestock. Colonization projects have been implanted intending to settle farmers who have come from southern states searching lands. That was the reason for massive influxes of people from Rio Grande do Sul (the country’s South region) into Mato Grosso and Rondônia; some of the most audacious colonists have crossed the Amazonas River and gone farther north aiming the fields of Roraima near the borders of Venezuela and Guyana. 

            However there is the domain of the old form of landowner’s property cultivating export products and supported by governmental policies since the colonial period. For this they have built highways in areas of humid forests or hydro ways as the one linking Porto Velho to Itacoatiara. These paths facilitate the exports of soy and forest products, maintaining the country as an exporter of grains and raw material to rich countries.

            Also we should not forget about the implantation of projects in the Amazon. They have brought big damages to the national economy and benefited foreign groups. Projects like the manganese exploration on Amapá, the rice cultivation and the Amazon forest substitution by a forest made with gnelina on the Jari project. 

            The distinction is made by traditional Northeast sugar cane cultivation implanted in the XVI century and destined to provisioning the external market, causing the settlement in Região da Mata in Pernambuco and Recôncavo Bahiano. This cultivation was the support for that region and for the colony in the initial colonization centuries (XVI and XVII). The production used to be made in banguês mills (primitive sugar mills) and constituted by brown sugar that competed at the European market with the sugar produced in Madeira and in other Atlantic Ocean islands. 

            This production started being modernized in the last decades of the XIX century and first decades of the XX century, opening to produce sugar demerara and granulate. The demerara sugar was mainly destined to export because the countries that purchased it used to reserve for themselves the refining process .The granulated sugar was largely used in the internal markets. In the beginning of the XX century, the sugar cane productions of Rio de Janeiro (Campos plain) and later São Paulo pressured the Northeastern production and after the Second World War they started disputing international market. The Northeastern industry only subsisted until the nineties, because of protection policies coordinated by Sugar and Alcohol Institute. 

            During the period dominated by military governments there were attempts toward the recovery of the Northeast sugar economy through programs of sugar mills modernization and the Proálcool; but it was a real disaster with numerous sugar mills closing in several states. In Pernambuco, for example, from 38 existent plants in 1974 nowadays only 30 remained in activity (crop 1999/2000). This crisis was brought by several factors: numerous companies economical non viability, relocation of capitals and machines of economical groups from Northeast to the Center-west, and the amplification of some sugar mills production capacity absorbing smaller neighboring plants of less resources.

            Naturally, the fall in industrial production motivated the pull back in sugar cane cultivation area and a huge dismissal of rural workers. These workers formulated plead in the Labor Court and stayed at their “ranches” waiting for the judicial decision. Initially they have developed subsistence cultures and later products to the local and regional market.

            They also started received attendance from FETAPE (Federação do Trabalhadores de Pernambuco/ Pernambuco / Workers’ Federation), affiliated with CONTAG, and from MST (Movimento do Sem Terra/ Landless Workers’ Movement). As they did not have mills to sell the sugar cane to they started to substitute it by crops for their own consumption (cassava, corn, sweet potato, yam, etc) and fruits (lemon, cashew, guava, berries, etc) that could be consumed “in natura”, commercialized in street markets, or transformed in jams and compotes that could be sold in grocery stores and supermarkets. While local producers are in general linked to FETAPE and to union movements, workers who were expelled from land and camped at cities and villas are regimented by MST. They are motivated to occupy lands not used by its own proprietors. Some of them have been waiting for judicial decisions and the INCRA’s action that is always slow to have their situation defined. 

            We believe that in the beginning of the XXI century new forms and new functions will be generated in that region. This way, land has been divided between two types of large property: the one that keeps the production of sugar and alcohol and the one that, thanks to the topography, starts doing traditional cultures that were important in the past, as the ones of cotton and coffee. They also try to experience crops from other areas as seringueira and cacao tree. The other part is formed by the division of large properties in small lots belonging to lease holders who produce banana and other fruits mostly destined to the consumption of the local population or the production of tropical fruit sweets. Some fruits are being exported, as pinecone and mango, by companies in sub-medium San Francisco.


 05 - Final Considerations 

            As we can observe Brazil’s imperative problem concerns the agrarian reform seeking to diversify the production and its commitment to the internal market, inasmuch guaranteeing the settlement of men to the field, lessening the rural exodus.


            An agrarian reform must focus on the democratization of land access for rural workers as well as giving guidance on what to produce, how to produce and the probable dissemination to that production. It should reach both production and function forms. 


06 - Bibliographical References 

  1992 – Fukuyama, Francis – O Fim da História e o Último Homem. Rocco. Rio de Janeiro;

1983 – Freyre, Gilberto – Insurgências e Ressurgências Atuais. Argumentos de Sims e Nãos num mundo em transição. Globo. Porto Alegre/Rio de Janeiro;

2000 – Andrade, Manuel Correia de – A Trajetória do Brasil (de 1500 a 2000). Contexto. São Paulo;

1998 – Andrade, Manuel Correia de – A Terra e o Homem no Nordeste. 6ª edição. Editora da UFPE. Recife;

2000 - _________________________ - Nabuco Um Exemplo de Pernambucanidade. CEPE. Recife;

1933 – Prado Júnior, Caio – Evolução Política do Brasil. Editora da Revista dos Tribunais. São Paulo;

1979 - _________________ - A Questão Agrária. Brasiliense. São Paulo;

1986 – Andrade, Manuel Correia de – Lutas Camponesas no Nordeste. Ática. São Paulo;

1968 – Guimarães, Alberto Passos – Quatro Séculos de Latifúndio. Paz e Terra. Rio de Janeiro;

1945 – Castro, Josué de – A Geografia da Fome. A Fome no Brasil. O Cruzeiro. Rio de Janeiro;

1986 – Furtado, Celso – Formação Econômica do Brasil. Companhia Editora Nacional. 21a . edição. Rio de Janeiro;

1962 – Julião, Francisco – Que São as Ligas Camponesas? Civilização Brasileira. Rio de Janeiro;

1988 – Oliveira, Ariovaldo Umbelino de – A Geografia e as Lutas no Campo. Contexto. São Paulo;

1961 – Cavalcanti, Coutinho – Reforma Agrária no Brasil. Autores Reunidos. São Paulo.