Notes on the development of Maranhão

Image: Cyrus Saurius


Maranhão is currently the poorest state in Brazil

“If we want things to continue as they are, they will have to change” (Count of Lampedusa, the leopard).

“The capitalist mode of production dispossesses the worker of the conditions of production, and likewise in agriculture it subtracts property from the agricultural worker and subordinates him to a capitalist who exploits agriculture for profit [...] historical assumption of the capitalist mode of production, as of all previous modes of production that are based in one way or another on the exploitation of the masses [...] , to the exclusion of all other wills, that is, the valorization of this monopoly on the basis of capitalist production” (Karl Marx).

National conjuncture

The forces that animate Brazilian proto-fascism have their roots in a heavy past where patrimonialism, slavery, large estates (agribusiness), military tutelage, the servility of the vast majority in need, the material and spiritual poverty that shape the world of work and the Brazilian proletariat, having its original link with colonialism and, more recently, with imperialism.

The origin of this conservatism and its fascist radical is the land and, from its “colonial slaveholding” conformation, hierarchies, relations of domination, command, personal and political traditions that remain alive and active within bourgeois Brazil were born. That's where Bolsonaro's strength comes from, that's where fascism comes from!

Lula formed an immense national (and international) anti-fascist front, which is not little, but it may not mean profound changes in the distribution of wealth, in the national economic, social and political structures. If in case of your victory, the changes are to leave things as they are; if the changes only mean changing the environment for private business, as the various fractions of the bourgeoisie hegemonized by neoliberalism want. Even with the possibility of winning in the 1st round, with the reduction of Bolsonaro's support base and the abandonment of expressive sectors of the middle classes and the bourgeoisie, the political situation points to a fierce dispute and also with the attempt of a coup d'état , whose defeat will depend on a conjunction of democratic forces.

It is necessary to stop the coup demanding militancy and, mainly, to put people on the streets defending democracy. Acts like the one on August 11 (the public reading of the Charter for Democracy), and other demonstrations that are combined with Lula's campaign should be the core of mobilization of democratic and socialist forces.


Maranhão conjuncture[1]

Maranhão exhibited economic growth in the last 40 years, this was linked to the replacement of rice and babassu coconut agriculture and other primary activities, such as rudimentary farming, traditional commercial and industrial activities with little productivity. In its place, a new pattern of development was built, based on the implantation of large capitalist companies, having its origin in the Companhia Grande Carajás and its connection to an export agenda. The result of this was a change in Maranhão's reality and its development. We can see that in the period 2015-2021, Maranhão had a higher average growth than Brazil: it grew an average of 3,7% and Brazil advanced 2,3%.

This growth has three central elements for its understanding: (i) the opening of the Carajás complex (1985), which boosted the development of ore extraction, which led to the creation and implementation of companies linked to mining in São Luís and neighboring cities the Carajás railroad; (ii) from the 2000s, driven by the economic development of China and other Asian countries, we had the commodities boom, driven by agribusiness, with emphasis on the production of grains and also by the production of ores and other commodities; and (iii) the development of the civil construction industry, linked to the project of the PT governments through Minha Casa, Minha Vida.

It should be noted that this market is seasonal and variable. We can give as an example the price of a ton of iron ore, which was at US$ 120 at the end of the 2010s and today is around US$ 80. The central core of production in Maranhão is linked to the export market with little progress in internal activities.

As a result of this agro-export economic model of 1980 and 2020, the urban contingent surpassed the rural one and the population growth rates decreased. This has meant a smaller population in the countryside and growth of the urban market, greater demand for food, clothing, footwear, etc. Increased demand for collective services such as: education, health, housing, basic sanitation, transportation, among others. It also means an increase in urban needs: employment, housing, basic sanitation, security, etc.

Despite this development, its distribution has not reached the vast majority of the population. Maranhão is currently the poorest state in Brazil, 50% of the workforce is unemployed, 59% of workers are in the informal sector, 65% of the workforce earns up to R$400 per month, 56% of the population of São Luís receives up to BRL 165; 20% live on less than R$85,00 per month and 3% of Maranhão residents have no income. Maranhão is also the state that produces the most enslaved labor. And, 60% of the population receives the Auxílio Brasil and has it as their only source of income. Maranhão is the state where 57,9% are between misery and hunger and 17,7% in extreme poverty. The core of this poverty is the agro-export economic model (IBGE data, 2022).

The lack of prospects for the future for young people is manifest in the rates of illness, school dropouts and migration. The increasingly precarious living conditions of the elderly are also notorious factors and cannot be reduced to compensatory income (public policies), as this is not enough to build a distributive agenda and stop the impoverishment of the population. Without a real change, this picture tends to get worse and much worse.

Domestic activities that could, in the short or medium term, boost sustainable economic growth are, for example, an agro-industry integrated with tourism and also modern family farming, particularly in a state where 80% of food comes from the southeast and where its capital , São Luís, contrasting with its poverty, has the most expensive meal in the country. However, these issues do not appear as priority elements in the agendas of political and economic institutions.

Far from it, the idea is sold that the commodities market is the only possibility for growth, given that family farming (peasant) currently employs around 700 workers and shows a profit of R$ 1,8 billion and growth in the livestock and in the production of dairy products, especially in the region of Imperatriz, all of this with only 2,8% of technical assistance to its producers and 8,9% of access to credit.

The advance of land ownership activities (agribusiness) has had a speed of 5,5% per year, which means the loss of land for peasant, riverside, quilombola and indigenous communities. It is enough to see that, from 1985 until the 2017 agricultural census, the number of agricultural establishments fell from 531.413 to 219.765. In the same process, we can observe that non-family farms hold about 70% of the arable land in Maranhão and the size of the properties is also undergoing changes (Análise do Censo Agropecuário, 2020). Areas occupying up to 10 hectares are responsible for 105.059 rural establishments, occupying only 4.18% of agricultural areas[2]. Meanwhile, we see an increase in the number of establishments with more than 10 hectares in the regions of Pindaré, Imperatriz, Gurupi, Alto Mearim and Grajau, with emphasis on agricultural companies.

This change in the countryside has been accompanied by profound violence, with Maranhão being the most violent state in the country, with 26 deaths in land conflicts in 2021. According to Fetaema (Federation of Rural Workers and Farmers of the State of Maranhão), “it counts 79 conflict situations, covering 165 communities in 33 municipalities. This reveals a picture of 7.262 families located in over 840 hectares of invaded rural worker units. Among the occurrences of conflict, three murders of rural workers and 79 death threats were registered”. (CASTRO, 2021, Brazil of Fact).

In the cerrado region of Maranhão (Matopiba, an acronym that involves the Cerrado of the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia), is where the largest center of deforestation in the country is located, with peasant communities and traditional peoples, threatened by the expansion of agribusiness. Much of the vegetation in the cerrado of Maranhão tends to disappear, and there are few measures to contain this advance. This is because the price of a bushel in states like São Paulo or Goiás is in the range of R$ 110.000 and in Maranhão it costs around R$ 10.000, which mobilizes capital from other regions that are invading this territory.

The mechanization of agro-export activities has been causing job losses. From 2012 to 2021, from 719 employed rural workers, it was reduced to around 200, that is, less than a third. In the 2017 census, agribusiness produced a profit of BRL 5,3 billion without building direct jobs. Agribusiness and the commodity market generate wealth and concentration of income in a small portion of the population and loss of social rights and poverty in general. In addition to advancing with the precariousness and even enslavement of work in cities such as Açailândia, Imperatriz, Codó, Pastos Bons, Santa Luzia. This profit should increase a lot with the carbon market.

Recent surveys have found a basin of 46,3 billion cubic meters of gas in the Parnaíba valley and also something around 30 billion liters of oil on the coast of Maranhão (equatorial margin that goes from the coast of RN to AP). This is in addition to 8 million tonnes of gold, 246 million tonnes of gypsum, plus thousands of tonnes of bauxite, limestone, copper, diamonds, opal, uranium and manganese plus the growing market for solar, wind and green hydrogen.

This immense wealth can mean a new page in the development of Maranhão, but also, as studies by Fiema (Federation of Industries of the State of Maranhão) point out, just a new cycle that, when exhausted, makes their riches and misery of the majority, as we have already seen in the cycles of sugar cane, cotton, rice and local industries, leaving the population literally looking at ships.

The oil (and gas) industry is known to be one of the most bloodthirsty and corrupt of capitalism, responsible for hundreds of wars and coups d'état, and pointed out by many as responsible for the 2016 coup.

The fact is that since the coup, we have seen the replacement of a developmental policy that leveraged national industry, science and technology, by its dismantling with the sale of assets, the export of crude oil and the purchase of derivatives that were made here and the increase in dismantling and the transfer of costs to the population. According to CUT and FUP (Single Federation of Petroleum Workers),

“The data show that the value of the domestic sale of derivatives practiced by the management of Petrobras in 2021 (BRL 416,40/barrel) was 63% higher than in 2020 (BRL 254,40/barrel), at the same time that the cost of extraction and refining, in real, fell. Behind the difference between production cost and domestic sales value is the import parity price policy (PPI) practiced by Petrobras management, which takes into account the international price of the derivative, exchange variation and import expenses and disregards costs production interiors. According to Dieese/FUP analyses, the average value of a barrel of derivative sold by Petrobras in the country grew 40,7%, between 2019 and 2021, above exchange rate variations (36,7%) and the barrel of oil in the international market (10%).” (CUT)

This wealth can be used to build refineries. We can and must turn oil and natural gas into diesel, cooking gas, fertilizer and gasoline, and this can only be done in an optimal scenario in which we count on Lula's victory and inauguration and on popular mobilization. Without the scenario of popular mobilization and politicization of the population on development paths, this will be innocuous.

The tendency, according to Fiema documents, is to obtain profits with intermediary businesses, without concern for the development and distribution of income. In his opinion, “if we compare the projected amounts with those actually realized, it can be observed that the realization, mainly from 2007 onwards, has always been above the forecast in the most probable trajectory. Between 2005 and 2011, for example, the state's GDP more than doubled, in monetary terms, jumping from R$ 25,3 billion to R$ 52,2 billion, which would already indicate that the target foreseen for 2020, in the Strategic Plan, would be overcome, as it were. In 2019, the latest official information released by the IBGE, Maranhão recorded a Gross Domestic Product of around R$97,340 billion (at current prices), that is, 44,9% higher than forecast for 2020. Retracing the trajectory now of the effectively realized state GDP, in the period 2002 to 2019, it is seen that its evolution behaves according to an exponential curve”. (FIEMA NEWSLETTER n. 1 – 2022).

The planned and desired investment is around R$ 31,4 billion, which will be allocated in the following businesses: Oil & Gas, which will be delivered to Eneva; Petroleum & Gas, carbon storage point that will be delivered to Eneva; VLI Estreito/MA railway that will be delivered to Multimodal (Portuguese capital); Railway Grão Pará – Açailândia (MA) – Alcântara (MA -Multimodal); Alcântara Port Terminal (MA), Multimodal; Passenger Terminal Ponta d'Areia (São Luís) – Alcântara (MA). Porto Emap leasing of an area for liquid bulk in the Port of Itaqui (oil and gas); Porto Emap for exporting grain from the Matopiba region and transporting liquid bulk; Porto Cosan Construction of the TUP; Porto Arizona Mearim (TPM), in Bacabeira (MA) North-South railroads and Carajás Railroad (EFC); Porto Grupo Brado Construction of the 1st Porto Seco on the North – South railroad, in Davinópolis (MA); Porto Internacional Marítima – market for docking and repair of tugboats and vessels; Raizen fuel storage; Tegram storage in the Port of Itaqui; Aluminum Alumar Return to aluminum casting.

The business logic is that of a commodity exporter. There is no concern with the environment or with the original peoples. It should be noted that this logic has great support in the Maranhão political environment. Simply put, we are exporting wealth, jobs and the future and buying cell phones, tablets, etc., something similar to exporting wood and buying tables and coffins. In other words, the process of development and the fight against poverty will only be possible with the carrying out of a propositional action by the national State and with the provincial state, equipped and modernized, as a supporting element.

A historical mark of the Maranhão bourgeoisie is its relationship with the international market. The local bourgeoisie approached Chinese capital, aiming to be the largest export center of grains, minerals, oil and gas to the Chinese market (and other markets). This is how they aim for Maranhão to join the Silk Road.

Finally, the left, nationalists, communists, socialists, progressives, social movements and trade unions must build another type of relationship with development. Another relationship is possible to be structured through leveraging the internal market.

Despite the extensive agricultural production, a tractor is not developed here; they come from Sweden, Germany or USA. Despite the wealth of ores, a blast furnace is not produced here, they come from China, Italy, Germany, USA. Despite oil and gas reserves, we do not have refineries or industry that make it possible to use gas in cars, buses and trucks (CNG and LNG). This logic even applies to simple things, such as clothes and shoes.

The export-import development cycles created and still create more dependency and subalternity. To overcome this, it is necessary to change the dominant neoliberal mentality, modernize the State, reorganize it with capacity and autonomy, providing effective officials. It is necessary to endow it with planning and execution capacity. This will only be possible by calling the population to public debate and with pressure from union and popular movements.

*John Kennedy Ferreira is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA).

Originally posted on the website popular path.



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MARX, K., Capital, book III. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2011.

CUT Petrobras sells oil derivatives 3 and a half times more than the cost of production. Published on 21/3/2022. Available at:

UFMA PORTAL. UFMA and the Government of MA will carry out strategic projects for the development of the State. Published: 06/05/2022.

SANTOS, Itaan Pastor, CARNEIRO, Marcelo Sampaio, MATTOS, José Sampaio de, FURTADO, Carlos Augusto de Oliveira. Family farming in Maranhão: a brief analysis of the agricultural census, 2017. Available at: Rev. economy NE, Fortress, v. 51, special supplement, p. 55-70, August, 2020.



[1] I talked to some colleagues from UFMA who helped me understand several processes: Abel Cassol, Allan Kardec Dualibe and Marcelo Carneiro, I emphasize that they are totally innocent of this article that I committed.

[2] The data of the lands granted to the Agrarian Reform, are not counted in Maranhão, therefore questioned, according to the authors of the Census Analysis: “The data of the 2017 census indicated, in the rubric of the legal condition of the lands, a total of 22.230 establishments in this condition, with an area of ​​about 250 thousand hectares. Now, according to more recent data from Incra and Iterma, there would be, in this condition, around 1.028 agrarian reform settlements, with around 132.301 settled families and a total area of ​​4.741.258,65 hectares.” (Analysis p. 60).


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