Family farming harvest plan – repeating mistakes

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

The current plan is the reproduction, without any modification, of the credit model initiated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1996

The new harvest plan, which inaugurates the action of the new Lula government for family farming, was celebrated by social movements in a ceremony with the presence of the president in an apotheotic act. However, it is a reproduction, without any modification, of the credit model initiated by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1996, when the National Support Program for Family Agriculture, PRONAF, and the newly recreated Ministry of Agrarian Development, were created. MDA.

What is the orientation of this credit? Over all these 27 years, from the liberal government of FHC, passing through the so-called popular governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, the coup government of Michel Temer and the proto-fascist government of Jair Bolsonaro, facilitated credit for family farming was oriented towards promote the use of chemical inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), improved seeds (hybrids and transgenics) to make better use of synthetic fertilizers and the use of agricultural machinery (tractors, harvesters).

This production model, identical to that adopted by large-scale agribusiness, responds to a production paradigm that seeks maximum artificialization and control of the environment to favor monoculture. It is a model that is known to be unsustainable on any scale at which it is applied, but it is riskier for family farmers. Depending on fossil fuels in all its operations in the field and in the production of inputs and machines, the model is at the mercy of prices and availability of oil and gas and phosphorus and potash. And all these inputs are in the process of being exhausted and, consequently, with ever higher costs.

Credit highly subsidized by the government allowed a significant layer, but a very minority, of family farming to have access to these inputs and caused an enormous differentiation among the beneficiaries. The most capitalized or best-endowed portion in terms of natural production conditions (better quality soils, more favorable climate, especially in the southern region, flatter relief, larger areas) progressed in terms of production volume and income improvement. Most, however, had difficulties in paying the credits and many went bankrupt, despite the various amnesties and debt renegotiations granted by popular governments.

If we look at the annual negotiations between the organizations of family farmers (CONTAG, CONTRAF and MST, MPA and MMC) and popular governments (Abril Vermelho, Marcha das Margaridas, others) we will notice that the focus of the claims was increasingly directed towards to try to face the problem of indebtedness, without ever solving it in a stable way. Remembering that these governments created crop insurance to cover climate risks for production. These risks have become increasingly important over the years, with longer and more intense droughts in the northeast region and with the expansion, in time and rigor, of the so-called dry spells in the south region. The instability of the rainfall regime was getting worse without limits and there was no insurance or subsidy to take care of the damage.

Many analysts point to the fact that agribusiness was also affected by all these factors and, however, seems to have lived better with them. It is good to note that agribusiness received even more support from governments and that subsidies, credit facilitation and tax exemption also favored them. But there is another factor that has given advantages to agribusiness: the choice of what to produce. Agribusiness has centered its activity mainly on commodities the international market or products aimed at the high-income domestic market.

When looking at the evolution of family farming production in the period indicated above, we see that the production of food for the internal market, especially the so-called basic foodstuffs such as rice, beans, corn and cassava, fell systematically, while production facing the commodities such as soy and corn (for animal feed) for export only made it grow.

Almost half of all the credit distributed by PRONAF was directed to projects for the production of commodities at the end of Dilma Rousseff's government, especially in the southern region, which again concentrated most of the program's credits after a few years of regional diversification. Projects by farmers in the southern region became increasingly expensive, leading to the creation of new PRONAF categories, with higher credit limits. What is the reason for this option? The financial risk of the credits led these farmers to choose products with higher and more stable prices and, in the conditions of the national and international market, the commodities are more profitable.

The second most important policy of popular governments, with regard to family farming, was technical assistance and rural extension, ATER. Relying mainly on the technical assistance and rural extension entities of the state governments, the EMATER, the technical assistance policy converged to encourage the use of the technical package typical of agribusiness, in line with credit guidelines.

What is the effect of these policies on the category of family farmers? It has already been said that they favored the inclusion of part of this sector in the economy of commodities, but what is the impact on the income and sustainability of producers?

If we look at the results of the 2006 and 2017 agricultural censuses, we find that the number of peasant families declined sharply in the period. There are approximately 470 fewer families, 10,7% of those that existed throughout the country. This happened despite the fact that close to 480 families were settled in the Agrarian Reform program. That is, almost one million families left the countryside in 11 years.

These numbers demand an explanation and not even in the electoral campaign or in the transition phase between the governments of Jair Bolsonaro and Lula did anyone look into this extremely important data to assess the effect of government action under the responsibility of the left.

What is the geographical origin of this heavy evasion of peasants? The largest number came from the Northeast, almost 350 families (16% of the total family farming in the region). From the South region, almost 185 thousand (22%) left. From the Southeast region, 11 thousand left. In the North and Midwest regions, the number of family farmers increased, 68 thousand and 6 thousand respectively.

What is the cause of these evasions? There is a known and studied process of aging of the rural population, with farmers retiring and without successors. But the numbers quoted are too high for this to be the main explanation. Evasion in the Northeast is historic and has to do with the increasingly important impact of increasingly long and intense droughts. But a high level of default on PRONAF loans was also found in the region, which suggests that this may also have been an important cause. However, the type of loan that prevailed in the Northeast region, known as PRONAF B, did not focus on promoting the use of chemical inputs and improved seeds, as in the South and Southeast regions.

In the South region, which received the most PRONAF credits, technical guidance was focused on soy and corn monocultures and the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, transgenic seeds and agricultural machinery. It is in this public and in this region that the credit program should be evaluated, above all by the amounts spent both in the total volume and in the volume per beneficiary. And the indication is that a good part of the farmers who left the field did so because of financial problems.

During the campaign, Lula adopted the policy of promising “more of the same”, idealizing the achievements of his government, since that of Dilma Rousseff was poorly evaluated. It worked electorally, but the transition team that dealt with the theme of family farming adopted an important change in relation to past times: the goal of the new Ministry of Agrarian Development became the promotion of agroecology as a strategy to give sustainability to the production of this category .

Without an evaluation of the policies applied in the past, this decision in favor of agroecology implies an implicit criticism of Lula's governments, since in them, as well as in those of Dilma Rousseff, the promotion of agribusiness practices with a view to their adoption largely prevailed. by family farming. Measures to support agroecological production were residual.

What the transition team did not do was discuss how to design credit, technical assistance and rural extension, insurance and market access policies to achieve the defined objective. Experience shows that the rather marginal measures adopted by past governments to favor agroecology have had many problems. The PRONAF agroecology, semi-arid and forest credits were poorly formulated and had very few accesses; Calls for technical assistance and rural extension to finance projects to promote agroecology also had huge formulation and execution problems. CONAB purchases (PAA, Food Acquisition Program) favoring agroecological products had better results, but the amounts were small and benefited few farmers.

The new Ministry of Agrarian Development has difficulties in carrying out this policy review. In the first place, because it has become common practice for popular governments to brush aside any criticism of the government's actions. Arm wrestling between members of the Council of the Ministry of Agrarian Development (CONDRAF) and technicians and directors of this ministry were constant and resulted in at least one public confrontation on the occasion of the first national conference on technical assistance and rural extension, in the Dilma Rousseff government, with Pepe Vargas as minister.

The credit program was shielded by the Ministry of Agrarian Development, which managed to prevent the formation of a Committee to monitor/evaluate the policy at CONDRAF over the course of 13 years. It was only when Dilma's government went out that we managed to create a working group to evaluate this policy, supported by Minister Patrus Ananias. This WG brought together some 10 researchers from universities in the northeast, southeast and south, technicians from NGOs, financial agents and government officials. It didn't last long. The coup against Dilma Rousseff killed this initiative in its infancy.

Secondly, the new Ministry of Agrarian Development is made up of a small group of technicians, far from the number of people who worked in it when it was abolished by Michel Temer. What is worse is that I have not been able to identify, among those who are now in charge of this ministry, any of the members of the teams that worked in it in the times of Lula I and II and Dilma I and I/3. Today, in the current team, there is no living memory of the experiences, successful or failed, of previous periods.

Of all the policies in favor of family farming, the one with the greatest impact and the longest lasting was that of credit. It was conceived and directed by a highly competent technician, João Luiz Guadagnin, from the FHC government until the fall of Dilma. It was the only program that Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro continued, promoting technicians who were already working on it. And this program, with all its misconceptions, is being continued in this government, without any critical evaluation. I wonder how the MST, an important participant in the launch of the Planalto Crop Plan, received this “new” proposal. Since the Dilma Rousseff government, the MST has become a coherent and incisive defender of agroecology, as have CONTRAF and CONTAG, although the latter two are less convinced of this proposal, at least as a universal proposal.

The same criticism can be made of the second of the most important programs of the old or new Ministry of Agrarian Development: technical assistance and rural extension. The new calls for technical assistance projects repeated practically all the vices and errors of the previous calls, in 2010/2016.

The need for rigorous planning based on a review of past policies and their effects is pressing or we will see a repeat of past outcomes. In my view, it is not only necessary to discuss each of these programs, but the government's own approach to promoting the development of family farming.

Indeed, it is not new that I compare the methods and practices of projects to promote the development of family farming by UN entities, such as FAO and UNDP, and those adopted by popular governments. In Brazil, production support initiatives are spread across several different policies (credit, technical assistance and rural extension, government purchases, access to markets, processing, insurance, research). In the development programs that I followed in Africa, all these policies were integrated into each of the projects, with a single budget being harmoniously managed.

In practice, the difference translates (here) into the need for each entity that works with a defined public of farmers to formulate projects to access the resources it needs: a project for technical assistance and rural extension, hundreds of individual projects for each farmer to access credit, hundreds of others to access the PAA, and there are no resources for projects involving participatory research or to facilitate integration with entities such as EMBRAPA or state equivalents. In addition to this dispersion of resources causing enormous operational difficulties for the support teams, there are inconsistencies in the orientation of each of the policies.

The current model of separate policies works for the promotion of conventional production models, but they are totally ineffective for the promotion of agroecological production.

If an intense effort is not made to evaluate the policies and financing mechanisms for the promotion of the agroecological transition, we will witness the repetition of the problems already experienced by family farming over the last three decades. More of the same is not a solution.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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