Agrarian reform, a forbidden topic

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By MIGUEL ENRIQUE STEDILE*

“Agrarian Reform” needs to be placed back in the political center, but now accompanied by the adjective “popular”

Some words seem to have disappeared from political grammar in recent years. One of them is certainly “latifundia”. In Brazil, this word has a historical meaning, after all it was the concentration of land combined with slave labor and monoculture for export that defined the meaning of this nation for five centuries. However, here, thanks to the progressive character of the Land Statute, it gained another connotation, not just as a large land property, but a property that does not fulfill its social function and, therefore, should be expropriated for the settlement of landless peasants. .

Today, the word latifundio has been hidden behind another one, “agribusiness”, normally associated with foreign terms to denote some modernity, “agro is pop, agro is tec”. Nothing more false. What we call agribusiness is really modern, because it replaces the control of land ownership by former colonels and farmers by large multinational companies and, in particular, by financial agents such as banks and investment funds. But in essence, agribusiness continues to be a latifundia, a large land property that not only does not fulfill its social function, but also sustains itself thanks to large public resources, the overexploitation of work, the intensive use of poisons that contaminate the biomes and organizes its production for export, just like the way planting of the colonial period.

The last Brazilian Agricultural Census, in 2017, shows that land concentration remains intense: 1% of landowners control almost 50% of the rural area. In the eleven years between the censuses, 2006 and 2017, the equivalent of 17,6 million soccer fields were incorporated into agriculture, many thanks to deforestation and the advance of grain monoculture in the Cerrado and the Amazon. Of these, 17 million were incorporated by establishments over 1.000 hectares.

Among the numerous public mechanisms to perpetuate land concentration is, for example, rural credit. Most of the federal government's Crop Plan resources come from deposits that the population keeps in banks and that the Central Bank obliges financial institutions to allocate to rural credit. As the interest paid by agribusiness is lower than market interest, the National Treasury “equalizes” the difference for the banks, allocating R$ 11 billion a year in public resources for this compensation. Another 1 billion is earmarked by the Treasury to subsidize rural insurance. And on the other hand, the export of commodities by agribusiness is tax-free thanks to the Kandir Law, instituted during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government.

As research by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, in partnership with the Nucleus of Studies in Cooperation (NECOOP) at the Federal University of Fronteira Sul (UFFS) has shown, credit is even a tool to coerce family farming into planting monocultures. According to the study, cattle and soybeans received 59,9% of the resources from the National Program for Strengthening Family Agriculture (Pronaf) in 2020, while the production of rice and beans received only 2,53% of the resources from Pronaf General Cost.

This model rescued another word that had disappeared from our daily lives: hunger. While Brazil registered a record harvest of more than 272 million tons of grains in 2021, the country returned, after eight years, to the UN Hunger Map, reaching 28 million hungry people.

More than five decades ago, Josué de Castro, a doctor and geographer from Pernambuco, became an international reference and the first president of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) when he denounced that the origins of hunger were social and economic. For the scientist, hunger was treated by governments as a “taboo” or “forbidden topic”. And, precisely, among the proposed mechanisms for overcoming it, was the adoption of agrarian reform.

If the expression “Agrarian Reform” has disappeared from government programs and public policies, it is largely due to the illusion that the commodity boom of the past decade would be able to sustain policies without breaking with financial capital across the continent. The pandemic and, before it, the consequences of the economic and climate crises have demonstrated not only the exclusionary character of agribusiness but also its inability to produce healthy food intended for the population as a whole. On the contrary, the pandemic has become a justification for heightening speculation around prices and inventories, inflating food prices and aggravating food insecurity.

“Agrarian Reform” needs to be placed back in the political center, but now accompanied by the adjective “popular”. Because its destiny is to feed the population as a whole and transform healthy eating into a right in practice. Agribusiness is the vestige of failed neoliberal policies that privatized common goods, such as food, handing them over to market management. The Popular Agrarian Reform, as foreshadowed by Josué de Castro, is an alternative to the civilizing crisis of environmental destruction and programmed hunger. But to carry it out, it is necessary to extinguish the “latifundio”, not only in vocabulary, but materially, democratizing access to land for all peasants.

*Miguel Enrique Stedile He holds a PhD in History from UFRGS and is a member of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research..

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