A new place for agriculture – III

Image: Willian Alves


Public policies for family farming and agroecology

In the previous article in this series, I tried to show the dimensions, characteristics and role of family farming in the universe of Brazilian rural production, in particular food production. I also pointed out the changes that have taken place in recent decades, with the reduction of the dimensions and significance of this social category. In this article I will analyze the public policies that conditioned the changes described above. There is no room for detailed analyzes of each one, nor is there room to comment on all the policies, so I will limit myself to indicating their most critical elements.


Differencebetween intentionshereoe gesture

The creation of the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA) and the Support Program for Family Farming under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as well as the successive Agrarian Reform programs since President Sarney's government, had an implicit objective, never formally assumed , to expand the participation of the peasantry in food production, either by increasing the production of existing family farmers or by creating new producers. On the other hand, there was a relevant social objective of seeking to improve the income level of family farmers as a whole, since the situation of poverty and misery in a large part of this public was notorious.

These policies had another important point: the definition of the ideal mode of production so that family farmers could increase their production and income. The successive governments that formulated, expanded and adjusted these policies had strong support from the organizations of family farmers and the Landless: CONTAG, FETRAF (later CONTRAF) and Via Campesina (comprising the MST, the MPA and the MMC). This support was, at various times, critical of the policies adopted, either because they considered the measures insufficient in form or in the volume of resources allocated to them.

But the movements never questioned the key point that guided the policies. For governments and social movements in the countryside, the method to make family farming prosper was the adoption of a production model centered on the use of chemical inputs, improved seeds and machinery, and greater integration with the market. This model, called in the national and international literature the Green Revolution, and adopted by the large agribusiness producers, was seen as the only existing possibility. The alternative model of agroecology was seen as irrelevant or, at best, as something aimed at a niche of high-income producers and consumers.

Critics of this strategy were few, located in minority spaces in academia and in NGOs that defend agroecology, such as the one I founded in 1983, the AS-PTA. The basic criticism had several aspects: the notorious fact in numerous international experiences of the deleterious effect of the agrochemical model on the target public, generating a differentiation between a minority group of “viable” and a majority of “unfeasible”.

Among many intellectuals, including those on the left, this impact was seen as inevitable and even desirable. The fate of the “unfeasible” would have to be dealt with in another universe, that of social policies, which would cushion the difficulties of the rural poor, “while the country’s economy created conditions to absorb them in other productive sectors” (apud Pedro Malan, FHC's minister of economy, with which several left-wing intellectuals who participated in the formulation or reformulation of agricultural policies in the Lula and Dilma governments agreed).

The strategic vision of this strong group of intellectuals and politicians was that of a “modernized” agriculture by the standards of the agrochemical and motor-mechanized model, centered on the large production of monocultures, with a family agriculture with a secondary role and oriented towards some production niches, such as vegetables. The implicit socio-productive model was that of the United States, with residual family farming, on the order of 3 to 4% of producers.

In sectors of the left, this agribusiness expansion movement was seen as a stage in the process of implanting socialism, which, at some point in the future, would expropriate the large farms to replace them with kolkozes e sovkozes natives, that is, by state-owned companies. Others defended a future system of collective properties, supposedly inspired by Cuban or Nicaraguan experiences (in both cases the reality was quite different, but everyone sees what they want to see).

Not all politicians who governed during this long period of almost 30 years had this “modernist” and cynical vision, which promoted a development that the authors knew to be exclusive and which would lead to the extermination of family farming. Many firmly believed that they could promote agribusiness and maintain and even expand the base of family farming.

Leaders of rural social movements were certainly among them. The minority of academics and agroecology activists did not fail to point out the disastrous social, economic and environmental consequences of the model being defended by everyone, right and left, with various shades and subtexts, but with consistency in the measures being applied.

Over all these years, what prevailed in public policies was support for large agribusiness. Without this powerful support from the State, agribusiness would not have survived. Proof of this is the almost one trillion loan debts. Despite numerous amnesties and renegotiations that reduced the amounts owed to tiny fractions at various times, agribusiness has always gone back into debt, as this has proven to be a good deal. Agribusiness was also favored by tax exemptions, suspension of environmental fines, subsidies on bank interest.

Everything was done to give agribusiness the profitability that it did not have and does not have under normal market conditions. This is not a Brazilian jabuticaba. In the USA and in the European Union, the set of economic favors means that each dollar or euro produced by the respective agribusinesses has a counterpart of similar value on the part of the States. Even so, in either case the sector's debts are monstrous.

Tax and other benefits were much broader for the largest producers, although family farmers who adhered to the model received their share of benefits. The question remains as to why the greater success of agribusiness and the relative failure of small agribusiness, verified in the expansion of the first and the reduction of the second over the years.

There are several reasons. In the first place, family farming has worse natural production conditions and little land availability, for historical reasons explained in previous articles.

Secondly, in the logic of the agrochemical and motor-mechanized production model, the larger the scale, the greater the labor productivity, even though the profitability per unit of area may be lower than in agroecological systems.

Third, agribusiness quickly learned that the biggest profits were in the production of raw materials for the international market, relying on the strong dollar and higher commodity prices than products for the domestic market. Family farming took a while to learn that, with the high costs of the agrochemical model and the resulting bank debts, producing food for an internal market depressed by poverty was not a good bet. Today, the little agribusiness adhered to the logic of the big ones and also turn to the commodities. But a considerable number broke down this path, as we saw in the previous article.

What was said above must be put into perspective by the fact that the vast majority of family farms have not even entered this process of modernization in the direction of agribusiness. The great engine of this process was the PRONAF credit and it did not reach even half of the family farmers, with the exception of two years in the first Lula administration, as we will see later. The great mass of family farmers were unable to access bank credit or did not want to take this risk.

To conclude: whether by intention or not, public policies, by action or omission, negatively affected family farming and resulted in a reduction in the size and role of the peasantry in the Brazilian rural world.


the credit policy

In the FHC government, PRONAF mainly benefited the most capitalized AF layer, already with occasional or regular access to bank credit, already partially engaged in the agrochemical and motor-mechanized model, but still linked to the production of food for the market, and located in the vast majority in the southern region.

In 2002/2003, less than 400 thousand family farmers were “benefited” by these credits. The Lula government promoted a strong increase both in the program's resources and in the number of beneficiaries and, above all, with a much broader distribution, both by region and by type of family farming.

The volume of credit rose from 2 billion in 2002 to 30 billion in 2015, while the number of beneficiaries peaked at 2,2 million in 2006, falling to 1,5 million at the time of the coup that overthrew Dilma Rousseff. Both the volume and the number of beneficiaries were again concentrated in the Southeast and especially in the South.

In the northeast region, the participation of poor farmers overwhelmingly prevailed (but not the majority of the poorest), who accessed the so-called PRONAF B, a type of investment microcredit, with lower values ​​than those for funding in the south and southeast regions. Initially, bank agents played an important role in guiding the use of credit and some “drawer” proposals gained momentum, such as the raising of dairy cattle with the purchase of purebred and high-productivity animals.

It was a total disaster, but it didn't last long. Over time, the intention of the producers began to prevail, although the targeting of cattle continued. Investment in productive infrastructure such as stables, wells, waterholes and dams and, above all, fences for pastures and forage planting was dominant in many territories. It is not possible to say whether it was the effect of credit for this purpose that led to a considerable specialization of a better allocated plot in terms of available area and a decrease in areas of permanent crops, verified in several regions.

The northeast region had the largest dropout of family farmers in all of Brazil, almost 350. However, the reason for this abandonment of the field is not as clear as in the case of the southern region, dealt with in the paragraph below. It will be necessary to deepen the study of this phenomenon and here we are only going to outline some possible causes, without placing order of importance.

As a first hypothesis, there is the aging of the rural population, but this led an important part of family farmers in the northeast to obtain up to two minimum wages as a couple's retirement. Based on my long experience with farming communities in several states in the region, I can say that in many cases retirement did not imply leaving the rural world. Quite the contrary, aging and retirement meant permanence and investment in properties.

In cases where the elderly withdrew from the rural area or from agricultural production, there may have been a lack of successors on the properties, since the migration of young people to larger cities in the region or in the “Sul Maravilha” (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília) was a hallmark of population flows for decades.

A second cause may have been the repeated incidence and intensity of droughts, whose effects on the poorest and least endowed in terms of water infrastructure are always greater. Indicative of this effect is the fact that in communities where cisterns for home use or for irrigation were more widespread, evasion was not very significant. It is good to remember that this cistern building movement was not funded by the banking system and by PRONAF, but by programs such as the P1MC (One Million Cisterns Program) and the P1+2 (One Land and Two Waters Program). Both programs financed construction on the properties through donations managed, above all, by civil society organized in the ASA (Articulação do Semi Árido).

A third cause is the high level of insecurity and violence in the rural world, and not just in the Northeast. This growing process led many family farmers, old or not, to live in the “ends of the street” in the villages, some maintaining a difficult job in the field and others abandoning agriculture altogether.

Finally, there were many family farmers who defaulted on PRONAF credits, even with several amnesties and favorable debt renegotiations.

There are no data, to my knowledge, giving numbers for each of these causes, but I suspect that the defaulters who left the field are the most numerous among the 350 thousand fewer family farmers in the region.

In the southern region, the most significant, in volume of resources and number of beneficiaries, the most used form of credit was PRONAF C, but also D and E, each with higher limits for borrowing. Two-thirds of family farmers in the region regularly accessed bank credit, and several of the others did so intermittently. In this region there was a strong differentiation between the successful and the unsuccessful, the latter being close to 185 thousand families that were not registered in the 2017 census, 23% of the existing family farmers in 2006. As there is no doubt, in this region, regarding the priority orientation of credit (commodities corn and soy accounted for 50% of all PRONAF credit in recent years and almost all of it in the southern region), it should also be inferred that default was one of the major causes of rural evasion.

In the southeast region, PRONAF credits were more differentiated, with B prevailing in the semi-arid north of Minas Gerais and in the Jequitinhonha Valley, and PRONAF C prevailing in the rest of the region, with the State of São Paulo receiving a larger share of PRONAF D and E.

The north region repeats the credit use profile of the northeast, with greater weight in PRONAF B and the Midwest region was closer to the profile of the south region. In both cases the number of beneficiaries was much lower than in the northeast, southeast and south. These two regions had an increase in the number of family farmers between the two censuses, of 68 and 6,2 thousand AFs respectively. In the case of the northern region, this was the result of the surplus of new farmers benefiting from the Agrarian Reform programs over the number of those who left the countryside.

To summarize, credit has been the main policy promoting the development of family farming from the 1990s until now, and it continues to be. Despite some openings for another destination, almost all of PRONAF's funding resources were aimed at promoting the adoption of the agrochemical and motorcycle-mechanized model, leading family farming, especially in the southern region, to abandon food production by commodities and suffering heavily from debt.

In the Northeast region, the PRONAF B credit was heavily oriented towards infrastructure for raising cattle, resulting in a decrease in basic food production. Also in this region and type of producer, default was an important element in the verified rural evasion.


The Technical Assistance and Rural Extension policy

Although with much less coverage than credit, this was the second most important policy in support of family farming in recent decades.

To begin with, it is good to remember that the main agents of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension (ATER) were and are the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Companies (EMATER), linked to state governments. Emater, despite experiencing a continuing crisis in almost all states, still maintains offices in a good portion of the country's municipalities, with close to 15 field technicians. The orientation of these state-owned companies has always been focused on promoting the agrochemical model, although small exceptions have been expanding in some states, adopting the agroecological model. This brand has to do, not only with the wide domain of adherence to the agribusiness model, since the 1980s being extended to family farming (agribusiness), but also with the type of training offered in universities of agricultural sciences across the country. . Even when some state government decided to experiment with the promotion of agroecology, the new practice was limited by the lack of preparation of the technicians available at Emater.

Non-state Technical Assistance and Rural Extension is much smaller and can be divided between technicians' cooperatives, linked to social movements and independent NGOs. I estimate that these organizations do not have more than 800 technicians. Most of the latter were trained in the practice of promoting agroecological development processes, with mixed results and a lot of trial and error. Unlike the promotion of agribusiness, which has well-defined and established techniques and methods, in the promotion of agroecology, both the techniques and the methodologies are in gestation and require further elaboration, systematizing the already significant existing experiences.

Federal resources for the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension policy were directed, in Lula's first government, in an almost balanced way between Emater and cooperatives and NGOs.

The National Policy for Technical Assistance and Rural Extension (PNATER), approved in a seminar with broad participation by civil society in 2003, defined agroecology as the model to be adopted in projects financed by the MDA. There is no evaluation of the results of these investments and it is very unlikely that the Ematers were able to follow this guideline. The Technical Assistance and Agroecological Rural Extension NGOs certainly followed the guidance provided by the government, but in this case we do not have an evaluation of results either.

From the second government of Lula and those of Dilma, DATER/MDA resources were directed primarily to Emater. The orientation for the use of these resources in the promotion of agroecology remained in effect. The Ematers started to sign contracts with the government, receiving a package to be used in the way each state saw fit. Nor is it known what the result of these investments is.

Financing for civil society Technical Assistance and Rural Extension entities began to be done through contracts and the resources disputed in public calls for projects. There were less resources for this segment of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension, but I can say that almost all Technical Assistance and Rural Extension NGOs linked to the National Articulation of Agroecology (ANA) benefited.

It is not possible to know, with the available data, how many family farmers received technical assistance with federal resources and what part of the promotion of agroecology in the use of these resources. Among Technical Assistance and Rural Extension NGOs, I believe the number is less than 20.

The Technical Assistance and Rural Extension policy was the object of a permanent confrontation between civil society and DATER, which exploded in the first Technical Assistance and Rural Extension conference, during the first government of Dilma Rousseff. At this conference, the enormous difficulty of executing agroecological development projects with the constraints placed by DATER in the calls was verified. This conflict became known as the “policy operationalization debate”. The CONDRAF ATER Committee started to elaborate the new format for the calls together with the MDA technicians. There were advances in formatting, which became more flexible, but major obstacles persisted, justified by DATER as required by law. I dubbed this process, at the time, “putting a ball in a square hole”.

In my opinion, there was a starting error in the PNATER definition. By directing all resources to the promotion of agroecology, the policy ignored the difficulties in implementing the decision, in particular the lack of technical staff trained in agroecology practices and methods for the amount of resources made available. On the other hand, formulators of the operationalization of the policy in DATER did not have theoretical or practical knowledge about how to promote agroecology and many did not even have a favorable position for this proposal.

The result is that this experience was quite problematic and it is time to carry out a total review of the policy and the forms of its application, thinking about the constraints existing in the current stage of adherence to agroecology, both in terms of knowledge and adequate staff.


Agrarian Reform Policy

Agrarian Reform has a long history. It had a timid beginning in the Sarney administration, was expanded in the FHC administration and maintained, with some intensification, in the two Lula administrations. During the governments of Dilma Rousseff, the process of expropriation and implementation of settlements was rapidly slowed down. According to one of the directors of INCRA in this period, the Agrarian Reform would already be essentially accomplished and new settlements would turn to solving localized situations, especially where there was conflict. The priority became “making the settlements viable”, which implicitly recognized that the part of the Agrarian Reform focused on production was not working.

How many settlers have been since the Agrarian Reform gained more strength in the FHC government, until now? According to INCRA, the data are as follows:

FHC – 547 thousand, with an annual average of 68 thousand
Lula – 614 thousand, with an annual average of 77 thousand
Dilma – 134 thousand, with an annual average of 24 thousand
Temer – 10 thousand, with an annual average of 4 thousand
Bolsonaro – 9 thousand, with an annual average of 2,3 thousand
Total - 1.314.000

The (rounded) numbers are impressive, but hide numerous problems.

On the one hand, it is necessary to register that the Agrarian Reform was carried out in the lands where there was the least resistance from the latifundia and agribusiness. The share of public lands used to settle family farmers was important and, as they are found mainly in the agricultural frontier regions, a part of the settlers was installed in regions far from their areas of origin (north, midwest), which created problems of adapting each one's knowledge to the new environmental and agricultural conditions.

Secondly, the expropriation of land areas offered by the owners themselves was frequent and which were, evidently, poor quality and degraded lands.

A third problem was the assignment of smaller plots than technically indicated, in order to settle more family farmers quickly. The very design of the lots was the object of many complaints from the settlers, as there was often a bureaucratic distribution, without taking into account the conditions of each lot. Of course, this was not the keynote, but it was even said that farmers received lots in the water and others hanging from a cliff.

A fourth problem has to do with the second, the isolated location of many settlements, poorly served by roads and means of transport and access to light and water. Far from markets and essential public services such as schools and health clinics, the settlers suffered in lost corners, more than was already the share of family farming.

A fifth problem is linked to the precariousness that prevailed in many settlements, whether in houses or any other productive improvements.

The sixth problem was the enormous time elapsed between receiving the land and receiving the means of production, sometimes years. This often led to the use of available natural resources as a means of survival, especially deforestation for charcoal production.

Finally, the seventh problem has to do with the cases in which (and when) there was funding for production and technical assistance. Once again, both credits and ATER moved towards the adoption of the agrochemical model and the results were even more disastrous than among non-settled family farmers.

INCRA never published a comprehensive evaluation study of the Agrarian Reform, carried out at the beginning of the Dilma government. I had access to a synthesis that confirms what I wrote above. There was no sequence in the application of the conclusions, among others that of privileging agroecological production.

All these problems had a negative impact on the program. According to some assessments by INCRA itself, which circulated unofficially, the average rate of unoccupied lots until the beginning of Dilma II was 25%. Other evaluations point to a movement towards the reconcentration of lots and replacement (with or without the sale of the land) by new families, which would reach another 25%. The many examples of successful settlements are miraculous and it is worth noting that, since 2010, Via Campesina has embraced the agroecological proposal as a model to be implemented throughout Brazilian agriculture and has notable examples in several settlements.

Rethinking the Agrarian Reform model adopted will be an imposition of this reality of relative fiasco, but also due to the need (which we will discuss in another article) to promote the reoccupation of the agro by Family Farming.


Insurance, minimum prices and public purchases

The insurance policy suffered from a problem similar to that of credit, to which it was linked. Credit has always been aimed at financing a specific product and not the set of activities on Family Farming properties, and this was an important factor in the movement towards the adoption of monocultures by Family Farming. The insurance also did not consider the entire property, but the part of it that received financing.

In fact, it could be said that it was the credit and not the farmer who was insured. On the other hand, if it was possible, with a lot of struggle, to obtain credit modalities not oriented to the use of agrochemicals and improved seeds, the insurance was anchored in the application of productive practices defined as correct by EMBRAPA, and they were all agrochemicals.

This dichotomy resulted, already in the first harvest of the Lula government, in the refusal of the banks to classify the losses arising from a drought in the southern region as susceptible to insurance coverage. All family farmers who had resources from PRONAF C and applied agroecological practices were uncovered and many returned to apply conventional practices to guarantee insurance.

Insurance adjustments to cover agroecological production will be many and the solutions complex.

There is little to say about the minimum price policy, except that it took place on a scale much lower than the needs of Family Farming. On the other hand, with the need to attract family farmers who produce commodities back to food production (which we will discuss in another article), the policy of minimum prices for the composition of regulatory stocks will need to be very attractive for this option to happen.

Government purchases through mechanisms such as the Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and the National School Lunch Program (PNAE) will have to undergo a review of their procedures, which today are unanimously considered bureaucratic and ill-adapted. The basic idea of ​​these programs is correct, but their application has fallen short of expectations, either because of operational problems or because they are limited in size. The most interesting of them, the PAA, never benefited more than 500 farmers, 12% of the average of existing AF in recent decades.


Agroecology and organic production

Although public policies aimed at favoring the agroecological transition have been quite limited in their dimensions, they deserve an analysis because they are the path to the future, including decisions made by the transition team of the new MDA.

In my opinion, the agroecological movement coordinated by the ANA, in which all the social movements in the Brazilian countryside are present, made a mistake similar to that of the debate on the ATER policy.

Faced with a question from President Dilma Rousseff regarding the representation of CONTAG women in the Marcha das Margaridas in 2011, the answer was: “we want a program to promote agroecology”. Dilma Rousseff asked for a proposal to be presented to her and the government funded a broad debate involving civil society, coordinated by ANA, at the invitation of CONTAG, and members of various ministries. This spectacular exercise took more than three years and the result was the National Policy on Agroecology and Organic Production (PNAPO), signed by Dilma Rousseff at the beginning of her second government.

From debates at the base of the movement to state and national meetings, the PNAPO was later translated into a Plan (PLANAPO). All policies that could have some connection with the theme of promoting agroecology were discussed: credit, insurance, ATER, research, market, technical and university education, government procurement, environment. The objective was not only to define each of the policies, but to concatenate them into unified concepts and coherent operationalization. The goal was to come up with a proposal for the total transformation of AF and still inhibit some of the worst practices in agribusiness, through a program to reduce the use of pesticides.

The ambition was immeasurable on two levels: the first was the little experience accumulated both in government and in civil society, including academia, with regard to several of these policies. The second was the low adherence to this proposal in the various government instances. To be minimally applicable, the policy and the Plan would have to be approved by numerous departments of many ministries and its application would require a massive redirection of public resources. And, probably, it would also imply changes in several points of the current legislation.

This never happened. The only policy that was discussed in government instances with the aim of adapting it to PLANAPO's principles and proposals was that of ATER. This happened because, as previously discussed, this policy had been the object of struggle between conventional and agroecologists since 2003, in the spaces of the ATER committee of CONDRAF and DATER/MDA.

Dilma Rousseff's (and probably CONTAG's) intention was more concrete and modest: to formulate a limited program of agroecology and not a macro policy with multiple links with different ministries and aimed at all family farming. Dilma Rousseff came up with the idea of ​​a program aimed at expanding the base of agroecological and organic producers from 50 to 200 thousand in three years. This is not the place to discuss whether even this much more modest objective was viable or not (in my view it was not).

In practice, what is most common in government action occurred: all existing resources, dispersed in departments and programs of various ministries, were arbitrarily pooled under a formal stamp “PNAPO” and the plan was launched with pomp and glory at the second national conference of family farming. It was a “political victory” for the agroecological movement, capitalized by the government, but with zero concrete effects in promoting this productive model.

In my opinion, there is a third reason for not trying this general and radical macro change in the policies that affect Family Farming. Even if everything was approved by everyone in the government, there was still a world of more concrete definitions on how to put so much change into practice. On the other hand, minimum conditions for this process to advance are not given and will not occur harmoniously and in a generalized way. The changes will occur piecemeal, irregularly and at different rhythms, until the partial accumulations allow thinking about adjusting the whole in a coherent way.

One of the most serious problems of this excess of ambition is the impasse between the need for technicians prepared in the practices and methods of the agroecological transition in sufficient quality and quantity to facilitate the conversion of Family Farming into this path. And this problem cannot be solved overnight.

I insist on this point because the new MDA was born under the aegis of a pro-agroecology definition and that PLANAPO is cited as something to be put into practice immediately. As usually happens in these cases of divorce between the desirable and the possible, the government ends up operating in a divorce between the intention and the gesture.

In my view, President Dilma Rousseff was right. She doesn't understand agroecology, but she didn't lack common sense. What we need to do now is formulate a program restricted in its objectives and goals and, above all, discuss the mechanisms to implement it.

*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).

To read the first article in this series click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/um-novo-lugar-para-a-agricultura/

To read the second article in this series click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/um-novo-lugar-para-a-agricultura-ii/

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