Brazilian agricultural policy exacerbates income inequality and is environmentally unsustainable.
Brazil has been considered an emerging regional leader in the international scene. Eyes have been turned to Latin America’s fastest growing economy and there is a tendency to believe that it will become the biggest food provider in the near future. The responsibilities are big and so is the discontent among Brazilians that do not believe sustainable policies are being properly adopted.
According to the Ministry of Environment, Brazil is home to the largest biodiversity in the world. 20% of the world’s species live in the tropical country, especially in the Amazon region. Additionally, the variety of biomes allows non-native plants to grow on Brazilian soil. Since the crisis of the 90s, agriculture played a big role in the country’s balance of trade. As the domestic industry wasn’t fully developed, agriculture represented the biggest share of exports and farms have become a business.
The dilemma of massive agro-industry and equality in Brazil
The Demographic Census in the year 2000 counted that 5mn rural families in Brazil were living with less than 2 minimum wages per month. In 2004, the National Plan of Agricultural Reform (PNRA for its acronym in Portuguese) revealed that the poor rural population lived in poverty due to a lack of access to land and the lack of agrarian policy that ensured small-scale productivity. Small-scale local farmers do not possess productive infrastructure and are not in the condition to compete in the Brazilian market. For the laborers, payment is very low, and work is seasonal and has high competition due to the level of unemployment.
Brazil has developed an agro-industrial model that, with exports like soybeans, sugar, beef, pork, cotton and coffee, made Brazil the third largest exporter of agricultural goods. With the Worker`s Party in power for almost a decade, the country´s agricultural industry has grown considerably. The crop hectares have increased by 129% according to Incra, Brazil's National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. According to the government, the agrarian programs improved the quality of life of near 615,000 families.
However, the agrarian policy is a very controversial topic in Brazil. It involves political movements, economic planning, environmental responsibilities as well as a struggle to eradicate poverty and therefore decrease the social gap in the country, which is one of the highest in the world.
The economic growth brings with it the need to adopt a sustainable policy, especially concerning the use of natural resources. Agriculture turning into a business preserved an old issue in the country’s history: profits and land property are owned and controlled by a minority. The Gini Index shows that between 2001 and 2005 the rural development was not able to deal with Brazilian’s concentration of income. Besides that, landowners have a considerable representation in the National Congress. The current ‘Bancada Ruralista’ counts almost 50% of the Federal Deputies. Just how big the landowners' political influence is could be seen recently when the controversial environment code Novo Código Florestal was approved.
According to people like the former senator and former Environmental Minister Marina Silva, the code is not a jungle-forest code but an agrarian code that revokes almost two decades of environmental governance in Brazil. Brazil needs to keep consolidating its growth, but to what cost? The new code has not done anything to fight deforestation nor saved the preserved areas from substantial reduction near water sources. The cost of the agrarian policy is being paid by the jungle and the forests. It is a predatory measure that focuses on production more than on sustainability.
According to Silva, hectares should not be created through deforestation, but the productiveness of hectares used for cattle should be increased. While in Brazil much of the land is used at a rate of 1 cattle head per hectare, neighboring Argentina has a rate of three cattle heads per hectare. Such a measure could clear near 17mn hectares in Brazil and avoid more deforestation.
Who is to blame for the massive increase in deforestation? The small farmers and peasants, or the big landlords of northern Brazil? Is the growing agribusiness responsible for the destruction of the jungle or the orthodox farming of small local farmers that live near the protected areas?
An agrarian code with socio-political implications
The agrarian policy in Brazil has an enormous subject pending, the National Plan of Agricultural Reform. The challenge of land distribution in Brazil is becoming more and more complex, sparking political movements as the Workers Without Land Movement (MST for its acronym in Portuguese) that gathers near 1mn families and has done controversial occupations of landowner’s properties.
The increasing agribusiness must be inclusive and become a tool to help eradicate poverty in a country like Brazil, it being the 7th largest economy of the world. The Gini coefficient, which shows equality in a country with 0 being perfect equality, of Brazil is 0,6 and would be 0,8 if land distribution were analyzed. The concentrated ownership of land has been a constant obstacle for development, economic growth, income distribution and social equality.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has reported that nearly 13mn people in Brazil are malnourished. This is very paradoxical for a country that proclaims to be the biggest food provider in the near future. This problem is not new. In 2004, 72,2mn Brazilians had reported malnutrition in their homes to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE for its acronym in Portuguese). Of these, 15.4mn lived in rural areas. What is the logic of massive agricultural production that is not ecologically sustainable and that is not eradicating local malnutrition?
Rio+20 and Brazilian public policies: Environmental implications and clashes with local population
The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam near Altamira, Pará is seen by the population as the biggest environmental crime in Brazil’s history. The power plant is planned to be the third biggest in the world and responsible for providing about 10% of national power. But the price is high; building the dam means to divert the flow of the Xingu river and jeopardizing about 30.000 locals that depend on those waters.
Ever since the dam’s approval in the beginning of 2011, millions of Brazilians have been expressing their discontent. Most recently, in response to the Rio+20 conference, the locals of Altamira hosted Xingu+23 to protest against the damage already apparent in Xingu’s surroundings.
Rio+20 proposes to analyze what has been effective since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, also known as Eco 92). The new agenda also focuses on the concept of a green economy. Activists are concerned this term might become as vague as ‘Sustainable Development” and be used as an excuse to legitimize economic growth, as long as the word ‘green’ is involved. Because of the lack of regulation and measures, 16,5% of the Amazon have already been destroyed and turned into agricultural land for crops.
In parallel to Rio+20, the People’s Summit ‘Cúpula dos Povos’ gathers civilians, NGOs and activists from all over the world for social and environmental justice forums. The cooperation atmosphere shows that there is room for debate and it represents a special lesson for the country’s population. Brazilians have started to speak up; it is time to develop the means to be heard.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.