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Agribusiness and Agrarian Reform: The Impending Debate

By: Gustavo Souto de Noronha

The recent exchange of views between the incoming ministers of Agriculture and Agrarian Development, respectively, has restored the agrarian reform debate to the foreground.

If on one hand Katia Abreu sought to deconstruct the mythology of the latifúndio by declaring that it no longer exists, Patrus Ananias restored a discussion of the social function of landowning to the agenda.

The continuing existence of latifúndios was demonstrated immediately after Abreu’s remarks in two articles in the Brazilian press.

The magazine Carta Capital published a piece by Marcelo Pellegrini, who showed that Brazil not only has latifundios: it has 70,000 of them as of January 6, 2015.

The following day, O Globo ran a report by Tatiana Farah on Page 3, headlined “Concentration of land ownership increases throughout Brazil.”

If we examine the Gini coefficient for evidence of this concentration, however, we find no significant changes in the last 50 years. We do well to remember that fear of radical agrarian reform was part of the cultural reaction that led to the overthrow of President João Goulart, also 50 years ago.

Discussion of the social function of property, however, has faded in the last 30 years. If before the 1988 Constitution it was possible to expropriate latifúndios by extension, afterwards, in its Article 185, it provided that expropriation of productive lands was not permissible for the purposes of agrarian reform.

On the other hand, we have Article 186, in which the social function of property is specifically defined: compliance with a rational and adequate plan of improvement; the adequate use of available natural resources and the protection of the environment; observance of legal provisions that regulate labor relations; and a [division of labor] that benefits both owners and workers. The contradiction with Article 185, however, meant that only unproductive lands would be expropriated for agrarian reform.

This [apparent contradiction] has long framed the debate over expropriations of lands not fulfilling their social function in terms of environmental protection, labor relations and human well-being. The recent approval of a constitutional amendment that calls for the expropriations of lands whose owners exploit slave labor, the rural benches of Congress used their hegemony to block the bill from moving forward because it remains necessary to define, in another, more specific bill, exactly what slave labor is. That is, environmental degradation, constant failures to pay workers or improve working conditions are not enough to levy the sanction of expropriation.

And so the question of productivity seems to be suspended in time. Representatives of agribusiness brag of their efficiency, position themselves as engines of Brazilian development. At the same time, with all the technical progress that has been made in the last 40 years, the ruralists will not accept a revision of the indices of productivity based on the census of farming and stock breeding of 1975.

Another issue that is not even brought to the table in the expropriation debate, despite its relation with the environmental aspect and the labor issues, is the use of agrotoxins. Today, Brazil is the largest consumer of agrotoxins in the world, damaging the health of workers and consumers and the environment.

It is also the case that agribusiness owes an enormous debt to the federal government (leaving aside debts owed to state governments) and to the public banks. Rather than being called to account, including the adjudication of rural properties, these debts are eternally renegotiated.

What underlies this issue is the determined defense of what the ruralists call property rights.

In reality, the topic of agrarian reform meets so much resistance because it signals the beginning ofa process of politial reform. In a country in which 15% of the population is rural, family agriculture occupies 24.3% of the arable land, produces 70% of the food, and employs 74.4% of rural workers, the ruralist benches will count on 257 federal deputies and a majority in the House. Only agrarian reform can bring about a rupture with the powers of the deeply rooted oligarchies.

In the CM, Marx e Engels write:

You are horrified that we might want to abolish private property, but in your own society today, private property is effectively abolished for nine-tenths of its members. It is precisely because these nine out of 10 have no such rights that you possess them. You accuse us, then, of wanting to abolish a form of property that can only exist when the vast majority of a society is deprived of all property.

In sum, you accuse us of wanting to abolish private property. In fact, that is exactly what we want.

We are not this radical: when we support agrarian reform, we seek merely the universalization of property rights in the fields. The right to property is not absolute, and as Minister Patrus Ananias reminded us in his address, must be balanced against other fundamental rights.