As Brazilian agribusiness booms, family farms feed the nation

  • Brazil’s “Agricultural Miracle” credits industrial agribusiness with pulling the nation out of a recent economic tailspin, and contributing 23.5 percent to GDP in 2017. But that miracle relied on a steeply tilted playing field, with government heavily subsidizing elite entrepreneurs.
  • As a result, Brazilian agro-industrialists own 800,000 farms which occupy 75.7 percent of the nation’s agricultural land, with 62 percent of total agricultural output. Further defining the inequity, the top 1.5 percent of rural landowners occupy 53 percent of all agricultural land.
  • In contrast, there are 4.4 million family farms in Brazil, making up 85 percent of all agricultural operations in the country. The family farm sector produces 70 percent of food consumed in the country, but does so using under 25 percent of Brazil’s agricultural land.
  • Farm aid inequity favoring large-scale industrial agribusiness over family farms has deepened since 2016 under Michel Temer, and is expected to deepen further under Jair Bolsonaro. Experts say that policies favoring family farms could bolster national food security.

This is the eighth and final story in a series by journalist Anna Sophie Gross who traveled to the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Maranhão in Legal Amazonia for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

SERRA DO CENTRO, Tocantins state, Brazil – Alzira Miranda de Oliveira rocks back on her chair at the cozy stone home her husband built for the family many decades ago. She sports a charming, but incongruous, smile as she recalls a time, just a year ago, when a powerful regional soy producer association tried to get her family legally expelled from their land.

With unshakeable good humor she relates how she still seeks cover whenever hearing a plane overhead – thinking would-be land grabbers are about to attack from above.

Alzira and her husband live in Serra do Centro, in the Campos Lindos area of Tocantins state, Brazil. Their garden, unlike the monotonous monoculture of soy plantations common to the region, is replete with cassava, beans, rice, melons, oranges, lemons, pumpkins, yams, potatoes of all varieties, along with pigs and a few cows. Chickens confidently amble around the family farm, interjecting loudly throughout our conversation.

Alzira pulls out several jars of pulses – different dried bean strands of the Brazilian staple, feijao. These help feed her family, including five children and two adoptees, and will also be sold at a local fair to earn cash. Alzira is almost entirely self-sufficient, producing all the fruit and vegetables necessary to sustain herself and her loved ones. What she does not produce, she procures by trading with the other 59 family farmers in the region.

A drone’s-eye-view of this small family farming community would show a smattering of small-holdings in a vast soy sea – the large plantations that make up the Campos Lindos Project. The brainchild of then governor Siqueira Campos, the project aimed at bringing large-scale agribusiness entrepreneurs to Tocantins, Brazil’s newest state (founded in 1988) by offering financial incentives to invest in monoculture crops. Spurred by these economic enticements and low-priced land, southern Brazilian soy farmers – known as Gauchos – began colonizing Tocantins in the 90s.

Alzira’s smallholding, set within a seemingly-eternal soy landscape, paints a powerful image of environmental and agricultural imbalance in the region and the modern world. The soy grown in Campos Lindos is destined for export to China and elsewhere – often going to Britain and the EU to feed chickens (claimed to be sustainably grown, but linked to Brazilian deforestation), and sold at McDonalds, Tesco and other large retailers. In contrast, the fruits and vegetables that Alzira grows feed Brazilians, and are vital to the country’s national food security.

Likewise, the land conflicts seen in Campos Lindos are emblematic of conflicts raging across the north of Brazil, especially in the Cerrado and Amazon biomes, between fruit and vegetable family farmers and large-scale growers of soy, corn, coffee, sugar cane, cotton, eucalyptus, beef, pork, chicken, and other export commodities.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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