July 27, 2003

Land Reform in Brazil

This may turn into Lula da Silva's biggest problem:

Poor Press Brazil's Leader on His Promise of Land: ...Founded in 1984, the landless movement, which claims 1.5 million members nationwide, is today a formidable political and social force with a substantial war chest that comes from tithes paid by peasants it has successfully resettled. Its demands, which have expanded to include an end to agribusiness and a promise not to relocate squatters, can be ignored only at political peril.

In early July, Mr. da Silva met for four hours with movement leaders at the presidential palace in Brasília. He was hoping to reduce tensions, but may have achieved the opposite.

When the meeting ended, he was photographed wearing the movement's red baseball cap and feeding cookies to the visitors. As a result, he was widely criticized for appearing to support the movement's violations of the law, including land occupations.

"The amount of noise being made about this is way out of proportion," José Genoino, the president of Mr. da Silva's Workers' Party, said in an interview here. "The president has met with various other groups and organizations and put on their hats and no fuss was ever made before."

But Mr. da Silva's reluctance to act against his allies merely confirmed the suspicions of conservative rural landowners who have always opposed him. They are openly arming themselves and hiring private security forces that landless movement leaders described as illegal militias.

"We have a president who swore to respect and uphold the Constitution but is not doing so," Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, a rancher here who is president of the main national landowners' group, the Democratic Rural Union, complained in an interview. "When land invasions take place, the police stand by with arms crossed because this government has no will to enforce the law."

Mr. da Silva has contributed to raising the expectations of the landless. Before he assumed the presidency in January, he promised to provide homesteads to at least 60,000 families this year. At the top of that list were those already living in precarious encampments like those here in western São Paulo State.

But government figures show that he is far behind that goal. Barely 2,500 families had been resettled by the end of June, and what is left of this year's budget appears to allow for fewer than 7,000 in all.

At the same time, the number of poor families living in the estimated 1,300 squatter settlements around the country that the landless movement has organized and controls has swelled to 150,000. Increasingly, they are showing signs of frustration and impatience.

"I've been working in the fields since I was 7 years old, but always for someone else and always as a day laborer," said Valdevino Antônio de Lima, 58, a father of seven who is part of a group of 400 families squatting alongside a road. "My dream has always been to farm a piece of land that I can say is mine and that I can pass on to my children."

The group's leaders, however, envision something more radical. They have repeatedly said they want to rid Brazil of agribusinesses that focus on export markets and to impose a collectivist agricultural model.

"We want the socialization of the means of production," Miguel Stedile, a son of the group's founder and a member of its national coordinating council, said in a recent interview with the newsmagazine Epoca. "We are going to adapt the Cuban and Soviet experiences to Brazil."...

Posted by DeLong at July 27, 2003 08:10 AM | TrackBack


South Africa has the same concentration of land ownership and poverty problem. Solutions as they are evidenced for both countries may in time turn out much the same.


Posted by: anne on July 27, 2003 10:04 AM

"We want the socialization of the means of production," Miguel Stedile, a son of the group's founder and a member of its national coordinating council, said in a recent interview with the newsmagazine Epoca. "We are going to adapt the Cuban and Soviet experiences to Brazil."

A surer recipe for economic disaster can scarcely be imagined.

The issue of land redistribution in southern Africa is even more problematic. There IS such a thing as cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, and as unfair as it may be to leave large landholdings in the hands of those who may have obtained them unfairly, it doesn't make economic sense to seize highly productive farms and redistribute them to "farmers" who lack the agricultural knowhow, the investment capital and the economies of scale to maintain their productivity.

God knows that I dislike most of the white settlers in Zimbabwe and South Africa - I'll even admit that I am totally lacking in empathy for those who complain about life under Comrade Mugabe - but I refuse to let my personal attitudes get in the way of my reason. These "land reform" efforts strike me as doing more harm than good wherever they are tried. Surely Zimbabweans and South Africans are better off tolerating "unfair" landholdings than they would be in a state of perfectly egalitarian starvation!

Even in Japan, where McArthur's reforms are supposed to have been a success, they paved the way for both an LDP monopoly on power, with its consequent paving over of Japan's landscape, and a powerful agricultural lobby that impoverishes Japanese consumers and LDC farmers alike.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on July 27, 2003 11:09 AM

Land Reform in Brazil is a big problem, but not likely ever to be resolved by Zimbabwe-style reforms. It would lead to economic and social chaos just as in Africa. The solution is by improving the economic situation such that there are jobs for these people. Modern agriculture is not as labor intensive as it used to be, and thus can be performed efficiently with relatively few workers. Rather the problem is the unemployment rate of 13% which is still going up, this in a country where the minimum wage is less than US$100 per month.

Perhaps Brazil should think about something like a depression style civilian conservation corps that can employ and retrain people for public works projects (which Brazil so desperately needs) while providing them with the basic necessities of life while working (along with education, sanitation, health care, etc...) Might just work if they could keep it out of the hands of corrupt politicians... (which is not very easy).

Posted by: non economist on July 27, 2003 04:47 PM

I don't know if following the Soviet model of land policies is the best platform to run with. Even if you're in favor of socialist land reform, wouldn't it be better to use an example that did not, y'know, result in the death of millions?

Posted by: cure on July 27, 2003 11:58 PM

It seems to me that both the Nationalists in Taiwan and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua both dispossessed a small number of very large landowners in outright nationalisations, resettled quite a few landless peasants on them (who, like many peasants, were far more productive farmers than large owners) and in so doing managed to keep production up and keep land demands from growing out of control.

Of course, neither used a Soviet-style approach. In Taiwan, the large owners they dispossessed were Japanese, and in little position to complain that they were uncompensated. In Nicaragua, it was largely land held by Somoza and a few of his cronies that got confiscated. Is there a class of large land-owner in Brazil sufficiently hated that no one will defend them and big enough to have large areas to seize? If so, it seems to me that there are a few decent precedents for seizure and redistribution.

Posted by: Scott Martens on July 28, 2003 06:40 AM

I think that newsreport was more allarmist than it should be, because, among other things, Lula is from a left wing party with ties to the landless moviment.
The issue of land redistribution in Brazil can be solved in the long term. There are lots of unproductive land arround, so there is no need to confiscate anything or to break the rule of law.
And, IMHO, these socialist ideas of Mr. Stedile and the landless moviment are nothing more than pipe dreams. Not even the main left wing parties embrace them anymore, as the last 7 months of Mr. Lula presidency well show.

Posted by: Alves on July 28, 2003 07:50 AM

Having just returned from Japan, visiting often, I can tell you the groans from America and Britain about Japan are NOT merited nor worried about in Japan. Could it be that Japan is really a democracy, that Japan has different immediate economic priorities, that Japan is a fine fine country to live in even though it is not America or Britain?

Sorry, to the Economist.

Posted by: bill on July 28, 2003 08:36 AM

Uh Bill ...

You don't have a monopoly on familiarity with the land of the rising sun, you know. Not only have I been to Japan and studied its' history in some depth, but I also happen to speak and read the language - 日本語は分かります。それでも、I still am of the opinion that the outsized power of Japan's rural voters has only served to entrench the LDP's quasi-monopoly on power, and that in the long run Japan would likely have been better off if not so many people had been tied to the countryside by "land reform."

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on July 28, 2003 11:49 AM


I agree with "you." My argument is with the slant of the Economist. What pleases me is the protection of employment, though it does slow a growth renewal.

Posted by: bill on July 28, 2003 12:19 PM


The outsized power of rural voters in states like Iowa is equally evident in American national politics. French farmers have a considerable sway as well. Oh well....

Posted by: lise on July 29, 2003 08:25 AM
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