Lula and the Meaning of Agrarian Reform

Saturday, April 30, 2011

by Cliff Welchnacla cover

[Ed. Note:  This article is from NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April 2011 and is part of a special issue on Lula’s legacy.]

Until Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victorious 2002 campaign for president, Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) had consistently supported a radical definition of agrarian reform. Seen as a crucial tool for building socialism, agrarian reform would weaken the ruling class fragment that secured its power by controlling large swaths of Brazilian territory and help pave the way for the victory of a PT-controlled government. In the years before he was elected president, Lula went out of his way to participate in land occupations, marches, and forums organized by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and other peasant groups. He visited jailed leaders like José Rainha

Júnior, who was regularly persecuted by the state as a gang leader for successfully organizing thousands of families in land occupations. Lula also joined the MST in arguing that Rainha and other jailed landless militants were political prisoners who should be released.

 By 2002, however, the PT position had changed: Agrarian reform was no longer part and parcel of the fight for socialism, but rather an essential economic development policy. “The agrarian reform question,” as official PT literature put it in 2003, “is a problem that interests all workers, in the countryside and city, because it contributes to a developmental model that generates employment and produces for domestic consumption, helping to make food available to all.”1 Emptied of its political content, agrarian reform was now subordinated to economic objectives.

 The Lula government’s redefinition of agrarian reform is the key to understanding its approach to the agrarian question. It reflected the PT’s shift to a “third road” strategy in the years leading up to Lula’s election—neither socialist nor neoliberal. With a focus on acquiring state power, the PT came to view explicitly socialist positions as a hindrance to electoral victory. Instigated by Lula—whose three previous presidential campaigns helped build his hegemony over the party—the PT reluctantly made a shift in ideology and endorsed capitalism, seeking to retain its “socialist” credentials by embracing “developmentalism.” The idea was to integrate small family farming in big picture economic planning, calling the inclusion agrarian reform without necessarily redistributing land. As mild and pro-capitalist as the vision was, it still irritated corporate agriculture, which sought to receive all subsidies in order to control its disbursements and thus eliminate peasant movements critical of its practices and wealth concentration.

 The PT’s agrarian project relied upon a two-pronged strategy, with both social and economic dimensions. For reasons of institutional history, two separate ministries implemented the project: the Ministry of Agriculture, which promoted an aggressive modernization, export, and trade agenda in collusion with large-scale agribusiness, and the Agrarian Development Ministry (MDA), which focused on small family farm development by investing in government purchasing programs, infrastructure improvements on existing agrarian reform settlements, and formalizing the small-holding relationships of squatters, generally avoiding confrontation with large, private landowners.

 Lula’s MDA claimed to have settled unprecedented numbers of landless people, surpassing the achievements of the PT’s key political rival, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) of conservative former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002). Reflecting the continued importance of the agrarian question in national politics, both parties like to claim the title of having established the largest number of settlements and settled the largest number of families. According to DATALUTA, a rigorously scientific pro-agrarian reform research project at the State University of São Paulo, the Lula government created 2,517 new agrarian reform settlements and settled 416,015 families from 2003 to 2009.2 At five people per family, that adds up to more than 2 million people. During Cardoso’s eight years in power, DATALUTA found, 3,924 new settlements were created and 393,842 families settled; that is, almost 2 million people. Accordingly, Cardoso won in the number of new settlements, but Lula in the number of families resettled.

 The Lula administration disputes the DATALUTA findings. The National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), the MDA entity responsible for implementing the administration’s policies, claims that 580,000 families, or some 2.9 million people, received land between 2003 and 2009. Based on these calculations, Lula claimed to have settled more than half (59%) the total number of all families who have benefited from agrarian reform throughout Brazilian history. The government also claimed to have settled them on 47 million hectares, nearly five times the amount of land distributed to peasants by Cardoso.3

 The difference between the Lula government’s numbers and those of its critics is explained primarily by the practice of “regularization,” or normalizing peasant properties. Traditionally, peasants have faced significant difficulties in securing titles for their smallholdings. Due to local power structures and the expense of filing, many fail to register their farms. INCRA set out to overcome these problems through a policy of regularizing these holdings, counting each as one more family settled. For many researchers, the policy is an important investment in small farming but should not count as an agrarian reform statistic since the families were already settled and the land occupied. However, even when counting these numbers, DATALUTA arrived at a total that is 164,000 families below that claimed by Lula.

 Another disputed characteristic of Lula’s agrarian reform practice is that of relocating families out of coastal zones—where the concentration of both population and large-scale agribusiness operations make the land struggle more acute—and onto large settlements on government land in the Amazon region. This practice helped to boost the higher INCRA figures. “Lula did not implement agrarian reform, but only a policy of settlements,” said Gilmar Mauro, a longtime coordinator of the MST, in a May 2010 interview.4

 Setting aside environmental questions related to the destruction of rainforest—settlers have been accused of burning down forest to clear pasture and farmland—these policies also evade the crux of the agrarian reform question itself: challenging concentrated land ownership where it counts. Since the government controls much of the north, establishing agrarian reform settlements there means ignoring the redistributive objectives of the policy. Private landlords near the coast can rest easy, as agribusiness interests maintain the pace of land concentration and intensify their exploitation of land, water, and labor resources.

 This is no surprise: agribusiness was a linchpin of the PT’s overall economic policy under Lula, who helped construct the narrative of agribusiness as the “savior” of the Brazilian economy. His government housed ministers connected to the industry, including Antonio Palocci, Lula’s first finance minister, who had been mayor of Brazil’s self-styled “agribusiness capital,” Ribeirão Preto, in São Paulo State. (Palocci ran current President Dilma Rousseff’s election campaign and is now her chief of staff.) Along with Minister of Agriculture Roberto Rodrigues, a leading big-farm advocate and former president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, Palocci established a fairly conventional policy that counted heavily on the growth of export agriculture to help pay down Brazil’s debt and stimulate further economic activity. The policy proved successful. Brazil quickly earned its independence from International Monetary Fund controls as it became a world leader in soybeans, beef, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and orange juice.

 As a direct result of these policies, land concentration rose in states marked by the growth of soybean and sugarcane plantations, as well as cattle ranches. According to the most recent census, 4,236 landowners possessed 85 million hectares, equivalent to 14% of Brazil’s 600 million registered hectares. Comparatively speaking, some 3% of rural establishments occupied nearly 57% of agricultural land, while 62% of Brazil’s farmers cultivated only 8% of this total. Properties of more than 1,000 hectares accounted for 46% of Brazil’s agricultural land, while farms with less than 10 hectares occupied barely 3%.5 In terms of the Gini index, land concentration in Brazil increased between the agricultural censuses of 1995–6 (.856) and 2005–6 (.872).6 Land-grabbing by foreigners also affected Brazil. Volkswagen, for example, is said to control areas totaling 30 million hectares.7

 Moreover, peasant farming’s contribution to rural employment between agricultural censuses declined from 77% to 74%. The 5 million small farmers who continued to produce foodstuffs had to work even harder as the nation’s dependency on their crops grew during the same period. Thus, small farmers’ contribution to important staples like beans and cassava grew, respectively, from 67% to 70% and from 85% to 87% of total production.8

 These statistics help document the contradictory effects of policies favoring increased dependency on both small farms and corporate agriculture in recent years. They convey a sense of the content of the Lula government’s “agrarian reform” efforts. They confirm the growing concentration of land ownership and suggest the conflicts generated by this process.


 The contested meaning of “agrarian reform” has long been at the center of Brazil’s rural struggle. In the early 20th century, revolutionaries in Mexico and Russia advocated agrarian reform as land redistribution, and this definition found its way into Brazilian political discourse in the 1920s via the Brazilian Communist Party. Through decades of struggle, support for the idea was consolidated with the founding of Brazil’s largest small farmer and rural labor organization, the National Confederation of Workers in Agriculture (CONTAG), in 1963.9 When the military took power in the 1964 coup, the dictatorship sought to enhance productivity through a reform of agricultural policies, and in doing so embraced a depoliticized version of agrarian reform. While peasants were said to benefit from these policies, they most often became its victims, with 30 million of them joining a rural exodus to the cities from 1960 to 1990. In the meantime, the military’s “agrarian reform” project bolstered agro-industry with the construction of large irrigation and hydroelectric infrastructure, as well as providing subsidies for chemical fertilizers, machinery, plant upgrades, and the reproduction of a dependent labor force.10

 The end of the dictatorship in the 1980s helped re-establish the initial radical political content of agrarian reform, advocated with vigor by the newly formed MST. But resistance to this interpretation produced new definitions in the debate over including agrarian reform in Brazil’s new constitution of 1988, which limited redistribution to cases in which landlords were proved to have failed to use their land productively or to have violated labor and environmental laws. Only in such cases could private land be appropriated by the state. Cardoso reaffirmed the trend of replacing political objectives with economic ones by introducing “market agrarian reform.” Under this policy, the landless were forced to take out loans subsidized by the World Bank to buy “agrarian reform” farms. Lula employed nearly all these tactics to formulate his agrarian reform policies.

 Given these circumstances, peasant movements experimented with new strategies under the Lula government. One group occupied Congress. Others occupied large corporate estates and facilities, uprooted corporate orange groves in São Paulo State, attacked several enormous eucalyptus plantations in the state of Espírito Santo, and destroyed a genetically modified seed laboratory run by the Syngenta corporation in Paraná State. Under the law, each target was classified as productive and thus ostensibly outside the reach of agrarian reform legislation. But by its actions the MST and its allies in the Vía Campesina movement sought to emphasize a neglected aspect of the constitution that stressed the “social function” of the land. They argued, for example, that the vast “green deserts” of eucalyptus trees, farmed by chemicals and machines to produce cellulose for the production of paper, served little social function beyond that of enriching investors.

 While these attacks generated significant controversy, nearly everyone admits that the Lula administration distinguished itself by not over-reacting. That is to say, whereas former presidential administrations responded with repression, Lula condemned such actions but defended the autonomy of civil society organizations as essential to Brazil’s budding democracy. Cardoso had used his executive powers to criminalize land occupations, whereas Lula attempted to win over the movement by incorporating many militants in the MDA and INCRA. Although repression occurred during the Lula years, it was limited either to state or local police actions, or to the Congress, where conservative legislators used every tool available to them to investigate the movements and squeeze them dry of funds. Many PT congressmen and senators worked diligently to thwart these attacks.11

 Lula’s attempts at incorporation yielded results. For example, CONTAG supported the president’s policies and practices, despite some criticisms. The confederation came to accept definitions of agrarian reform that included the colonization of the north as well as regularization, and worked with the government to expand “market-based agrarian reform.” The national family farm credit program (PRONAF), funded by the World Bank, is popular among CONTAG leaders. During the Lula years, INCRA’s PRONAF expenditures increased to $1.3 billion, contributing to CONTAG’s support of the PT government.12 On the other hand, the Vía Campesina–Brazil condemned such neoliberal measures and counseled member organizations to step up the pressure on the Rousseff administration.13


 Rousseff is expected to maintain Lula’s agrarian policies. In a July campaign speech to a CONTAG assembly, she promised to include another 2 million families in the PRONAF credit program. “Rural agriculture and agrarian reform in the countryside will be among my priorities,” she said.14 The redundancies in her language reveal a certain awkwardness with the topic. During the campaign, the theme was barely mentioned as both Rousseff and her main opponent concentrated on urban themes. Quite unlike Lula, Rousseff has no record of support and participation in the land struggle. Her feel for the subject is limited to its contribution to national development and role in easing stress on Brazil’s crowded cities by helping to retain people in the countryside. “What we need is to transform the small farmer into a property owner, and ensure that he sees his life improving in the countryside and in his educational opportunities,” she said.15

 Like Lula, she fought the dictatorship and is likely to feel unthreatened by social movements, but in her campaign speech she expressed her intolerance for one MST tactic—the occupation of public buildings, frequently used in recent years to pressure INCRA, the Bank of Brazil, and other state agencies to quicken the pace of agrarian reform. Yet because Lula’s agrarian reform record frustrated landless organizations like the MST and other Brazilians who care about the issue, Rousseff’s less-attuned administration and its continuation of these policies may very well provoke a new round of aggressive mobilizations.

Cliff Welch is a Professor of History at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

1 Partido dos Trabalhadores, Trajetórias: das origens à vitória de Lula (São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2002), 99.

 2 Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, et al., eds., DATALUTA banco de dados da luta pela terra: relatório 2009 (Presidente Prudente, São Paulo: Núcleo de Estudos, Pesquisas e Projetos de Reforma Agrária, 2010).

3 Agência Brasil, “Governo Lula assenta 580 mil famílias, mas movimentos cobram mais,” March 7, 2010.

4 Valéria Nader and Gabriel Brito, “Gilmar Mauro: ‘Lula não fez reforma agrária, mas somente política de assentamentos,’ ” Correio da Cidadania, May 1, 2010.

5 Ibid.

6 Fabiana Frayssinet, “Brazil: Agribusiness Driving Land Concentration,” Inter Press Service, October 5, 2009.

7 Antonio Inácio Andrioli, “A Reforma agrária e o governo Lula: entre a expectativa e a possibilidade,” Revista Espaço Acadêmico no. 31 (December 2003).

8 Ibid.

9 See Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (Harper & Row, 1969) and Cliff Welch, The Seed Was Planted: The São Paulo Roots of Brazil’s Rural Labor Movement, 1924–1964 (Penn State University Press, 1999).

10 James Petras, Cultivating Revolution: The United States and Agrarian Reform in Latin America (Vintage Books, 1973); Wenceslau Gonçalves Neto, Estado e agricultura no Brasil: política agrícola e modernização econômica brasileira, 1960–1980 (Editora Hucitec, 1997); Clifford Andrew Welch, “Os Com-terra e sem-terra de São Paulo: retratos de uma relação em transição (1945–1996),” in Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, Leonilde Sérvolo de Medeiros, and Maria Ignez Paulilo, eds., Lutas camponesas contemporâneas: condições, dilemas e conquistas, vol. 1, O Campesinato como sujeito político nas décadas de 1950 a 1980 (Editora Unesp, 2009), 139–70.

11 João Alfredo Telles Melo, ed., Reforma agrária quando? CPI mostra as causas da luta pele terra no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora da UNESP, 2006).

12 Frayssinet, “Brazil: Agribusiness Driving Land Concentration”; Claudio Leal, “Dilma diz que Serra acabará com Ministério da Reforma Agrária,” Terra Magazine, July 13, 2010.

13 João Pedro Stedile, quoted in Eleonora de Lucena, “Turma do agronegócio só pensa na conta bancária,” Folha de São Paulo, April 17, 2011.

14 Leal, “Dilma.”

15 Pedro Peduzzi and Roberta Lopes, “Dilma afirma que MST não será tratado como caso de polícia, mas futuro governo não aceitará ilegalid,” Agência Brasil, November 3, 2010.