• Under the presidency of Michel Temer, one of the first areas to be dismantled was Agrarian Reform. The Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA) was abolished and made part of the Ministry of Social Development. Later it was downgraded to a special secretariat under the aegis of the Casa Civil [Brazilian equivalent of the Cabinet Office]. This marked the dismantling of the the Agrarian Reform policies and investment in a strong agricultural sector which reached its highest point during the Lula government.
  • Guilherme Cassel, the former Minister for Agrarian Development says that the ultimate goal of the ‘coup’ is to break the productive structure of family agriculture and the land re-distribution of Agrarian Reform, concentrate land ownership and widen the market for transnational food companies. In this interview with Marco Weissheimer of SUL21, Guilerme Cassel explains how the ministry was closed down and the reasons behind this.
  • This interview appeared, in Portuguese, here. It was translated for LAB by Nick Caistor.

SUL21: What did the closure of the Ministry of Agrarian Development mean in terms of the formulation and implementation of public policies in this area?

Guillerme Cassel

GC: The worst institutional cruelties always come disguised in an elegant way, either to distract people’s attention or to hide their real intention. When the ‘coup’ government took over power, they had an objective, which has to do with market forces: to dismantle family agriculture. By that I also mean the land distribution achieved by the Agrarian Reform.

From 2003 on, at the start of Lula’s government, family agriculture began to grow a lot in economic terms, occupying ever greater spaces in the market and broadening its influence. That went against the interests of the big landowners. The coup government was committed to opening the market to these big landowners, dismantling the public policies of Agrarian Reform and family agriculture.

Lula did not invent family agriculture, but he made it visible and brought the term into common usage. Family agriculture always existed, and was always productive, but in terms of public policies it remained hidden. Big landowners who are very powerful in Congress, the market and together with the mass media created an image that family agriculture and land take-overs concerned a bunch of poor people who produced only for their own consumption and did not have any important economic role to play.

Before Lula, these sectors were seen by successive government as the target of social policies, not economic ones. This was the fundamental change that took place during Lula’s two terms in power. He recognised that family agriculture was a dynamic and important economic sector, and this helped these farmers recover their self-esteem as they were no longer seen as unproductive poor people who needed support through social policies. They became viewed as a productive sector that produces a lot and is a real help to the national economy.

SUL21: What is the real dimension of the sector in the national economy?

GC: Until 2006, the national agricultural census carried out every ten years did not separate out family agriculture. Its productivity was simply included in the total. When we decided to measure what family agriculture contributed to this total, there was a huge reaction from the Ministry of Agriculture, the UDR (Democratic Ruralist Union) and the deputies representing big landowners in Congress. They almost had a fit trying to prevent family agriculture being measured in this way. The 2006 Census showed we were talking about 4.4 million family holdings, which represented 84% of Brazil’s rural establishments but occupied only 24% of the territory, and that they made up 38% of the gross value of production and provided 70% of daily food consumption. It also showed that family agriculture was 78% more productive per hectare than agribusiness. When these figures were published, the Ministry of Agriculture of the time questioned the validity of the Census. The Ruralist deputies attacked it. But since the figures were scientifically correct, they had to accept them.

SUL21: What is the exact nature of this reaction? After all, when it comes to having access to credit, agribusiness always profited much more than family agriculture.

GC: Family agriculture was growing as part of the national budget. That budget is not elastic. If you create public policies, you always have to fight for your share. The MDA’s slice was growing progressively. It might not have been directly taking funds from agribusiness, but it did mean that their income was growing at a slower rate it had done historically. In addition, family agriculture was earning a bigger share of the market, and co-operatives were becoming stronger. During Lula’s two governments, the average income for family agriculture was three times higher than the overall income growth in Brazil. When it was provided with resources, technical assistance and public policies supporting it, family agriculture responded with an impressive vigour and speed.

This began to show that Agrarian Reform, as well as being a social and progressive necessity, had great economic importance for Brazil. That led to a huge reaction from the big landowners. Returning to the situation now, one of the first moves the coup-mongers announced was the abolition of the MDA, in the name of administrative rationalisation, which makes no sense. First they merged the MDA with the MDS (Ministry of Social Development) in order to say that they saw it as a question of social policy. Then the MDA became part of the Casa Civil, the Cabinet Office, with the excuse that it was part of the political sphere. In other words, Agrarian Reform is no longer something linked to development and the economy, but with social conflicts – so it became almost a police matter.

Image from the MDA’s website

As well as omitting all mention of land redistribution and cutting resources for technical assistance and maintenance, the proposals being put forward do not aim to settle new families, but to legalise land grabbing in Brazil. The productivity index has not changed in Brazil over the past 30 years. Not even Lula’s government managed to change this. As a result, very little land was expropriated. Previously, expropriation was paid for by means of Agrarian Debt bonds over periods of up to 20 years. Now the Temer government is authorising payment in cash, at the market rate. This means that landowners willing to sell land can earn lots of money.

SUL21: During the period when you were in charge of the Ministry of Agrarian Development, what were the main achievements and limits of your policies and the strengthening of family agriculture?

GC: I think it’s important to re-assert the truth about the Agrarian Reform during Lula’s government. I’ve heard and read things like “Lula did nothing or very little about Agrarian Reform’. The fact is that Lula distributed land to 574,609 families, which represents 63% of all the redistribution in the history of Brazil. During the eight years of Lula’s two terms in office, we destined 46.7 million hectares to Agrarian Reform. To get an idea of what this means, the whole of Bolivia is 18 million hectares. We did a lot in a country where the concentration of land ownership is indecent.

It is the class struggle at its most brutal. The landowners’ representatives in Congress are very powerful. They always block Congress whenever a government tries to advance in this area. Even with these limits and difficulties, the Lula governments achieved a great deal. In 2002, the last year of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government, Rs 280 million were spent on land redistribution for Agrarian Reform. Under Lula, in the one year 2009 the amount was RS 742 million. From 2003-2009 the government invested R$ 7 billion in buying land. Is that enough? No. There is much still to be done. The concentration of land in Brazil is even worse than the concentration of income. It’s absurd.

SUL21: Why did the rhythm of Agrarian Reform slow down so much under Dilma?

GC: A lack of finance meant that the PT and its governments had to think the agrarian question much more profoundly. We came to the conclusion that we need to aim for the harmonious co-existence of two models: that of agribusiness and that of family agriculture. Brazil is a country as big as a continent, with a huge diversity that makes this co-existence possible to a certain extent. This means we have to work out how this co-existence is mediated, because in fact they are opposed models.

On the one had is a model that uses a lot of toxic chemicals, lots of transgenic crops, that employs fewer and fewer people and leads to migration from the countryside. On the other, we have a model that uses quite a lot of labour, does not use pesticides, and produces organic foods, which makes it much more forward-looking. At some point these two models will come into conflict. They may continue to co-exist for some time, but we have to find some kind of balance over the question of the concentration of land ownership, which as I have said is absurd in Brazil. Many people think this is only a problem for the rural areas, but they are wrong: it is also a problem for the cities. We need to discuss whether we want a countryside with or without people in it.

A countryside with people, producing foodstuffs, means a lot of people with landholdings much smaller than now. More people working on the land, greater production of foodstuffs and more rural infrastructure. This happened when the MDA existed. From 1996 to 2006 the number of people in family agriculture increased by 460,000.

On the left, this discussion tends to be postponed. The idea when in government is to ‘avoid confusion’, to do whatever is possible to avoid a crisis. I think the time has come to take the agrarian question more seriously. There are three questions that have become all-important throughout the world over the past 20 years. The first is that of food security, which means to guarantee food for the whole planet. The second is that of environmental sustainability. The third involves the transfer from oil to bio-combustibles. Family agriculture directly addresses all these questions. To address the agrarian question in Brazil, to achieve a more balanced and just agriculture, with more people working and fewer big properties implies that we are preparing the country for the main agendas of the contemporary world. This is hugely economically advantageous for Brazil. It’s not an ideological matter, as some people maintain.

Once this ‘coup’ period has passed, I think that one of the banners we have to defend is a reversal of all the measures they have introduced and the re-construction of what has been dismantled. Obviously the longer the coup lasts, the harder this will be. Not to mention the harm done to farmers by the lack of regulation, access to credit, or policies of technical assistance, the lack of land redistribution and the lack of investment. All this is undermining the structure of production. This is a serious problem because it directly affects farmers’ income.

This I believe is the ultimate aim of the coup in this sector: to destroy the structure of production of family agriculture, to concentrate land ownership still further, and to open the market to the big transnational food companies. Time is against us. The sooner we manage to defeat the coup, the greater the possibility of recuperating what is being dismantled now.

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