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Land Rights and Food Sovereignty in Brazil

October 2014

When Maria and Rubem dos Santos were pushed off their land in northeast Brazil to make way for a sugar cane plantation, their lives changed forever. In previous years, the family supported itself by growing food for a balanced diet. Now, instead of farming, Rubem had to work in the cane fields. The chemicals made him sick, and his meager income didn’t stretch far. The family was going hungry.

The story of the dos Santos family is all too familiar in Brazil, where thousands of families have been pushed off their land by big agribusiness. This is the result of land grabbing, when transnational companies arrange with the government to purchase or lease large areas of land for industrial farming. Often, these deals are sealed behind closed doors with little thought to the people who already live on the land. Formerly self-sufficient families like the dos Santos are plunged into poverty.

In this situation, family farmers are forced either to migrate or to work on the new plantation. But some families are refusing both these options. They’re pitching tents and petitioning for their rights as they encamp on the land. They’re cooperating with nonprofits and other families to purchase small plots. UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) is partnering with Grassroots International and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) to support 350,000 families who are newly settled on land the size of Massachusetts.

With this support, the MST trains communities in how to petition for rights to their land. After land rights are granted, UMCOR and Grassroots’ funds provide an initial investment of tools, seeds and training in sustainable agriculture so that the families can start growing food right away.

One farmer, named Edileu, says with pride: “We are producing cashews, berries, passion fruit, oranges, pineapples, limes.” Edileu lived in a tent for six years while he waited for land rights. “The secret is using agricultural practices that are in harmony with the local environment, not at war with it like industrial agriculture.”

October 16 is World Food Day, and the 2014 theme proclaimed: “Family Farmers: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth.” When families own their land, they have a stake in keeping it healthy for generations to come. They’re more likely to encourage biodiversity, use natural fertilizers like compost, and rotate crops to enrich the soil. This is sustainable development in action: family farms can protect the land while helping to eradicate hunger and poverty.

“In Brazil, family farmers grow approximately 40 percent of Brazil’s food supplies while working on less than 25 percent of the farm land,” writes Alice Mar, UMCOR’s Executive Secretary of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security.

But policymakers too often prioritize big agribusiness over small-scale farming. “Two percent of the population owns 42 percent of the land, much of which lies idle or underutilized or is used for export production that does little to support local economies,” Mar explains. “Meanwhile, approximately 4.6 million landless families remain landless and lack access to even the most basic resources.”

Maria and Rubem dos Santos used to be part of that sobering statistic. But not any more: they’ve joined with other families through the Landless Workers Movement to fight for their rights. They’ve settled on a small plot, restored the soil, and begun producing food again. In fact, they produce more than they can eat—thirteen different vegetable crops among a green desert of sugar cane—which helps feed other families and provides income for Maria and Rubem.

“We need a sustainable agriculture policy to help small farmers like me,” says Rubem. “The biggest challenge in agrarian reform is the lack of technical support for rural families,” he explains. “Farmers like me do not have access to funds. People are unable to make investments in the land.” That’s because banks don’t want to lend money to people who don’t have any assets. But UMCOR and Grassroots International are willing to invest and are proud to support families like the dos Santos.


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