Merchants of death!

In June of this year some 10,000 peasant farmers took part in a protest march in Haiti’s central plateau. At the end they symbolically burnt several bags of seed, part of a 60-tonne donation made by the giant US-based biotech company, Monsanto. After an earthquake in January killed 230,000 people and forced half a million to move back to the countryside, Haiti is painfully trying to rebuild its economy. Seeds, in particular, are in short supply, because peasant families were forced to use seeds saved for next year’s planting to feed the unexpected arrivals from Port-au-Prince. Why on earth would farmers want to destroy a gift so precious?

We can save our native seeds – creole seeds, as we call them – from one year to the other. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds. You have to buy new ones each year. But it’s worse than that. They are not right for our land

This was a question I put to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who heads Haiti’s largest and oldest peasant organization and has been at the forefront of Haiti’s peasant struggles for 35 years. I wasn’t surprised to find he had been one of the organizers of the march. He was predictably clear in his response: ‘It was, of course, a symbolic gesture. It was a way of saying a very firm “no” to Monsanto and to the government. Monsanto is trying to use the reconstruction effort to make us dependent on their seeds. We can save our native seeds – creole seeds, as we call them – from one year to the other. But you can’t do that with Monsanto’s seeds. You have to buy new ones each year. But it’s worse than that. They are not right for our land. Monsanto’s “gift” is, in fact, a strong attack on our farmers, our biodiversity and what is left of our environment.’


The Haitian farmers’ firm stance is indicative of the huge tensions that have emerged over recent decades between the world’s peasant farmers and the small group of powerful corporations that are increasingly dominating world farming. It is fascinating to trace how this massive – and largely unreported – change has occurred.

It all began back in the 1920s with the development of hybrids, when plant breeders found that, by crossing two varieties, they could improve yields. Breeders could have improved yields in other ways, such as selective breeding. But even then they were quick to grasp the commercial advantages of hybrids: they lose vigour from one year to the next, so farmers have to buy them afresh each year, making huge profits for the merchants. Pioneer Hi-bred, the first company to market hybrid corn (maize), became the world’s largest seed company. Hybrids were developed for cotton, sunflower, sorghum, sugar beet and many vegetables.

After the Second World War, the same chemical processes that had been involved in the production of explosives and nerve gases were used to create synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The combination of hybrids and chemical inputs led to a huge increase in yields: the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. There was, of course, a downside: runoff from synthetic fertilizers polluted rivers and groundwater; pesticides poisoned and killed wildlife; the soil itself died and became more prone to erosion; and the plants grown in monoculture presented an easy target for pests.


As pests became a big problem, the winners were the manufacturers of pesticides. Profits rocketed for companies like Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dupont (which eventually bought Pioneer Hi-bred). These earnings allowed them to fund the next big step in their bid to control world farming – the development of genetically modified crops.

This technology permits companies to introduce a gene that makes a crop resistant to a specific pesticide. At first, this seemed to be a big boon for farmers, for it allowed them to spray their fields early in the growing season, killing everything but the crop they had planted. And, of course, it was a huge commercial opportunity for the corporations, as they developed GM crops that were resistant to the pesticide they alone produced. The biggest winner was Monsanto, which produced a GM form of soya resistant to their herbicide, Roundup.

Renaming themselves ‘life science companies’, the pesticide manufacturers went on a spending spree. Since 1970, multinational companies have bought – or taken control of – over 1,000 once-independent seed companies. Monsanto has been particularly aggressive, targeting small seed manufacturers in key countries like Brazil. In 1996 Monsanto was not even among the top-10 global seed companies – today it has rocketed to first place.


What can happen when farming comes under the control of corporate giants was brought home to me very starkly a couple of years ago when I visited India. In the 1980s the state government of Andhra Pradesh promised local farmers untold wealth if they embraced cash crops, particularly hybrid cotton. The farmers were encouraged to buy on credit a ‘package’ of high-yielding varieties of hybrid cotton, fertilizers and pesticides supplied by the corporations.

For a few years it seemed, indeed, as if some local farmers had won the lottery. But then the soils began to lose the fertility that had been built up over generations using traditional methods. Pests became more rife. A higher outlay on both fertilizers and pesticides was needed. All too often, a freak weather event wrecked their crops, leaving them with heavy debts and no income.

By the turn of the century, almost every rural household in the region was forced to sell cattle and land in a desperate bid to stave off bankruptcy. Overwhelmed by the ignominy of reducing their families to penury, farmers began to kill themselves, often swallowing the herbicide they had bought on credit. Some 150,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2005.

While the corporations may not be directly responsible for these deaths, there are other risks from their takeover. Corporations want to sell the same small range of hybrid or GM crops everywhere, allowing them to maximize sales and profits. This is leading to the extinction of a huge number of local crops, developed over thousands of years. It is a frightening prospect: with climate change, farmers will need to have access to as wide a diversity of crops as possible.

Reliance on a few standardized crops also leaves agriculture seriously vulnerable to sudden, debilitating diseases. Wheat is a case in point. For decades it has been bred by seed companies for the big wheat farmers, who want a high yield and protein content, together with fast growth provided by chemical fertilizers. But these wheat varieties tend to be vulnerable to disease. It was recently disclosed that about 90 per cent of the world’s wheat is susceptible to Ug99, a fungus that causes a devastating disease called stem rust. Stem rust was supposed to have been eliminated half a century ago, but it has recently re-emerged in virulent form in East Africa. If it spreads, some countries could face mass starvation. Farmers will be urgently seeking old, resistant varieties; it will be calamitous if none can be found.

After their bruising experiences with ‘technological packages’, farmers in Andhra Pradesh are seeking alternatives. There are now 50 organic and GMO-free villages in the state – part of the GM-Free India coalition. Peasant farmers in Haiti, too, are fighting back. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste says that he speaks in the name of 200,000 farmers, and they can get policies reversed. ‘We have found that direct action works,’ he says. ‘Some years ago we burnt an American pig in front of the agriculture ministry to protest against the destruction of our creole [native] pigs. That is our way of struggling, and we succeeded in getting the creole pigs back. That is what matters.’

Sue Branford is a journalist who worked for many years in Brazil. She is the author of several books and, among other things, is currently co-editor of Seedling, the magazine of GRAIN,


On 27 October 2002 a huge mass of Brazilians, waving red flags and shouting slogans, took over the heart of the banking centre in São Paulo, the country’s largest city. They were celebrating the victory in the presidential elections of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the candidate of the left-of-centre Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT). When Lula appeared on a giant screen to make his acceptance speech, people wept and hugged each other. They were confident that, after three decades of economic stagnation and worsening living conditions, Brazil was finally beginning a new era of prosperity and social reform.

Many Brazilians today are perplexed by the repeated failure of their country, the fifth largest in the world, to live up to its promise. They know that the country has achieved much, for it has become the tenth largest economy in the world and is a leading exporter of both sophisticated industrial goods, including cars and airplanes, and a wide range of agricultural products, including soybeans, sugar, coffee, orange juice and tobacco. Yet little of this wealth has trickled down to the poor. A relatively small group of Brazilians live extremely well. Along the coastal road that runs south from Rio de Janeiro to the port of Santos, there are hundreds of luxury holiday homes, equipped with state-of-the-art yachts, ski-jets and beach buggies. But this conspicuous wealth coexists with abject poverty. This is most visible in the spectacularly beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro, where from the expensive hotels along Copacabana beach you can see thousands of flimsy shacks built by the poor on the sides of the mountains that rise up sharply from the coastline. Some 25 million Brazilians, out of a population of 175 million, have such a low income that they go hungry.

Brazil’s social inequalities, which are more marked than in almost any other developing country, are largely the result of its history. The Portuguese, who colonized Brazil in the 16th century, set up huge estates, known as capitanias, through which they organized the economic exploitation of the country. Only one president – João Goulart – ever seriously talked about reforming this highly concentrated system of land distribution, which led to the creation of an underclass of disenfranchised poor Brazilians, and he was overthrown by a military coup in 1964. The generals who ruled Brazil for the next 25 years achieved high rates of economic growth but did nothing to reduce the inequalities.

The return to civilian government in 1985, though warmly welcomed by the population at the time, has had disappointing results. Governments have enacted market reforms, as recommended by the IMF. The economy has stagnated and millions of Brazilians remain excluded from consumer society. Unable to find a job in the formal economy, they are forced to scratch out a living in the vast shantytowns that encircle all the country’s large cities. Drug trafficking has penetrated many poor areas and crime rates are rocketing.

Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that people voted for Lula because they want change in government policies, with a much greater emphasis on economic growth and an end to social exclusion. So far, President Lula’s achievements have been modest, largely because he has had to water down his reforms to get them approved by Congress. He is also respecting an earlier promise not to default on a huge public debt, inherited from the previous administration, even though debt servicing currently absorbs a colossal 10 per cent of national income.

Longing for Lula

'To end hunger in the country. That's what I want President Lula to do,' said the 19-year-old woman, Marina, looking at me very seriously with her dark-brown eyes. 'I voted for Lula. He cares for people and he's determined to do something for the poor. It's shameful that a country as rich as Brazil still has people dying from hunger.'

I was chatting to a class of English-language students in Higienópolis, a middle-class neighbourhood in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city. Most of the students were young professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers.

Quite unprompted, one after another even those who had not voted for Lula told me exactly the same thing. They wanted the new Government to end the fearful social crisis that has turned Brazil into one of the most unjust countries in the world.

The coming to power in January of Luis Inácio 'Lula' da Silva, at the head of the left-of-centre Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), feels like one of those turning points in a nation's history. I've been visiting Brazil for 30 years and I've never found the level of political awareness so high. All over this vast country, almost the size of the United States, people are talking excitedly about a new beginning. People want Brazil to turn its back on free-market economics. They want an end to government cutbacks, privatizations and downsizing. They want Brazil to develop its huge natural resources, to redistribute income and land, to put the interests of ordinary Brazilians before those of foreign creditors.

What about injustice?

On election night Lula was interviewed on Jornal Nacional, the main news and current-affairs programme on TV Globo, the biggest television network. The programme had carried in considerable detail the reaction of 'the markets' to Lula's victory - the small slide in the value of the real (Brazil's currency), the impact on the São Paulo stock market, the view of foreign investors. With a half-smile on his face, Lula commented: 'Haven't we got something more important to talk about? What about the hunger, the unemployment and the social injustice in the country?'

Since Lula took office social movements have been hurriedly occupying the new political space. Environment Minister Marina da Silva, herself from a family of poor rubber-tappers in the Amazon forest, has appointed leading environmentalists to key positions. She is determined to stop loggers from illegally extracting timber from Indian reserves and national parks and to put an end to indiscriminate jungle clearance.

With full government backing for the first time, labour inspectors will be moving swiftly to eradicate the slave labour still regularly found on large cattle ranches.

Working closely with Brazil's powerful landless movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST), Miguel Rossetto, Minister of Agrarian Reform, will start to redistribute latifúndios, the huge unproductive landed estates, to landless families. Brazil has one of the most concentrated systems of land ownership in the world. Just 27,000 latifúndios cover 178 million hectares (an area well over three times the size of France), while four million rural families have little or no land to live on. 'If it behaves courageously, the Government could make 100 million hectares of land available for agrarian reform,' says João Pedro Stédile, an MST leader. 'It's a lot of land.'

He will have to decide whether the (unwritten) right of a starving child for food is more pressing than the (written) right of a creditor for repayment

To honour his commitment to end hunger, Lula has already launched Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), a welfare programme for the country's nine million poorest families. They will receive coupons to exchange for food in supermarkets. The programme has been organized in a hurry and is not yet working well, but its goals are ambitious. Rather than importing cheap food from abroad, the Government will encourage local small-scale farmers to cultivate food for the programme. In this way it hopes to boost living standards across a broad swathe of poor rural society.

These are all exciting initiatives. Yet many left-wing Brazilians, particularly veteran petistas (supporters of the PT), are profoundly uneasy. They don't believe the Government has a viable strategy for extricating the country from the mess left by neoliberalism.

For over a decade Brazil, like so many other Latin American nations, adhered wholeheartedly to the so-called Washington Consensus. Foreign investment poured in, the annual net total rising from $3.9 billion in 1995 to $29.9 billion in 1999. What the Government had not foreseen (though left-wing economists warned about it) was the destabilizing impact this would have. The dollars did not go into productive investment but paid for imported goods - a huge spending spree abroad. The deficit on trade and services - largely interest on foreign debt - went from a modest $0.5 billion in 1994 to a colossal $33.4 billion in 1998.

Worse than Argentina

By then the Government was well and truly caught in a spiralling debt crisis. It had to keep local interest rates high to attract more and more dollars with which to service the ballooning public debt. Today Brazil is actually in a more serious financial crisis than Argentina. Its public debt has reached almost $280 billion, equivalent to more than half the country's total economic output. Even if the Government cuts back heavily on public spending and runs a huge budget surplus, it cannot hope to pay more than a third of the interest on the debt, let alone repay any principal.

Interest rates are now running at about 25 per cent and the only institutions making money are the banks, which in 2002 made their biggest profits ever. The 19 Brazilian banks that have published their results so far have jointly made profits of $3 billion - five times the amount the Government is planning to spend on Fome Zero.

What is the way out? Lula promised last June not to renege on the debt. At the time Brazil was facing an economic crisis, with foreign speculators pulling billions of dollars out of the country. The markets were rife with rumours that, once elected, Lula would default on the debt. His reassurance calmed the markets and averted a crisis - now he is stuck with it.

The PT has always campaigned for transparency and honesty in government. Workers' Party mayors and state governors have invariably paid the heavy debts left by predecessors before funding their own social programmes. This is what Lula would now love to do nationally - but the sums just don't add up.

Unless this central question is resolved, his imaginative and daring programme of social reform will founder, starved of resources. Sooner or later he will have to decide whether the (unwritten) right of a starving child for food is more pressing than the (written) right of a creditor for repayment.

Sue Branford is co-author of Politics Transformed - Lula and the Brazilian Workers' Party, Latin America Bureau, London, March 2003.

Cutting the wire

At about midday, several jeeps and cars drew up on the road near the rough camp in front of an abandoned church. Here, about seven hours earlier, I had helped three-dozen landless peasants to occupy the land and build makeshift huts out of branches and black polythene. About 30 men, all armed, got out of the jeeps and marched slowly, in a phalanx, towards the camp. At the sight of them, the landless peasants seized their hoes and blocked the path, defiantly shouting out slogans they had just been taught. One was: 'Ocupar! Resistir! Producer!' ('Occupy! Resist! Produce!').

I was terrified, expecting violent confrontation - as at times happens. But this time the gunmen merely pointed to their guns in a menacing way and warned the families not to start cutting down the sugarcane in the nearby fields; they then turned on their heels and marched off. Cheers and cries of delight from the triumphant families.

Two weeks earlier, few of the peasants on the occupation had known much at all about the organization, called the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), that had planned the occupation. But MST militants had only just arrived in the region. I had been with them, on the back of a small motorbike, as they travelled around the impoverished backland of Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. It was the beginning of the sugar harvest. As we sped along the rough roads between the villages, I watched the rural labourers setting fire to the sugarcane fields to burn the young vegetation and then, wielding sharp machetes, cut down the thick, charred stems that contain the juice. After a day's work, men, women and children came out of the fields blackened all over from the soot. Not infrequently the cutters injure themselves or are bitten by snakes. It is a scene that has changed little over the last 400 years.

When we reached the villages, however, the talk was not about the harvest but about the growing problem of unemployment. In the past the labourers had been badly paid and often brutally treated by the plantation owners, but they'd had their own plots of land, known as sítios, on which they'd grown their own food. They'd been very poor but well fed. Today the region is in crisis. Many of the sugar plantations have gone bankrupt, unable to compete with the more modern, mechanized sugar farms in the south. Those plantations that have survived have taken the sítios away from the labourers, so that more land can be planted with sugarcane. There is real hunger now in the hot dusty villages of wattle-and-daub huts.

One of the MST militants was 30-year-old Cícero Onório Alves. He could weave magic with words. 'I was once a sem-terra, a landless peasant, like you,' he told a group of about 30 villagers, some of them women holding babies, who'd come to listen to him in the village of Alto do Ceu. 'But we occupied a plantation. We were evicted four or five times, violently, by gunmen. But we re-occupied and in the end we won. Today we're producing rice, beans, cassava, pumpkins, passion fruit and other crops. The agrarian reform train is passing through your village this week. It will only come once. If you miss it you're robbing your children of a future, of a life where you can be people, not slaves.'

A new world

Cícero's rhetorical skills held people enthralled. He was offering them not just an end to starvation but a new world, the chance to construct a new life. It's because of this message of hope that the MST - which was formed 20 years ago in the south of Brazil after hundreds of thousands of small farmers had lost their land as a result of agricultural mechanization - has been able to recruit roughly a million members. It has set up a thousand settlements, where some 100,000 families live today. MST members tell you proudly that they haven't won a single acre of land without first carrying out a land occupation. 'The Government didn't give us land as a gift,' says Jaime Amorim, the MST's main spokesman in Pernambuco. 'We had to force the Government to expropriate land through constant pressure, mobilization. Even so, we need far more land reform on a far greater scale. Brazil has at least four million landless families.'

As the MST first arose in the south of Brazil, it is there that the movement has its oldest settlements. So I decided to make the 4,000-kilometre journey from the hot, semi-arid state of Pernambuco down to the cool temperate weather of the country's most southerly state, Rio Grande do Sul, to see what the families can achieve with the land once they've won it.

About 600 people are sitting along rows of trestle tables set up on the concrete floor of a huge, high-roofed hall, tucking into churrasco, the Brazilian term for barbecue. They are eating with the unrestrained relish of people who have known what it is to go hungry, filling their plates time and again with slices of beef, chicken legs and spicy sausages. Outside the hall a dozen men are rotating giant skewers, each over a metre long, across glowing open fires. Fat, dripping off the huge chunks of meat previously marinated in a mixture of salt water and herbs, crackles in the embers. Vilar Martins da Silva, the indefatigable president of one of the MST's largest co-operatives, COANOL, is still working, while the others enjoy themselves. Perched on a stool in front of a tall desk, he is selling barbecue tickets. The cattle for the barbecue were donated by the settlers themselves and the proceeds will go on improving the present rudimentary installations of the hall - the community's sports and recreation centre.

Fruits of labour

The community is commemorating the 14th anniversary of their settlement, which they won after a long and difficult land struggle. Today their community is relatively prosperous. But before they got to where they are now they made serious mistakes. 'When we first won the land, we aped the big farmers,' said Claudemir Mocellin, the co-operative's young agronomist, who as an eight-year-old child went with his father on a land occupation. 'We reproduced the system. We wanted the most modern hybrid seeds. We used the most lime, the most fertilizers. We wanted to have the biggest machines and the largest harvests.

It didn't work. 'Families found that, as their soils got exhausted, they were spending more and more on fertilizers and pesticides. In the end it was taking 60-70 per cent of the money they got for the crops. It didn't make any sense.' Claudemir, who by then had become a passionate advocate of organic farming, was getting concerned about the huge amounts of chemicals that the families were applying on their land. But it wasn't this that got people to change the way they farmed. 'Families started to do the sums. They realized that they weren't better off by having a bigger crop if they were spending so much of their money on inputs.'

‘Subsistence suggests that we’re “sub-existing”, “under-existing”, whereas, in fact, we’re improving the quality of our lives’

It was this economic pressure that first got people thinking about organic farming. And, once they started it, the farmers found that they much preferred it. 'About four years ago I was on a tractor applying secante [a herbicide] to prepare the land for planting maize,' said Gilmar da Silva Vargas from the Conquista da Fronteira settlement near the town of Bagé. 'It was windy and some of the secante blew into my face. When I got home my face started swelling and itching terribly. I couldn't sleep at night. I thought I was going to die. I kept thinking: "I'm never going to touch secante again." So I was so pleased when we started moving into organic farming and now I'm used to it I could never go back to chemical farming.'

Today many of the families are practising what we would call subsistence agriculture - growing their own food and selling small surpluses on the market. Subsistence, however, is not a term that the MST likes. 'Subsistence suggests that we're "sub-existing", "under-existing", whereas, in fact, we're improving the quality of our lives,' said Claudemir. On the whole, the families on the settlements are eating well today.

Moreover, they are rediscovering the old pleasures of peasant life that have virtually disappeared from Europe. I visited one settlement where the families were cultivating 147 different food crops, including some varieties that were almost extinct elsewhere. On another settlement families were growing three different varieties of wheat, including one just because it produced the best kind of straw for making hats!

Despite the enormous gains that the MST has been making, it still faces huge problems. Brazilian agriculture has been going through a rapid process of modernization in recent years, with the expansion of intensive monoculture. It is very difficult for peasant farming to survive in such an environment. So, while the MST has been winning land through its occupations in some areas of the country, hundreds of thousands of peasant families have been losing land in other regions, as the big farmers take over.

The situation may change. The Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) won the elections in October and its candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, takes over as President in January. The PT is far more sympathetic to the MST than previous governments, but it cannot risk antagonizing the big farmers. Brazil needs to keep on exporting large quantities of soya and other cash crops to earn the dollars to service the country's huge foreign debt. If land reform is to accelerate, the MST, it seems, will have to go on organizing its occupations...

Sue Branford has been writing about Brazil and rural workers for many years. Her latest publication, with Jan Rocha, is Cutting the Wire - The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil, Latin America Bureau, 2002, London.

The big issue: land reform

A journalist once asked Joseph Stiglitz (former Chief Economist at the World Bank who resigned in opposition to its policies) what one thing he would do to help developing nations. 'Radical land reform,' replied Stiglitz. In his view, the very high rents charged by propertied oligarchs worldwide, which take on average about half of a tenant farmer's annual produce, were acting as an invisible '50- per-cent tax on poor farmers'.

Brazil is one of the countries most urgently requiring land reform. Just 0.8 per cent of farmers whose farms are larger than 2,000 hectares own 43 per cent of the land, while the 32 per cent of farmers whose farms are smaller than 10 hectares own just 1.3 per cent of the land. Remarkably, there are 262 farmers who own 40 million hectares of land. Worse still, land is becoming even more concentrated than it was in the past, largely because of the growth in huge, export-oriented farms practising monoculture, particularly the cultivation of soya beans.

Stiglitz says: 'Land reform preceded several of the most successful instances of development, such as those in Korea and Taiwan.' Numerous studies have shown that radical land reform would make an enormous contribution to world development: it would help eradicate poverty, as poor farmers could use all the food they produce to feed their families or to sell for their own benefit; and it would reduce environmental devastation, as the families would no longer be compelled to over-exploit their land to squeeze out the money for the rent.

From Nothing to Nowhere - The Transamazonian Highway

The Transamazonian Highway

The Transamazon highway is a vast 5,000 kilometre road which cuts across the heart of the Amazon forest, spanning Brazil from Joao Pessoa in the northeast to the border with Peru. It was built in just 18 months.

At about the same time, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian government also constructed the Mato Grosso highway, running in a north-south direction from Santarem, a port on the Amazon river, to Cuiaba, near the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay.

It was planned for these two roads to form a huge symbolic cross, representing the occupation of the world's last great virgin forest. It was confidently predicted that by the early 1980s, the region would be bustling with the settlement of ten million people along the Transamazon alone. According to official plans, these families would be supplying the domestic market with millions of tonnes of beans, rice and maize, as well as earning millions of dollars through the export of coffee, cocoa, pepper, oranges and other crops.

In the event, none of this has happened. At the most 20,000 families have settled beside the road. Many of these moved in of their own initiative, outside the official colonization pro­gramme. A far cry from the prosperous farmers envisaged by the government, most of the settlers are scratching out a meagre, near-subsistence living. Inhabiting traditional wattle-and-daub huts with palm-leaf roofs, they are farming the land in the old way, without tractors or other farm machinery. They cultivate rice, cassava and maize, largely for their own consumption; and isolated in the tropical forest, thousands of kilometres from the main consumer centres, they even have difficulty in marketing their small sur­pluses when they have them.

What went wrong with the grandiose scheme? Was the prgramme misconceived from the outset? Or did the failure stem from the way it was implemented?

In 1970 the huge, backward, north­east of Brazil was undergoing one of its periodic droughts. Tens of thousands of peasant families were being driven off their tiny plots of land (minifundio) into the swollen cities which offered little prospect of employment. Hundreds of children were dying from starvation.

General Emilio Garrastazu Medici, president of the tough authoritarian government then ruling Brazil, visited the region. By all accounts, he was pro­foundly shaken by the suffering he saw. He commented: 'Nothing in my whole life has shocked and upset me so deeply. Never have I faced such a challenge.' The president clearly felt that he must take decisive action.

Rationally, a long-term solution to the human suffering imposed by the droughts should have been sought within the region itself. If the president had pushed through a radical programme of land reform, giving each family an adequate plot of land and providing them with reliable credit facilities and technical advice the peasants would have become much less vulnerable to the droughts.

However such a policy was inconceiv­able, then and now. The government would never declare war on the large landowners - faithful and important supporters of the regime. It would con­tradict the essence of the military govern­ment which is busy promoting an elitist, non-populist form of capitalist development.

Instead, the president searched for some kind of deus ex machina, an emer­gency solution outside the region that would end the intolerable suffering with­out changing the existing social and economic structures. The rapid construc­tion of the Transamazon highway, in itself creating a heavy demand for un­skilled labour, was to be followed by a massive colonization project that would settle millions of landless peasant families on virgin forest land. It seemed to be a heaven-sent solution.

After President Medici's visit to the north-east in 1970, the Plano de Inte­gracao National (National Integration Plan) - was unexpectedly announced. It was launched as the master-plan that would solve simultaneously the problems of both the north-east and the Amazon. Under the plan, about $400 million was to be spent on road construction, irriga­tion and colonization projects. The money was to come from a drastic 30 per cent cut in the resources going to SUDENE, the north-east development agency, which had been grappling in­effectively with the region's huge problems for over a decade.

The most spectacular and costly of the projects was the Transamazon highway and its colonization scheme. Transport Minister Mario Andreazza explained why the government had decided to regard the construction of the road as one of its urgent priorities: 'On the one hand, the north-east, ravaged by periodic droughts, with a huge sector of its population lacking even the basic conditions for survival, sees many of its inhabitants emigrate to the centre-south where the large cities are not in a position to absorb this unskilled labour. On the other hand, the population of Amazonia, which is a vast region with fertile valleys and important mineral deposits, is concen­trated in tiny hamlets beside the river.' The solution was to let the two regions solve each other's problems. The slogan became: 'Land without people for the people without land.' It was predicted that two million people would be settled along the road within two years.

The project was presented as a fearless patriotic undertaking, carried out by a government in a hurry to develop the hinterland and to bring progress to the poorer sectors of the population. All leading government officials dutifully expressed enthusiastic support.

However, a few middle-rank civil servants dared to challenge these facile assumptions. Jose Sergio de Paz Monteiro, director of the road department for Amazonas, one of the states to be cut by the Transamazon, gave an interview to a leading Sao Paulo newspaper 0 Estado de S. Paulo in June 1970. He commented: 'The simple fact of building roads does not mean that we are creating conditions for the occupation of the demographic vacuum. As well as roads, we must pro­vide the settlers with technical and financial assistance so that they can produce and fix themselves on the land.' The engineer estimated that a successful colonization project would demand an investment twice that calculated on for the road.

Moreover, the engineer had specific reasons for believing that the Transamazon highway was particularly unsound. He said that the road from Manaus south to Porto Velho made economic sense, because it linked an area with a high consumption of raw materials (the in­dustrialized south) to an area that required manufactured goods (the Amazon region). 'But this is not the case with the Trans­amazon', he added, 'for the north-east consumes very little of what we produce and it produces very little of what we consume.'

In keeping with the prevailing climate of political repression, the government could not tolerate these criticisms. Jose Monteiro was forced to make an unconvincing retraction in which he denied even talking about the Transamazon to the Sao Paulo paper.

The engineer did not have to wait long for the vindication of his predic­tions. The idea of settling millions of north-easterners was given up within a year. The project struggled on until June 1974, when it was finally abandoned. By then, only 4,969 families had been officially settled. In all about 20,000 families had come into the region.

The families we visited in 1975 were facing serious problems. They were housed in flimsy, pre-fabricated little wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs which looked incongruous in the midst of the tropical forest. And according to the settlers they were less suited to the humid climate than the traditional wattle-and­daub huts. Many complained of failures in the government's back-up programme: little technical assistance, highly expensive farm inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, sprays etc.), inadequate marketing facilities and so on. One settler told us that the road should really have been called the Trans­misery highway.

A few stretches of the road that fit into north-south routes have been heavily used. For the most part however, the road has had very little traffic. It was dubbed 'the road that links nothing to nowhere' by one Brazilian journalist. Predictably enough the earth road, which was coated with a thin layer of fine gravel, has not stood up to the torrential rains that beat down on Amazonia from November to April. A heavy outlay is required each May and June to repair the wooden bridges, fill in the potholes, and replace the broken drainage pipes.

In parts, the failure of the Transamazon is due to inherent weaknesses in an over ambitious project. However, the main reason for the fiasco was probably politi­cal. From the very beginning, one of the the main objectives of the project - to solve a serious social problem of poverty in the north-east - was jarringly at odds with the principal aim of the successive military governments in Brazil, which have been to further the interests of a small elite of powerful landed, industrial and banking groups.

Until recently *Sue Branford* was the Sao Paulo correspondent of the Financial Times. She is just completing a book on land conflict in the Amazon.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop