Deep green

Something is growing fast in the Brazilian countryside. And it’s not just the monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, soy and sugar cane for which city-sized chunks of rainforest are cleared. The Movement of Small Farmers (Movimiento de Pequeños Agricultores, MPA) has in just 10 years mobilized 10,000 families across 14 states to resist the expansion of these vast plantations and the transnationals that are often behind them. Such industrial farming displaces entire populations, poisons the land with chemicals and contributes nothing to the local food bowl.

On the other hand, small-scale family farmers produce almost 60 per cent of Brazilian food. By joining the MPA they band together to resist pressure from big agribusiness companies to sell their lands for conversion to monoculture. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 5.3 million people abandoned the rural areas between 1999 and 2001. There are now more than a million landless people in Brazil and 80 per cent of the population is squeezed into urban areas.

Standing up to agribusiness in rural Brazil takes courage. Small farmers are often victims of serious violence and even murder. Between 1990 and 2002, the Pastoral Land Commission (_Comissão Pastoral da Terra_, CPT) reported 16 assassinations connected to the sugar cane industry alone. Nonetheless, MPA members see little choice but to stay and fight. As one farmer battling a huge foreign-owned eucalyptus plantation put it: ‘We believe the unity of the small farmers is the only way to succeed. If we are organized we can fight this harmful enterprise, not let it invade our region any more. Everybody has to be together in case we need to make a choice for physical confrontation.

‘The small farmer has to choose ecological farming. This will be the basis of our strength against the big companies. If the MPA, the churches, the schools and the trade unions join together we will have enough strength to fight our oppressors.’

The scope of the MPA’s concerns reveals its dynamism – promoting crop diversity, organic farming, local production, medicinal plants, women’s empowerment, pension rights, literacy, youth projects and direct action. MPA groups have also forged links with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), indigenous communities, NGOs, academics and students.

Sergio (pictured right), director of the MPA group in Espírito Santo, explains: ‘All the movements are autonomous, but we work together, not destroying each other’s autonomy.’

And getting what’s best for local communities is at the heart of the movement. ‘In Brazil, there are several organic production projects being developed. But all these are for export. They are not meant to feed the hunger of the Brazilian people. We wish to provide a local market, to feed the hunger of our people. Of course we would like to export as well, but that comes second. We believe that production should primarily be for consumption here. That is what provides our projects with a different logic and vision.’

Tamra Gilbertson

New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop