Watch it

BdF Explains | What is the relation between the food we eat and land occupations?

Behind the products on the market shelf are open conflicts over land distribution in Brazil

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (Brazil) |
Despite the advance of the frontiers of large rural producers on arable land, family farming represents 76.8% of rural establishments in Brazil - MST

Where does the food consumed in Brazil come from? What disputes are behind each healthy food for it to reach - or not - the population's table?

Unlike the flashy advertisements in Brazil saying that “agro is pop” and produces “the wealth of Brazil”, agribusiness – whose occupied area and profit grow more each day – rarely grows food. The sector generates commodities: products in raw state, with agricultural origin or mineral extraction used to manufacture other products. Most of it is destined for export and the flagship product is transgenic soy. 

The harvest of exported grains in 2021 and 2022 alone – which were mainly corn and soybeans – reached 271 million tons. Not by chance, agribusiness in Brazil started the year 2023 with a record profit of US$ 8.69 billion, according to the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea). Meanwhile, 33.1 million Brazilians are starving in the country.

Commodities do not satisfy hunger, but their production increasingly occupies most of Brazilian land. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), three quarters of the total cropland in the country is destined to the cultivation of soy, sugarcane and corn.  

The crossing of data from the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra), the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (Funai) and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) carried out by De Olho nos Ruralistas (or "Keeping an Eye on the Ruralists" in free translation) shows how this advance of the agribusiness frontiers happens, recurrently illegally and violently. Around 96,000 hectares of farms overlapping Indigenous Lands, for example, belong to only 42 politicians and their families. The stolen land area is equivalent to the sum of the urban regions of the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.

Meanwhile, most of the healthy food consumed by the Brazilian population is grown by small farmers. Despite the advance of the frontiers of large rural producers on arable land, family farming represents 76.8% of rural establishments in Brazil.  

These peasants' wages are far from the billionaire surplus achieved by the large commodity producers at the beginning of the year. A survey by the Forestry and Agricultural Management and Certification Institute (Imaflora) reveals that the income of 82% of these establishments is just under two minimum wages.  

Still, much is done and produced. The Landless Workers' Movement (MST) has become the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America. It is one of many organizations and communities – such as indigenous, quilombola and riverine communities – actively applying agroecological experiences in food production.

Social function of the land

In a country where less than 1% of agricultural properties correspond to almost half of all rural areas, experiences like these are only possible through organization and popular pressure. 

The 130-hectare territory in Valinhos (state of São Paulo) occupied by the MST in 2019 is one among many examples. The previously idle area was named Marielle Vive Camp. There, 450 families plant vegetables, bananas, cassava, turmeric, among other crops, in a collective vegetable garden measuring 1,000 square meters. They live, however, under the shadow of eviction. The area is claimed by Fazenda Eldorado Real Estate Developments.  

What the movement argues about this and all the occupations it carries out is that previously that land did not fulfill its social function. The Brazilian Federal Constitution provides, in its article 186, that an area fulfills this obligation when it uses the land in a rational and adequate way, uses natural resources in order to preserve the environment and respects dignified work relations. 

When any of these requirements are not respected, the Constitution determines that “it is incumbent upon the Union to expropriate for social interest, for agrarian reform purposes”. Popular movements occupy these territories, therefore, to demand compliance with the law.  

This scenario of open dispute over the fate of land forms the background of whom and what is cultivated in Brazil. This is why – and BdF explains that – food, land and struggle are inseparable.

Edited by: Rodrigo Chagas e Nadini Lopes