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New Directions in the Study of Agrarian Reform in Brazil

December 1, 2004 - 4:30 pm

New Directions in the Study of Agrarian Reform and the Landless Rural Worker’s Movement (MST) in Brazil

Land Reform Settlements in the Sugar Cane Area of Northeast Brazil: The Economic, Social and Political Impacts
Marilda Aparecida de Menezes, Universidade Federal de Paraiba and Yale University
This presentation will analyze the impact that land reform settlements in the sugarcane area of Northeast Brazil have had on land structure and production diversification during the 1990s. This area has been historically characterized by large properties, monoculture and high levels of labor exploitation. In the 1990s with the liberalization of the state, there was a cut in the subsidies and some sugar cane mill have collapsed, leaving many workers unemployed. The workers organized some mobilizations in order to fight for land. The creation of land reform settlements since the 1980s has not come as part of a National Agrarian Reform Plan but rather in response to the pressure applied by social movements that fight for land. This paper has four main objectives: first, to analyse the so-called “crisis of sugar cane mills” with the emergence of land movements; second, to analyse the very diverse impact of the settlements on land structure (estrutura fundiária) in the sugar cane area; third, to show that land reform settlements have contributed to the expansion of subsistence products; finally, to argue that although sugar cane is still the dominant crop being produced in the Zona da Mata land reform settlements have introduced significant changes into the workers’ life trajectories, converting them from wage workers, sharecroppers, squatters, and landless into peasants who own their land as well as into new political actors within the rural space of sugarcane.

Every Monkey has its Own Head: Rural Sugarcane Workers and the Politics of Agrarian Reform in Northeastern Brazil
Wendy Wolford, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale University
Sugarcane has been produced in the zona da mata of Pernambuco along the northeastern coast of Brazil since the early 1500s. Although the market for sugarcane is highly variable, plantation owners in the region have weathered cyclical economic crises by manipulating local land use and labor arrangements. During the most recent economic crisis in the sugarcane region (1990 – 2000), grassroots activists with the largest social movement in Brazilian history, O Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (The Movement of Rural Landless Workers, commonly known as the MST) demanded an end to the exploitation and immiseration that characterized sugarcane production. Sugarcane workers in the municipality of Água Preta joined the MST because they felt they had few other economic options and because the MST established a position of influence with local political leaders. Over the course of several years, however, most of the workers who had joined the movement left, planting sugarcane on their own land or working for nearby distilleries as the international price of sugarcane recovered. In this paper, I argue that the MST had a difficult time maintaining its presence in Água Preta because the sugarcane workers’ identity and political consciousness were constituted in a relationship between land use and labor rights that differed significantly from the peasant ideology promoted by the MST. The clash in political cultures is illustrated through an ethnographic examination of production, privacy and patronage politics on two settlements organized by the MST in Água Preta, Pernambuco.