Brazil: the Land Reform Question


In light of the American TFP's recent publication, Is Brazil Sliding Toward the Extreme Left?, we are pleased to present an interview with Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira on the land reform issue. This interview was carried out by editor Massimo Introvigne of the highly respected Italian magazine Cristianità. He posed many questions that we feel will also be of interest to American readers.


Q. How long has land reform been discussed in Brazil?

A. Since the sixties, and, more specifically, since João Goulart's populist and labor government, whose program actually included urban reform—in the form of rent freezes—and land reform, supported by an active minority of the episcopate led by Bishop Helder Camara. In 1961, the TFP published Land Reform: A Matter of Conscience, which was the largest selling statistical work in Brazil that year. By exposing the socialist character of the land reform program, this book certainly contributed to the fall of President Goulart in 1964. After the fall of João Goulart, the military governments nonetheless continued along the same course: The land reform law was again suddenly promulgated in 1964, during the presidency of Castelo Branco, and applied very slowly, I would even say with an eyedropper, until 1985. But, of course, 20 years of drops can flood a whole locality. After the fall of the military government, the agro-reformist program was taken up with increased vigor by the incumbent president, Sarney. He has not promulgated a new law, but only a regulation providing a more rapid and radical application of the 1964 law. The land reform law presently being applied is, therefore, a law dating from the time of the military regime.

Q. The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) officially supports the present land reform, which is vigorously contested by the TFP. What exactly is the na­ture of your disagreement with the CNBB in this matter?

A. At the heart of the matter is a doctrinal problem, since, in Brazil, there is no lack of ecclesiastics who are op­posed to every social inequality and who believe that justice demands an absolutely egalitarian and, therefore, socialist society. On the other hand, the TFP, in accordance with all the social doctrine of the Church, maintains that inequalities, as long as they are harmonious and proportional, serve to enrich society, and that socialism is not, in fact, an ideal. Nevertheless, the actual problem at the mo­ment is not a doctrinal, but rather a technical one. The CNBB position stems from a certain interpretation of the economic and agricultural situation of Brazil. If this situation actually existed as the documents of the CNBB describe it, the doctrine of the social function of private property would justify such a land reform. The point is that the factual data, the factual situation and the technical problems are not, as we see it—nor as the best Brazilian specialists see it—correctly described by the experts of the CNBB. This, then, is not a doctrinal problem: It is a problem of data and technical analyses. In its documents, the CNBB has descended to the realm of factual, rather than doctrinal, discussion. And, no doubt exists that one has a right to manifest a respectful disagreement with the ecclesiastical authorities in that technical realm.

Q. From a technical point of view, then, what are your principal criticisms of this land reform?

A. First, it is based on a "black legend," which grossly exaggerates the incidence of poverty and misery in Brazil, and calls for drastic interventions without considering that, as a whole, Brazilian agriculture functions adequately, achieving annual increases in production that surpass growth in population. Likewise, the real salaries of the farm workers have been constantly increasing. Second, such a land reform is unsuitable for a huge country like Brazil. The government could resolve the existing problems just by distributing a portion of the lands of the nation's largest latifundiário, the state, which owns more than 50 percent of the arable land and fails to exploit it adequately. Third, the land reform program dos not really aim to spread private property, but to reduce and mutilate it in favor of the advance of statism. In fact, the tracts taken from pri­vate owners will not be assigned as property, but only as assentamentos for the use of the cultivators for five years. Ownership will remain in the hands of the state, which will also decide what crops are suitable; the farmers will have only a right to the profits from the sale of their products. After five years, the government may grant ownership of the plot, but only on the condition that the farmer agrees not to extend his property beyond that small plot. He will not be allowed the prospect of increasing his crops or property, which is contrary to the whole course of the progress of Brazilian agriculture.

Q. Some political movements would be favorable to a land reform limited to the expropriation of "unproductive" and "undeveloped" lands. What do you think of this?

A. We are against it. The crux of the problem is that the expression "unproductive lands" in the reform law has taken on a specific technical significance that must be kept in mind. That is, lands that are not being put to a "socially advantageous" use are termed "unproductive." This ambiguous expression permits land to be classified as "unproductive" if crops other than those indicated by the state are cultivated. Thus, the proprietor faces a dilemma: Either he loses his right to plant what he thinks best on his land, or he loses the land itself. The lands that are not yet productive, but in which the proprietor has already begun to make investments to render them suitable for cultivation and not merely potentially arable, are also classified as "unproductive." [We remind our readers that the rich soils and tropical climate of Brazil produce teeming forests and brush requiring an expensive clearing process to prepare them for tillage.—TRANS.] Finally, the notion of "unproductive" land penalizes the poorer landowner who has just bought a farm but is able to cultivate only a part of it; with the fruits of his first harvests he will gradually extend the cultivated area, aiming to bring the whole farm under the plow. With the land reform—even in its "mod­erate" version—this farmer is hurt, since the presently uncultivated part of his farm is termed "unproductive" and, therefore, is subject to expropriation.

Q. In Europe it is sometimes said that only land reform can solve the dramatic problem of the misery in the fave­las, the shantytowns that have grown up around the Brazilian megalopolises.

A. This is not the case. In fact, the problem of the favelas and land reform cannot be related. Leaving aside the fact that reports on living conditions in the favelas are gross­ly exaggerated and that the actual situation of life there is not well-known to most people, the majority of those living in favelas are actually attracted there by the myth of the great cities and of industrial employment, which they prefer to agricultural labor. Favelization is the Brazilian word for urbanization, a worldwide phenomenon. The experience of the whole world shows that those mesmerized by the great cities will not return to the countryside. Nor will the prospect of cultivating a plot of state-owned land for five years with the vague hope of one day becoming a proprietor convince them to do so.

Q. What are the positive proposals of the TFP for the agrarian problem?

A. We have not called our proposal a "land reform" because this expression has undergone such a semantic evolution in Brazil that it has become synonymous with socialist and confiscatory reform. The agrarian policy we propose is based on the distribution of state lands to those who are seriously willing to cultivate them. As a subordinate proposal for the moment—to redress a lesser evil that does not replace the main objective—we suggest that landowners who have suffered expropriation be indemnified with state lands. The landowners could then cultivate these lands, and agriculture would progress.

Q. It is said in Europe that the distribution of state-owned lands would cause the demise of the indigenous Indians who live and roam these lands.

A. This is a ridiculous argument that only reveals a deplorable ignorance. The problem of the Indians exists and deserves to be thoroughly explored, but they inhabit only a tiny part of the lands owned by the Brazilian state. If we were to take a map and mark all the lands where there is still a residual or minimal presence of Indians, a sufficient amount of arable state lands would still remain to cover all the demands called for by the agro-reformists.

Q. Finally, I would like to know your opinion about the so-called invasions of private lands. They are often considered as agro-reform-related phenomena and have been frequently supported, when not organized, by the Basic Christian Communities and by ecclesiastical sectors inspired by the more radical version of "liberation theology," which has a Marxist character.

A. We are opposed to such land reforms. We are opposed to the invasions. But we are even more opposed to the confusion caused by the two phe­nomena. Land reform is a government act that we op­pose on the political plane because it calls for the modification of existing norms. The invasions—as the Brazilian judicial and legal experts continue to maintain, no mat­ter what certain ecclesiastics may think—are crimes punishable according to the law. They are also an interesting phenomenon because they show, despite the efforts of those who organize them, the artificial character of much of the agitation in the countryside. Those who invade private lands, as well as those who squat there and forcibly resist the efforts of the owners to make use of their lands, always come from far away—from exactly where, no one really knows. They are also called "professional invaders".

Every day I read clippings from the newspapers that come to me from all over the country about this problem. I have not yet found a single case where the presumed oppressed, the salaried workers of the farm, have supported these invaders or have shown themselves favorable to them. On the contrary, one often reads that these authentic workers are in favor of the proprietors. This is a fact that those who proclaim the "exploitation" of the agricultural laborers should consider more attentively.

I want to add a final consideration for Italian readers: I know that in Italy this land reform is being followed sympathetically. One should not forget, however, that many of the farms that are being expropriated, divided, invaded and destroyed belong to Brazilians of Italian origin and are a singular testimony to Italian industry and resourcefulness. Disembarking from the ships that brought these immigrants as poor as Job, many Italians have worked and saved in order to be able to acquire, enlarge and render extremely productive the richest farms in the country. I am astonished that these sons and grandsons of Italians who maintain close contact by correspondence with their relatives in Italy and also visit them, have not succeeded in spreading the idea that Brazilian agricultural life has provided and maintained the possibility of offering a wide-open gate for the socioeconomic improvement of rural workers, not only those of Brazilian birth, but also Italians, Germans, Chinese and Japanese, who, through their labors, transformed themselves into proprietors, and frequently even large proprietors. I am also astonished that in Italy it is not realized that it is thus the fruit of the sacrifice of generations of Italians that today would be sacrificed to a statist and socialist ideologi­cal prejudice.


TFP Newsletter, Vol. IV – No. 21 – 1987.