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Brazil's small farmer problem

Don't believe everything you read about Brazilian farmers supplanting U.S. growers as the No. 1 producers of soybeans. While it's true Brazilian farmers have made remarkable strides in soybean production, the country still faces major hurdles in improving its infrastructure and in dealing with such issues as land reform.

The latter is proving to be particularly vexing for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, elected last year with the support of the Landless Agricultural Workers Movement or MST. The MST was thought to have faded into the background with Lula's inauguration in January, but that appears to be changing.

“In the face of what the group views as a slow settlement pace, it seems the honeymoon is over,” writes James Thompson in the September issue of our sister publication, Corn and Soybean Digest. “The group shut down some roads, demanding tolls. Members have hijacked trucks and distributed the contents among members.”

While it portrayed itself as the champion of small farmers during the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun, the irony is that Brazil's agriculture is dominated by large farmers as much as or more than the United States.

Thompson notes that while farmers with less than 22 acres comprise 30 percent of all Brazilian growers, they hold less than 2 percent of the farmland. Conversely, 2 percent of the farmers hold more than half of all farmland.

You don't have to spend much time on Brazil's highways to gain a new appreciation for U.S. traffic safety standards. Unless they've changed in recent years, Brazil's rural highways don't have yellow lines, which means Brazilian drivers can and do pass on curves and hills with little concern for oncoming traffic. Those highways are becoming even more dangerous.

“If you drive more than an hour, you'll see encampments,” says Thompson. “Some are huge complexes of hovels made with a boards and tarpaulin. A man with no front teeth eyes your car as you pass. And there's a big red flag signifying the MST.”

In July, he writes, MST's leaders said they were declaring war on farmers with more than 2,000 hectares or about 4,400 acres. “We will not sleep until we have done with them,” one said.

Little of this made the headlines earlier this month when Brazil led a walkout of the so-called Group of 22 developing countries, resulting in a collapse of the WTO negotiations. The walkout was in protest of the supposed impact of U.S. and European agricultural subsidies on small farmers.

Nor was much attention paid to Brazil's high tariffs on imported goods or to its practice of turning a blind eye to black market sales of Roundup Ready soybeans to its farmers, although those soybeans are illegal in Brazil.

Of course, these facts would have gotten in the way of a good story — the portrayal of countries with small farmers taking on the giants. It's kind of like the portrayal of small and big farmers in this country: Things aren't always like they seem.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com

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