Big beef versus family farms: A war of ideas in Brazil | Global Ideas | DW | 17.10.2018
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Big beef versus family farms: A war of ideas in Brazil

When a group of Brazilian families occupied disused farmland they found lifeless soil and water. Fifteen years on, they have brought it back to health. Their story is part of a larger battle over Brazil's farming future.

When Jonas de Souza arrived at the small farming area on Brazil's eastern coast, he despaired. Lifeless vegetation dotted the nearby riverbank, pesticide bottles littered the ground and the soil was ruined.

"Soil contains a lot of life," said Souza. "But it was hard to even find worms or maggots in that soil. And the river too — there were no fish — because it had all been contaminated by pesticides."

It was 2003 and he had just arrived with 19 other families to occupy the land, which holds a portion of the Atlantic rainforest — a forest that has been so exploited and is losing biodiversity at such a rapid rate that researchers recently called it an "extinction vortex."

The land had been overworked by years of buffalo ranching but Souza, a farmer, believed it was salvageable and that sustainable production could revive the surrounding forest ecosystem.

Read more:  Land loss threatens indigenous communities worldwide

Now 15 years later, the Jose Lutzenberger Camp — named for a famous Brazilian environmentalist — cultivates everything from coffee to cabbage without pesticides. Around 90 percent of the 20 tons of food they produce every month is sent to public schools as part of a free lunch program; the rest is either sold at local markets or used to feed the encampment's families.

A jaguar climbing down a tree in thick forest

Life has not only returned to the soil, but to the trees. The community has spotted jaguars

Reviving nature by farming

To return the soil to arable conditions, the camp's 20 families used farming techniques that complemented local ecosystems as well as knowledge passed down by traditional communities. They began by planting species they knew already grew in the area, such as inga trees.

The tree produces fruit-filled pods and also provides shade for coffee plants, which in turn require less water. Buffalo farmers, who previously worked the land, had cut back most of the trees to make way for non-native grass species for their livestock to graze on.

Watch video 01:06

Beef eating away forests

Animal life has slowly returned to the area too, which Souza says is an indication that the forest is healthy. "There's everything from small pigs to a lot of different birds. We've even started to get visits from bigger animals like jaguars," he said. And locals can again drink from the once-polluted river.

"Today it's the best preserved forest in the state," said Katya Isaguirre, a professor of environmental and agrarian law at the Federal University of Parana, the state in which the encampment is located.

"It's very different to mechanized agricultural landscapes, for example, which are empty of both people and nature," added Isaguirre, who has been monitoring the camp since 2013.

Multinationals versus family farms

The Lutzenburger encampment is part of a larger struggle in Brazil that pits two opposing ideas of how agriculture should be practiced against each other.

One sees the future of the sector in latifundios, large-scale farms usually owned by multinational corporations that mostly produce monoculture crops, such as soy, for export. The other believes the future of Brazil's food security lies in small, family-run farms, which account for 84.4 percent of all farming establishments in the country, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Read more: How wildlife corridors help species survive deforestation in Brazil

Read more: Illegal logging, mining threaten an Amazon River community

"It's a dispute of production alternatives, but almost more so of narratives," said Nurit Rachel Bensusan, biodiversity coordinator with Brazilian environmental organization ISA.

Soy seedlings on red soil as far as the eye can see

Monocultures have devastating impacts. They destabilize the ground and also destroy animal and insect habitat

"There's this narrative that agribusiness is the country's future, but approximately 70 percent of what ends up on Brazilian tables comes from family farmers. The future is something to be created, not something which is a given."

ISA was part of a judging panel that awarded the Lutzenberger encampment the inaugural Juliana Santilli prize for agro-biodiversity in 2017 for its work in sustainable farming and conservation, as well as land rights activism.

"These guys fought against all odds, from institutional adversities and challenges to their rights, to real violence," said Bensusan.

Bible, beef and bullets

Besides living at the Lutzenberger encampment, Souza is also is a member of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), which calls itself one of Brazil's largest social movements and has been advocating for small-holdings and subsistence farmers to occupy latifundios since the mid-1980s.

MST activists claim that the latifundios are not the land's best "social function" and could be used more effectively in ways that better respect environmental and labor rights. Such a claim has potentially profound legal implications since Brazilian law gives landless people the right to occupy unproductive land or land not fulfilling its so-called social function.

Occupations face opposition from landowners, agribusiness and politicians — as well as the growing reactionary "Bible, beef and bullets" caucus in Brazil's Congress, which unites Evangelical Christians, the farm lobby and legislators who want to ease gun control. They see the occupations as an economically damaging nuisance.

Green bananas growing on a tree

Bananas are just one of the dozens of crops the families have managed to cultivate on land they've nurtured back to health

In a speech made last year, Jair Bolsonaro, who won the first round of presidential elections this month, and who is known as Brazil's own Donald Trump, suggested that MST "invaders" should be "killed" because they "halt agribusiness."

As such camps frequently face legal challenges and land activists encounter threats of violence. And for the first five years of its existence, the Lutzenberger encampment was no exception to this rule.

The buffalo ranchers  who had previously owned the land opposed the idea that it could be used in ways which better fulfilled its social and environmental functions. To further complicate things, environmental NGOs bought parcels of the land to save it from human exploitation altogether.

The environmental authorities were repeatedly summoned, and on arrival arrested the new occupants while ranch workers took advantage of the distraction to burn their shelters. A handful of families gave up in the face of near constant threats and low production.

Although, they were afraid, Souza said the attacks only fueled the determination of those who stayed to see their idea through. "We knew we just had to fight to stay, there wasn't anything else to do," he said.

Read moreThe sweet taste of a Brazilian super berry

By 2008, restoration efforts were beginning to bear fruit and crops. Other locals that also lived off the land, including fishing communities and indigenous groups, noticed the change and began to support the camp and its occupants. As local opinion swayed in favor of the encampment, the attacks ceased.

Now others want to join the camp, says Souza, and the activists are considering allowing 10 new families in.

"The future I want is one where other encampments can see that even with all the difficulties we encountered, it's possible to see development in these areas while caring for the environment," said Souza.

"I see it as possible that we can transform our society, and have a different sort of relationship with the earth, the water and the forest."

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