How Big Ag Companies Are Squeezing Brazil’s Family Farmers

The U.S. is not the only country where massive industrial agriculture operations have hurt the family farmer. But in Brazil, these smaller farms provide a major portion of the food people actually eat.

Brazil 2014

By Ariel Schwartz

April 18, 2014

Also published by Fast Company's Co.Exist

Celia is an important farmer in Cumaru, a small town in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. An advocate of the agroforestry style of farming--a pesticide-free farming system that imitates nature's way of doing things--she grows saplings for other agroforestry farming families in the region.

But Celia has a problem: Her farming operation is relegated to a small, cramped backyard where it's difficult to move around without accidentally stepping on a crop. And big agribusiness companies are making it hard for her to move to a larger plot.

In Brazil, family farming is incredibly important--thanks to a series of government programs, they provide 16% to up to 87% of the food eaten in Brazil, depending on the crop. Big Ag-controlled farms, on the other hand, often export products like sugar cane and corn to other countries, where they are used for fuel. Brazil is the world's second-largest corn exporter.

Celia, who has a husband and a two-year old child, lives in a region where monocultures of crops like corn are rampant. Her husband leaves every week to work in the nearby city of Caruaru and comes back on the weekends. "Maybe if we had a bigger property, my husband wouldn't have to leave [during the week]," Celia says. "I want to plant more things, but as you can see, my workspace isn't that big."

She says that agribusiness is the biggest threat to farmers in the region. It's not that big agriculture companies are interested in producing the same crops generated by family farms--they're more interested in things like soy, coffee, and meat. They do, however, threaten land rights. Plus, she adds, they ruin the soil, use GMO crops (which can spread to nearby fields) from companies like Monsanto, and use machines instead of hiring farmers.

Celia points across the street to another farm, where small-time family farmers used to work the land. Then the landlord removed them to make way for bigger agriculture operations.

"In the north part of the country, there are farms the size of [the state of] Pernambuco" that are owned by major agriculture corporations, according to Carlos Magno de Medeiros Morais, the Agreste region coordinator at Centro Sabia.

Not to say that Big Ag has been all bad for Brazil. In addition to being one of the largest corn exporters, Brazil is the largest producer of sugarcane, tropical fruit, coffee, tropical fruits, and frozen concentrated orange juice. The country also has the biggest commercial cattle herd on the planet. As a result, agriculture makes up 36% of all exports in Brazil and 25% of GDP (with agribusiness included). It's an vital booster for the economy.

But not everyone benefits equally. According to a Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics report published in 2009, over 75% of all available farmland in Brazil has been snapped up by big agriculture companies. "Agribusiness prevents us from having a bigger piece of land," says Celia. "We want more land."

Ariel Schwartz reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).