Brazilian Land Tenure and Conflicts: The Landless Peasants Movement

By Barros, Carlos Pestana; de Araujo, Ari Francisco, Jr. et al. | The Cato Journal, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Brazilian Land Tenure and Conflicts: The Landless Peasants Movement


Barros, Carlos Pestana, de Araujo, Ari Francisco, Jr., Faria, Joao Bicardo, The Cato Journal


This article analyzes conflicts in Brazil involving landless peasants and the violence that frequently results from their invasion and occupation of privately owned rural land for the period 2000--08. Land ownership in Brazil is overwhelmingly and historically characterized by large, family-owned estates (Pichon 1997). The unequal and inequitable .allocation of land together with weak institutions, weak markets, and low asset endowment may make land reform a low priority (Binswanger and McIntire 1987, Sjaastad and Bromley 1997). In the absence of effective land reforms, these factors may lead to the occupation of land by the landless poor peasants by violent means (Assunrcao 2008). In such an environment, land-related conflicts are common and have been previously analyzed in several studies, with a particular focus on Africa (Andre and Platteau 1998, Deininger and Castagnini 2004) and Latin America (Alston, Libecap, and Mueller 2005).

Credit rationing is part of the problem, since without credit individuals may not be able to undertake indivisible investments, such as purchasing land, which have a long period of maturation. As a result, due to the lack of access to credit markets, the poor peasant may fail to escape from poverty by not being able to own land (Fenske 2011).

The landowners have responded to the threat of land invasion and occupation with large-scale evictions, adopting extensive livestock production and highly mechanized cultivation methods, which reduce the need for peasant labor on the farms, thereby creating obstacles to land reform (Binswanger, Deininger, and Feder 1995). In the light of these events, Latin American land reform has been described as a lost cause (De Janvry and Sadoulet 1989).

The political orientation of the leadership of organized peasants is an important determinant of land related violence. The political leadership of the main group of landless peasants in Brazil, known as Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) or the Landless Peasants Movement, is a Marxist organization with ties to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers Party--the political party that has been in power since 2003, first under President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva (2003--10) and now under President Dilma Rousseff. The MST homepage (www.mst.org.br) makes it clear that among its political objectives is the destruction of commercial agriculture in Brazil, one of the engines of Brazilian growth. Land reform through violence is an essential part of MST strategy to gain power, and is based on the Chinese and Cuban ideology and revolutionary experiences.

In this article, we extend the research on land conflict in Brazil by focusing on land occupation by farmers without land endowments. We analyze poverty, political effects, population density (Andre and Platteau 1998), and land endowment (Binswanger and McIntire 1987, Sjaastad and Bromley 1997) to explain these land occupations. Earlier studies have examined violence and land reform in Brazil (Alston, Libecap, and Schneider 1995; Alston, Libecap, and Mueller 1997, 1999, 2005). However, our study is the first to be undertaken at a national level using a contemporary data span. An additional innovation is the use of a count data model that allows for heterogeneity, endogeneity, and dynamics. Unobserved heterogeneity has been the subject of concern and analysis in many previous studies (e.g., Chesher 1984, Chesher and Santos-Silva 2002, McFadden and Train 2000). This type of model is used frequently for data concerning events, and its omission is likely to lead to inconsistent parameter estimates or, more importantly, inconsistent fitted parameters. Endogeneity also yields estimation problems causing biased results and may arise when a covariate is simultaneously determined with the endogenous variable or when a covariate is not inserted in the regression (Greene 2007). A dynamic Poisson model is also presented with lags of endogenous variables and leads of exogenous variables, enabling a more accurate analysis of the problem (Cameron and Trivedi 1998). …

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